Young offensive players provide hope

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- After yet another dreadful offensive season, three freshmen provided glimmers of hope for the future of the Florida offense.

For all three players, it was about an opportunity.

Finally, that opportunity came in Saturday’s Birmingham Bowl. Ahmad Fulwood, Adam Lane and Brandon Powell were all more involved in the offensive game plan and sparked what the Gators did with the ball.

It also didn’t hurt their futures to have new Florida head coach Jim McElwain sitting in the box to watch.

“There were young guys all over the place,” D.J. Durkin said. “There’s great talent. Even more important than the talent is the amount of character on this team.”

Florida fans have been clamoring for Lane for the last two seasons. He took a redshirt in 2013 and wasn’t more involved to start 2014. The redshirt freshman mostly handled the ball late in the game to run out the clock. Coming into Saturday with only 72 rushing yards, Lane posted 66 yards in the first quarter against East Carolina, sparked by a 48-yard run on his first carry.

The redshirt freshman matched that 72-yard mark by capping off Florida’s drive with a two-yard touchdown, giving the Gators a lead they would never surrender.

“It feels great to help get a win for the team,” Lane said. “It was a great accomplishment and a great feeling. (Sitting on the bench) built a bigger fire in me and made me want to work harder and take the opportunities I got to make the most of them.”

When the Gators needed a big play to flip momentum, Ahmad Fulwood provided it. East Carolina had just scored to cut the Florida lead to 21-14, and the Gators were faced with a 3rd and 6 to avoid a three-and-out. Harris threw a quick receiver screen to Fulwood, who came into the game with 113 receiving yards on the season, and the sophomore did the rest of the work.

Fulwood sprinted 86 yards up the Pirates’ sideline, outrunning multiple defenders on his way to the longest play in Birmingham Bowl history. It was also Florida’s longest play from scrimmage since Will Muschamp took over in 2011, topping an 84-yard touchdown run by Jeff Demps in 2011.

Similar to the way the young trio has been underused all season, the 86-yard touchdown was Fulwood’s only target of the game.

Powell’s day wasn’t as big as Fulwood or Lane -- he caught three passes for 20 yards -- but both came on a touchdown drive that the freshman punctuated with a difficult 13-yard touchdown catch. He ran a corner route from the slot and had his defender beat, but quarterback Treon Harris underthrew the ball so much that it was behind the defender. Powell adjusted on his route and came back to make a nice catch and give the Gators a 21-7 lead in the second quarter.

Powell has been given more chances with the football this season than Fulwood or Lane coming into Saturday, but it still wasn’t enough. He’s a natural playmaker with the ball, whether it comes from the running back or wide receiver spots, and he even has the explosiveness to help the Gators in the return game next year.

The core of skill players won’t be where Florida needs it to be in the first year under McElwain, and it needs to be a focus on the recruiting trail. But on Saturday in Florida’s season finale, three young skill players made their first impression for McElwain a positive one.

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