Freshman Class Bolsters Experienced UF Roster

The Gators return most of their starting lineup, but there won't be any room for the regulars to become complacent. Another highly ranked recruiting class brought in quality arms that could see time on the mound immediately and bats that could hit in the order from day one. That was the goal for head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and bringing in four Aflac All Americans has improved the team again.

"Each team has guys that come in and there are older guys who need to take them under their wing," shortstop Nolan Fontana said.

Fontana knows all about that process. When he came to Gainesville two years ago, it was second baseman Josh Adams that served as a big brother. Shortstop Mike Mooney signed professionally the year before, so it seemed a lock that Fontana would be Florida's starting shortstop. Adams knew it, and without his leadership, Fontana might not have produced immediately like he did.

The veterans know how it works with integrating the younger players to the program, and they haven't wasted much time.

Most of the hype was around utility player Josh Tobias coming into the fall. He has plenty of talent and an opening starting position at second base, where he has seen a lot of time in practices. Tobias can play all three outfield positions, second base, third base and even shortstop. His versatility and above average speed gives him a chance to make an immediate impact.

"That's what we try to do in recruiting," head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said about Tobias' versatility. "We try to recruit guys who are good players but versatile defenders where you can move them around a little bit. You try to recruit some guys who are athletic and can move around."

The speed is what could help Tobias into the lineup to start the season. He was clocked at 6.35 seconds in the 60-yard dash last summer, giving elite speed to a team that only stole 56 bases in 72 games last year.

"That's his thing—versatility," right fielder Preston Tucker said about Tobias. "He and (freshman) Cory Reid are the fastest guys on the team. They bring a lot of speed, and we didn't have a lot of stolen bags last year, so hopefully they can change that. The fact that he can play infield and outfield gives us the opportunity to put him in the lineup and find a place for him hopefully."

Justin Shafer has also received plenty of praise for his bat this fall. The freshman from Lake Wales High School turned down Division One offers to play quarterback because he preferred playing baseball for the Gators, and it looks like he'll see an early opportunity to do that.

Shafer will be given a chance to pitch, too.

Behind the plate, All-American catcher Mike Zunino has spent time working with Brandon Sedell. The freshman was an Aflac All-American last season and spent his time at American Heritage High School as one of the best hitters in the state. Early in fall scrimmages, Sedell is making a reputation for himself with his bat.

"He's working extremely hard," Zunino said. "He's got good hands and can really swing the bat. Hopefully he can be able to contribute some this year."

Freshman right-hander John Magliozzi will compete immediately for the midweek starter spot. He is listed at 5-10, which might even be generous, but he makes up for it with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and good feel for his off-speed pitches.

The Dexter School (MA) product doesn't have the ideal size, but the veteran players say it's his mindset that allows him to compete.

"He's a bulldog," left-hander Brian Johnson said. "He can handle any situation. I don't think he really cares what's going on. The best way I can explain it is that he's the Boston Bulldog. He loves the game of baseball and knows what he's doing."

If anything, Johnson has had to talk Magliozzi down from trying too hard on the mound.

"The biggest thing is just not trying to strike everybody out," Johnson said. "Just let them hit the ball. You've got a great defense behind you. I think that's the biggest difference after high school."

POSITION BATTLES: Losing only two starters in the field from last year's team doesn't provide many position battle. The departure of second baseman Josh Adams and center fielder Bryson Smith leaves only two holes to be filled.

In center field, the solution looks like it could be simple. Tyler Thompson and Daniel Pigott formed a platoon in left field last season. Thompson struggled with a leg injury to start the season and wasn't available for the first month of the year, cementing Smith as the team's center fielder. When Thompson came back, the hot-hitting Pigott had earned the left field job.

As the season continued, Thompson took advantage of his opportunities and worked his way back into a platoon in left field. He did get some work in center field when Smith was suspended because of a DUI. Unless someone supplants Thompson before the start of the season, sliding him to center field will be the plan.

"Moving Tyler to center is the most obvious choice right now," O'Sullivan said. "He's certainly capable, but we're just hoping to keep him healthy and I know he is, too. He's had a string of bad luck and hopefully he's beyond that. He's a very capable defender, and his arm is very much improved. I'm just excited to see him go a full year being injury free because I know he's a great player. Given a chance to play a lot, I think he can put up good numbers."

At second base, it gets tricky. After solidifying the infield at third base last season, it doesn't look like Cody Dent will play the position this year unless it's an emergency. He has taken ground balls at second base along with Tobias and fellow freshman Casey Turgeon.

Tobias, a switch hitter, brings the speed element to the lineup, but it isn't a lock that he is the starter.

"We've got some returning players and some good incoming players that are ready to battle," O'Sullivan said. "Like we do every fall, we'll let the players battle it out. I feel very confident that we'll have somebody be a good second baseman."

TOUGH SCHEDULE THIS SPRING: Since taking the job at Florida before the 2008 season, O'Sullivan has made no apologies for his scheduling strategy. He has put together one of the toughest schedues in the country every year to prepare his team for the postseason.

This year, there's a new wrinkle to it. The Gators will host national power Cal State Fullerton to open the season in February.

"We're excited to open up with Cal State Fullerton, a team that we've never got to play before," Zunino said. "When it's the first weekend of baseball, you're excited no matter what. They're a team that's well known around the country as one of the top baseball schools."

Florida opened the 2009 season with a highly ranked Louisville team, but that was at the beginning of their rise to relevancy in college baseball. Cal State Fullerton isn't a new name in college baseball. They've been grouped in with the sport for as long as it has been nationally significant.

The Gators also play the normal weekend series with Miami, taking place in Coral Gables this year. Florida will also have three midweek games with Florida State. The SEC schedule gets off to a rough start as Florida hosts Vanderbilt and goes to South Carolina to open conference play.

"Number one, you want to schedule as tough of a schedule as you can to try and figure out your team before SEC play," O'Sullivan said. "The second thing is that I think the fans like it. I would match our schedule up with anybody in the country as far as difficult. Our players deserve to play a schedule like this and our fans deserve a schedule like this.

"It'll be challenging, and we may not have the prettiest record at the end of the year, but I think we'll be a better team because of it come the end of the year."

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