Enrolling in January usually provides freshmen with a tremendous advantage over the rest of their classmates who don’t enroll until the summer.
It’s a chance for them to go through the entire off-season strength and conditioning program, participate in 15 spring practices and play in the Swamp for the first time. They start to develop relationships with their new teammates and coaches and begin the process of acclimating to a new way of life.
For the Gators’ 10 early-enrollee signees, a large chunk of that jump start has been eliminated. The SEC has suspended all athletic-related activities through at least April 15 and canceled spring games due to the coronavirus pandemic. The only facilities the players have access to are the training room and the academic center.
That means no practices, no game, no organized team workouts, no nutrition services and limited opportunities to bond with teammates and coaches. By the time everything becomes business-as-usual again, the rest of the freshmen class will likely be on campus.
“I think now he’s finally come to grips with it,” said Rashad Torrence, the father of freshman safety Rashad Torrence II. “Initially, he was very disappointed, just very upset, frustrated that he didn’t get an opportunity to go through spring. I think with everything, time heals all.”
Still, their experience at UF hasn’t been a complete waste. While they only got to be on campus for about two months before everything got shut down, they still benefited in several ways that should prove useful down the road.
The most noticeable difference is the body transformation they started in their two months in Director of Strength and Conditioning Nick Savage’s intense program. For most of the early-enrollees, the general plan is the same. First, they shed some of their fat and slim down. Then, Savage and his staff build them back up with muscle. At this point, most of them weigh about the same as they did when they started or even weigh less, yet they are significantly stronger.
For example, offensive lineman Issiah Walker weighed about 290 pounds when he arrived on campus, his father, Dominick Gadson, said. They brought him all the way down to about 255-260 pounds and were in the process of building him back up when the lockdown happened. He weighed 270 pounds when he visited home for spring break in early March.
Anthony Richardson, the lone quarterback in the class, weighed about 220 pounds when he enrolled in January and is now up to 230 pounds, his mother, LaShawnda Lane, said. If that measure is accurate, Richardson is the heaviest true freshman quarterback at Florida since Max Staver in 2013.
Enrolling early also allowed them to build some familiarity with the offensive and defensive schemes and the expectations within the program. They know the standard the coaches will hold them to when things start back up. The initial shock is behind them.
“He had the opportunity to really get to know everybody,” said Mike Braun, father of offensive lineman Josh Braun. “He’s been spending a lot of time with [John] Hevesy and the strength guys, and so it’s just been a great transition time.”
Added Gadson: “He already knows the system and how everything works as far as moving around on campus. He’s already comfortable with that. So, the freshmen coming in are going to have to get used to the system, and that’s something he’s already used to.”
Three members of the class have an even bigger advantage. Braun, Richardson and offensive lineman Richie Leonard arrived on campus in December and took part in some bowl practices. While not a sufficient substitute for spring practices, they’ll still enter the fall with basic knowledge of what to expect at practice.
The early-enrollees also developed relationships with their elder teammates. These relationships could prove to be an invaluable resource as they prepare for the season on their own.
“Him and some of the guys that play the same position and some of these other DBs, they’ve been on the phone,” Torrence said. “They’ve been talking and going over certain things. So, I think that alone will give him an advantage.”
Several of the parents mentioned seeing increased work ethics, discipline and self-accountability in their sons since they returned home. Their time on campus allowed them to see what the coaches expect of them and see what their older teammates look like. They can now visualize the types of players they need to become and the amount of work it will take to get there.
“I believe he’s a lot more disciplined, a lot more dedicated to his craft,” Torrence said of his son. “I can tell just from his actions since he’s been home. I can see that he’s a lot more self-motivated and actually disciplined with his craft as well as academics. I can just see a big level of maturity in him since he’s been gone.
“He’s waking up, doing his online classes. I may walk downstairs, he may be working out, middle of the day. We’re going to the park every day, and none of this is prompted by me.”
The early-enrollees are expected to make up for the loss of team activities as much as possible by working out at home. As detailed in our article titled “Weathering the storm: Gators continuing to train despite uncertain future,” Savage gave each of the players a generic workout plan to follow. Because the players come from different backgrounds and have different amounts of equipment available to them, what those workouts look like can be quite different from one player to the next.
Braun is back home in Live Oak lifting weights every morning at 8 with his brother Parker Braun, who recently finished his college career at Texas.
Remaining focused and disciplined shouldn’t be a problem at all for Josh. Both of his parents played sports at Army, and both of his older brothers played college football. The venue for this offseason may have changed, but the expectations remain the same for Josh.
Meanwhile, his line mate Walker is also back home in Miami. He’s lifting weights, doing calisthenics and working on his footwork, Gadson said. Hevesy checks up with him regularly to make sure he’s doing everything that he’s supposed to do.
“He’s become more independent,” Gadson said. “He does it on his own now. He’s more about doing it his self, getting it done on his own. Even when it comes to his working out now, I don’t have to say anything to him. He gets up every morning and does a workout every morning. He works out in the evenings.
“His dream is to make it to the league, so he takes it very seriously. He’s very motivated, I’ll give him that. He’s self-motivated.”
Torrence II has a gym in his basement that includes an elliptical machine, a treadmill, weights, a bench press and a squat machine. He’s able to do all of the drills that they do on campus, his father said.
Every day, he does a workout in the basement and then goes to a park next to his home to work on defensive back drills. His father does whatever he needs him to do, such as throwing the ball to him.
Richardson, a Gainesville native, works out at home and throws the ball with his younger brother, Cory.
“Anthony loves football,” Lane said. “He loves sports. So … he keeps himself motivated.”
While the coaches cannot be with the players during their private workouts, the SEC recently passed a rule that will allow for a certain amount of virtual coaching. Under this rule, coaches can hold virtual meetings to go over plays and provide instructions for up to two hours per week. They cannot, however, watch film of the players working out and coach them like they would in-person.
Still, this rule change should allow the early-enrollees to gain the mental aspect of spring practices. They can still learn the playbook and be shown game film of how to operate it. It’s not an ideal situation, of course, but it seems to make the best of a bad situation.
Nobody knows when the 2020 early-enrollees will get to take the field for the first time. It might be in a few weeks. It might be in the fall. Or it might not be until next spring or beyond. When they finally do get the chance, there will be high expectations for what they can accomplish.
“Our early-enrollee guys I think have done a phenomenal job since the day they stepped foot on campus,” Savage said. “And I don’t even mean that just in the weight room. I thought they’ve done, holistically speaking, big-picture-wise, an unbelievable job. I definitely was excited to see them get on the football field, and we will get to see that, obviously. It’s just postponed at this point. But when that time may come, I am excited for that.”