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Florida Football

The fast tracking of Moral Stephens

October 10, 2018
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Before this season, Moral Stephens spent four years playing sparingly as a reserve tight end, on special teams and recording less than 10 receptions…total. He spent a redshirt season learning under the Will Muschamp staff he committed to, then the next three seeming to be lost in the shuffle of Jim McElwain’s offense.

“Just being on the sidelines, just, just knowing you can make plays. Yea it can get frustrating but I stayed patient, stayed patient and I believe in God so I just stayed and had faith, faith in God,” admits Stephens.

Then when Dan Mullen first took over as head coach of the Florida Gators, he was checking the numbers of the players he inherited. Stephens, by now a redshirt senior tight end, had not done much in his Gators career so far and frankly wasn’t standing out—and that’s what stood out to Mullen.

"He's very athletic and has really good ball skills. I think one of the things is, when I got here, he was just underdeveloped. I looked at his numbers, his testing numbers in the weight room and I'm like, 'What have you done for the last couple of years?' He benched about the same as I did, and I run now…it's just not right.”

So, looking ahead and what they believed the senior could do and with the understanding that this was his last shot to make an impression, Stephens was fast tracked to become a player this offense could utilize.

First, they had to get him into shape and benching more than his 46 year old head coach.

“After Coach Savage came here, my muscle gains—the type of body I’ve got I can lose and gain weight really fast—it’s just like the program he put me on, my muscle gains were increasing almost every other week,” explains Stephens.

“It was getting better and better. And then, with me, he kept picking up the intensity, because I had to gain fast. I’m a senior, so I had to gain it faster. I just feel like, like I said before, I ain’t trying to bash the last strength and conditioning staff. I just feel like they focused more on the cardio, like keeping us in shape. We weren’t really focused on a lot of strength stuff. It was more like just keeping us in shape. This staff focuses on all of it.”

Making up ground physically was just part one though; once the playbook was shared with the team, Moral knew right away he could be vital; he wasn’t the only one.

“As far as with Coach Mullen, I feel like as soon as he got here, he noticed my talent and he put me in positions to make plays for the team,” says Stephens.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks, who attended high school at Wakulla, spent years watching Stephens as an outside receiver at Taylor County High and says he’s always been aware of what the 6-foot-4 tight-end was capable.

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“Ever since Coach Mullen got here, he’s been one of those guys that has continued to develop. He’s not too far from where I’m from so I played him in high school all the time. He’s always the guy that Mossed [Randy Moss] our guys. He’s always been a really good player.

“I’ve been watching throughout high school and then being able to play with him since he’s been here, just seeing him develop this year as opposed to the last two years, he’s just getting better every single day. He’s one of those guys that is super crisp in route running, a super route runner. We have a lot of those on our team, but he’s one of them.”

That trust from his quarterback and the realization that he could make a difference in this offense opened the door for Stephens to dominate in practice.

“When coach Mullen first got me the playbook, I was looking over em like, some of these routes; I ran these in high school. I can run this route,” reveals Stephens.

“And then once we actually got on the field, Feleipe already knew my ability so he gone give me a shot, if I’m open he gone give me a shot because he already know what I can do…some of the guys in spring got our playbooks and we was doing the 7-on-7s, [individual] work and stuff. I was like yeah, this is gonna be a go for me.

“Just by like splitting us out, splitting us out, that give me more opportunity to move around like in open space cause last year I feel like we was more like in the box you know what I'm sayin', trying to run flats and stuff. Cause Mullen got a wide—we got a whole bunch of routes for the tight ends.”

Now six games into the season, he’s sixth on the team with 76 yards and three touchdowns on six receptions. It’s more than he had previously in his entire Gator career. And for the guy that came in with a class that included Will Grier, Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson, Gerald Willis and J.C. Jackson among others, there’s really only one last problem to tackle—how to cram four years into one in hopes of giving the tight end a shot at his dream…and of course the harsh truth he won’t be here to help next season.

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“It's a tragedy that we don't have him for longer, where he can get a real offseason to let his body develop. He might have a future even beyond this year if he decides to work at it. I think he's just scratching the surface for what his development could have been,” says Mullen.

“He can run; has good strides; he runs really well for being 6-foot-4, 245-pounds and has the ability to get in and out of breaks and doing that really well and be on time for the quarterback,” adds tight ends coach Larry Scott.

“He is kind of in that progression that you would like to see in a year and a half, two-year player, it's just a shame that he is in year four and starting to really turn on and click for him. If he had that type of progression earlier in his career, just from a physical standpoint in strength and those things, he probably would be a bit further along as a player, however, we can't do anything about the past and the lost time, all we can do is pick up the pieces right where we are, and get him to realize the things that we need him to do better and get him to strain to bring and come along as fast as he can. He has done a really good job responding to that.”

“Man if I could stay three or four years in this offense, ain't no telling what could happen for me. It could be something really, really special,” laughs Stephens.

But then the laughter stops and he thinks ahead to the future; the future of this season, what he can do to finally, finally help his team and the future he’s always dreamed of finally coming into reach.

“I ain’t come to Florida not to play after this. It’s just a big school and you’re gonna get seen on TV and that’s the goal, to always play after this. I ain’t come here to stop now.

“I always have faith in myself. I always have faith in my abilities. I always believed I could make plays for the team. I was just waiting for my opportunity.”

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