Young players making an impact

Fall camp means the Gators have their full recruiting class on campus and can finally see how they produce on the practice field. The coaches are making decision about who will play in games based on the production they show in fall camp.

Defense end Gerald Willis: It’s easy to pick Willis out of a group. He looks like a fifth-year senior preparing for his final season in the Southeastern Conference. Instead, the 6-2, 255-pounder heads into his first year in Gainesville, but the expectations are growing.

The former five-star player made multiple impressive plays during Thursday’s open practice, showing off his pass rushing skills and slipping into the backfield to make tackles for losses in the running game. The coaches believe he will help them on the defensive line this season.

"He has really good block instincts, playing blocks,” Will Muschamp said. “He has really quick first step. He's a heavy-handed guy, really strong with his hands. He plays with good effort. He's about 255-258 (pounds), he has a very big upside and will help us this year. He's a guy that's shown some flashes in the pass rush. I'm very pleased with where he is, just have to continue to handle the instillation."

Tight end DeAndre Goolsby: Inconsistencies slowed the spring for Goolsby, but that was to be expected from a true freshman adjusting from high school football in Kansas. He looked like the best of the three freshmen tight ends in open practices, which is to be expected since he was the only one to go through the spring.

Goolsby made a nice grab down the field on a pass from Jeff Driskel, perfectly thrown to his back shoulder for a touchdown. The coaches expect him to get on the field this season, although Jake McGee will be the starter and carry the unit before graduating at the end of the season.

“He made a nice catch on the drive there to start practice,” Muschamp said of Goolsby in Thursday’s practice. “Really good ball skills. He’s up to about 235, gained some girth and strength in his body. More confident, he’s further ahead of the other freshmen because he went through spring. That’s understandable. He’s going to be a guy that contributes for us. As we continue to move through camp, we’ll see how much.”

Safety Keanu Neal: Special teams was the area Neal made his mark last season. He was a big hitter and a key part of the special teams, showing the coaches he can be trusted on defense. That will happen this season. Neal got his feet wet at safety last year in practices, but it’s tough for freshmen to do in the current Florida defense.

“It’s hard sometimes to come in as a freshman at the safety position,” Muschamp said. “We put a lot on the safeties to be able to communicate and do things you need to do. It takes time. He really applied himself to what he needs to do to learn and communicate. I’ve been pleased to this point.”

This fall, Neal has shown the growth necessary to get on the field at safety. He’s currently battling for a starting job but has shown the coaches he can handle a starting job.

“He’s a very physical player, great toughness,” Muschamp said. “Football is very important to him, playing at Florida is very important to him. He’s a guy that had been more of a box safety in high school. It takes a little time to understand playing in the deep part of the field, whether you’re playing a quarter, a half or in the middle of the field. He’s got good man coverage skills. He’s extremely intelligent.”

Freshmen quarterbacks: Will Grier and Treon Harris have both had inconsistent falls. Some throws will be right on the money, and the next one will be wild. It’s normal struggles that freshmen quarterbacks go through, but if one of them wants to beat Skyler Mornhinweg for the backup job, they need to improve throughout the fall.

Muschamp complimented their arm talent and poise, but they both have leadership qualities that cause teammates to follow their lead.

“The No. 1 thing that strikes me with both young men is they have a very positive way about themselves with the players,” Muschamp said. “I call it the ‘it factor,’ they both have that as far as how the players respond to them. You can see a reason why they were where they were in high school and the accomplishments they have are very easy to see. They’re very talented guys, but I look at more the intangible part of that position, and they both have that.”

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