GAINESVILLE — Early in his career at Florida, edge rusher Princely Umanmielen believed he could help a struggling defense.
Coaches had other ideas and continued to rely primarily on veterans despite the Gators’ struggles.
Because of past frustrations Umanmielen, 21, praises coach Billy Napier’s willingness to reward young players who have earned snaps. UF’s youth movement has been popular and critical one for the No. 25 Gators (2-1) entering Saturday’s visit from 28-point underdog Charlotte (1-2).
“I remember being a young guy under [former coach Dan] Mullen, feeling like I should have gotten opportunities and not getting opportunities,” Umanmielen said. “So I like that [Napier is] a coach, if he sees a guy is ready to play he’s going to play him, not just someone’s older so they should play. No matter what age the person is if they’re ready to play, they’re ready to play.
“I really like that.”
A system based on merit more than experience or seniority has led to playing time for a slew of first- and second-year players.
Sophomore Trevor Etienne is the Gators’ most dynamic tailback in years while freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III appeared to be their most explosive playmaker on the perimeter. But he injured his collarbone during last week’s upset of Tennessee.
Wilson’s absence, though, presents opportunities for true freshmen receivers Aidan Mizell or Andy Jean.
Safety Jordan Castell, a former standout at West Orange, was scheduled to make his third start after he earned the job over Michigan transfer R.J. Moten, who started 10 games last season for a College Football Playoff team. Against Tennessee, Castell tallied 10 tackles to earn SEC Freshman of the Week.
With Wilson out, Castell is the only first-year starter. Ten true freshmen have played, however, and several have shined, led by edge players T.J. Searcy and Kelby Collins.
Sophomore linebacker Shemar James leads the Gators with 23 tackles and redshirt freshman tackles Caleb Banks and Jamari Lyons have helped solidify the interior. Meanwhile, two veteran linebackers Derek Wingo, now in his fourth season, and Ohio State graduate transfer Teradja Mitchell have had lesser roles.
Napier said expectations and experience cannot outweigh performance and potential in order to have a successful team and unified locker room.
“You can’t fool players,” he said. “They’re watching, they’re evaluating, they’re in the film room. They know who the better players are. So there’s a certain level of integrity there.
“We got to do what’s in the best interest of the team.”
The Gators also rotate a lot to players to keep everyone involved, prepared and pushing to earn a starting role.
“I talk with the staff a little bit, all the time, about, ‘Hey, you got to keep hope,’” Napier said. “Hope’s a very powerful thing. When hope is removed, that’s when you see different levels of motivation and obviously it creates issues.
“Competition is important.”
Edgar Thompson can be reached at email@example.com