It Was Only A First Practice, But ...

It was just a first practice on a hot August morning, no different than a lot of first practices in the 99 years of football at the University of Florida. Because the team is split into two groups, the players who were practicing Monday morning were true freshmen, a few redshirt freshmen who missed either last season or spring practice due to injury, and a couple of transfers. If you're looking for a highlight filled report, you won't find one here because nothing much happened.

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But just because there weren't that many highlight reel plays doesn't mean there was a lack of significance. To find why this practice was important all you had to do was look out on the field to find number four and number 32.

Number four is Avery Atkins, the true freshman out of Daytona Beach Mainland. He comes to Florida touted as one of the best high school corner/defensive back prospects in the nation.

Number 32 is Reggie Nelson, finally on campus after putting Florida fans into near states of apoplexy the last two years as they have anticipated his arrival. He spent the last two years in the purgatory of junior college football played in small towns among the wheat fields of Kansas where he earned juco All-America status in the one year (2004) that he played.

Atkins had to sweat it out to get a qualifying test score but the hard work he put into his grades and re-taking the ACT have paid off. He's in Gainesville now, qualified to play at the University of Florida and certain to see action from game one even if he is young and inexperienced at this level.

Nelson's route was a bit more tenuous and it involved more plot twists than a good Elmore Leonard novel, but he finally got the grade he needed to get his Associate of Arts (AA) degree earlier in the summer and now he's on campus, qualified and ready to play. There is no question that he will be on the field somewhere once the season actually begins.

That the two of them are on campus, qualified and participating in practice bodes well for Coach Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Florida has a lot of talented players on the defensive side of the ball, but there is a serious question mark at the corner opposite Dee Webb. In the spring, Vernell Brown proved that he is tough and tenacious, but at 5-8, 165, he's not the ideal guy to lock down those wideouts from Tennessee who all seem to be about 6-3 or so. Reggie Lewis had a good spring but he's at corner for the first time in his life, so he's a major question mark. Dawayne Grace redshirted as a freshman and in the spring it seemed the lights never went on.

Atkins has the look of a true corner. He's got nice size at 5-11, 185, and it is apparent that he has great instincts when it comes to coverage. You only had to watch him in coverage at the end of practice to know he has all the intangibles to play the position. He's well put together and he has that burst of speed that tells you he can break on the football when it's in the air. As he went through one drill after another, he showed an abundance of speed and good instincts.

Nelson played wherever he was needed the most when he was in high school. Because he was always the best player on the field, he was plugged into several positions and at each one he dominated. He played safety last year at Coffeyville, where he was the single most dominating player in junior college football last year. He will be plugged in where he's needed most this year, too, and the first place he'll see action is at corner where he indeed has the speed and the change of direction to handle the position.

Atkins has all the tools but he lacks experience at this level. His ability to learn the nuances of the job quickly will determine how often he's on the field at corner in the fall. If he holds true to form from his high school days, he will be a quick study who can apply the lessons learned in practice and make positive results.

Nelson also has the right tools. He's 6-1 and obviously heavier than the 175 he's listed on the roster sheet. He's a glider who is cat quick but he makes it look easy. He's moving at warp speed but because he's so smooth it doesn't look that fast at first. His junior college experience will help him make the transition to Division I without many incidents. He plays with tremendous confidence and has that knack of knowing when to use his speed. He does not waste any motion or effort.

Both Atkins and Nelson breezed through their first practice session. They will get plenty of attention in the next week as the Florida coaching staff loads them up with assignments to see which one or if both can handle the intensity. They will have the luxury of going against four experienced wide receivers in Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, Jemalle Cornelius and Chad Jackson, plus three super freshmen in Nyan Boateng, David Nelson and Louis Murphy. Because there is such an abundance of talent at wide receiver, the defensive backs will get plenty of work in practice and they will have the opportunity to prove themselves quickly.

It is only day one but Reggie Nelson and Avery Atkins already have a huge weight of expectation on their shoulders. Coach Urban Meyer knows they have the talent to play but he needs the luxury of knowing that they are ready. In the days to come, expect him to baptize both Nelson and Atkins with fire.

If they can handle the fire, then one of the key pieces in the puzzle that will be Florida's 2005 season will be in place. There is talent enough to meet the high expectations. The only question at this point is can they step it up to meet the challenge.

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