With the start of camp came a challenge. The coaches wanted Matt Elam's versatility to shine. His size and speed combination allows him to play multiple positions in the secondary. He started at safety, his best position, but he also plays as the nickel in some coverage. It's a skill that Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, a former NFL defensive line coach, sees as what makes Elam unique.
He's all over the field, whether it's because he lines up at different spots or because he has a knack for being around the ball.
"He's got very good football instincts," Quinn said. "That's why we're able to play him at a number of different spots. This year he's played safety, he's played nickel, he's played dime. He plays on punts. I think just his physical nature and the way that he plays. He's aggressive. He's a very good special teams player. He's a good tackler. He's a good blitzer."
Those abilities helped Elam make multiple memorable plays during the 2012 season. The most memorable to Muschamp was Elam's forced fumble of Odell Beckham, when the wide receiver caught a deep ball that could've flipped the field late in the game with the Gators holding an eight-point game. The Gators were just about to get a third down stop when the coverage broke down and allowed the Tigers to hit a deep ball.
Instead of LSU having the ball in Florida territory and a chance to tie the game, Elam's strip gave the Gators the ball and the chance to ice the game and a win over a top-five team.
"They've now flipped the field on us on a third down and just makes as good a play of stripping the ball off a guy in an awkward position that I've seen," Muschamp said, remembering the play.
His energy became contagious. The Florida defense was filled with energy and passion whenever it was on the field in 2012. That's a big part of what made it successful. There were personalities all over the field, and those personalities could be seen in the way they played the game.
But none of them were more obvious than Elam.
"He's a high-energy guy," Florida safety Josh Evans said. "I say that because you can see the passion he plays with on the field. I can remember the play in the LSU game where Loucheiz made a good play on the punt coverage and Matt just went up and hit him. Just seeing that and playing next to him definitely motivates you to go out there and just have fun. He's a guy that loves playing the game."
With as much as Elam was on the field during the 2012 season, that energy was always there. Muschamp made it clear from the first game of the year that Elam would need ‘to play 80-plus snaps a game' because of the up-tempo offenses and his importance in the secondary. He didn't bat an eye at the number.
If Elam had it his way, he wouldn't spend a snap off the field, but it would be important to keep being an energetic leader.
"That's tough for a low-body fat guy to do," Muschamp said of plays so many snaps. "He's probably only got four or five percent body fat, and it's tougher on those guys to be able to maintain, especially in this heat early in the year. He certainly has done that and then some."
Quinn said that Elam has ‘explosive power' that makes him such a big hitter, and while his tackles often end up on highlight reels, he's sound in his technique and doesn't miss tackles often. That's where he has earned his teammates trust. The secondary played aggressive in 2012 because of familiarity in the second year of the scheme, but Elam's presence helped.
Cornerbacks and other safeties know that Elam will be there to clean up any mistakes. They can play aggressively and try to create turnovers, knowing Elam will be behind them if there's an issue.
"It's just accountability. I can count on him," Evans said. "I know when in doubt, if a play is broken that on the other side, he's got my back. I know he's going to make that play. I'd say the big thing is just the trust between each other, knowing that we're in our play book, we know how to anticipate certain plays and move forward."
The strong 2012 season early Elam first team AP All-American honors. He was second on the team with 65 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss. Elam pulled down four interceptions with 73 return yards, adding one sack, one forced fumble and five pass breakups.
Name a category on the stat sheet and Elam filled it.
The honor didn't phase him. While the national award might challenge the humility of some players, the passionate Elam kept to him.
"He was very cool, calm and collected," Evans said. "He's not a guy who is over the top or full of himself too much. He was pretty mellow. You watch him play two years in a row in the SEC and make plays the way he's been making and being productive, he deserves every bit of it."
It didn't surprise any of the Florida coaches, either.
"In talking to a lot of offensive coaches that face us, they've got to account for him," Muschamp said. "Generally, you don't hear that much from an offensive coach talking about a secondary player, that they've got to account for him as far as where he is."