The oldest son and freshman Gator is inching closer to locking down a starting role in the Gator secondary. Joe Haden came into Florida as a talented athlete looking to make some noise on the offensive side of the football. But opportunities for immediate playing time on defense and unbelievable athletic ability has Haden adjusting to a position he's never played before - cornerback.
Last weekend, the Hadens were in Gaineville to spend time with their son as he went through the heart of fall camp, and they shared some thoughts on their son's early experiences as a Gator.
You had a chance to watch a full day of double-sessioned practice last Saturday. What was the thing that stood out for you the most?
"I came up in the spring and saw a couple of practices then, but this was definitely more intense. It's a very high tempo and very impressive for those kids to be in that kind of shape because there is not a whole lot of standing around. Everyone's moving around, it's very organized and succinct and exciting to watch."
What has been the biggest challenge for Joe in making the move from high school to college?
"The level of intensity. When you're the type of athlete that he is and have that type of ability you can take plays off in high school and you really won't notice because the level of ability is so high. Now, if you do drop off and you take a play off, it shows. It shows real bad. That's the biggest thing he needs to get used to, and he's getting used to the fact that you have to bring you're A-game everyday. You have to bring it in practice and not just in the game. You have to earn your stripes out there on the practice field before the games even start."
What has Joe's relationship with the coaching staff been like since arriving on campus?
"The staff has been very upfront and honest. They want guys that are good character guys and want to work hard. The talent level is abundant in Florida. When I was first talking to my son and asking him about different players, I said, ‘is he good, is he good, is that guy good?' He said, ‘Dad, that's not a good question because everybody's good.' He said some guys work harder than other guys and the coaches really pay attention to that because talent is talent. But you have to bring you're A-game, you have to be coachable and you have to work hard all the time. I think Joe has gotten to the point now where he is matriculating and getting used to the tempo. It's a big change. He's playing with grown men. He just turned 18, but he's playing with men that are physically more mature, but he has put the work ethic in. As far as strength, he's pound-for-pound up there with the top guys."
How has he adjusted to competing with 15 and 16 year olds a year ago to going up against 21 and 22 year olds now?
"You can look at it in one of two ways. Either it's going to make you better or you just are to not going hard all the time. Sometimes you have to realize there are times you are going to get beat because you are playing against the best, but playing against the best makes you better. That's one thing that excites him. He's always wanted to be a Florida Gator since he was a young child. God has blessed him with a lot of talent and he works very hard, so what's happened is he's been able to get better himself."
"I told him before he came here, you can go somewhere where you can dominate, but to get better you need someone who is really going to push you, not only in football, but push you in life. When you have to work hard like that and get the best that you have, I think it's a good situation. And coming to Florida, his work ethic has continued to improve and he's a coachable kid. He's learning the technique from Coach Heater and Coach Heater tells him all the time. Now, he's not thinking about it. He's never played corner. He's played safety, but corner is a different animal especially at this level. You're on an island by yourself. If you're not on you're A-game, it's going to show, and it's going to show awful. I think his awareness and his focus has really helped him, too."
Joe had the benefit of early-enrolling. How has that benefited him and will playing time be the reward for early-enrollment?
"That was invaluable. He came in as an athlete and was originally going to play receiver. He's got multifaceted talents to play running back, receiver, corner or safety. If he were 6-3, he would be a five-star quarterback. He did some things in high school at the quarterback position that were unbelievable. But coming in early and coming into a situation where they were a little light on corners, they needed some guys to step up. With his athleticism and being coachable, he's the kind of player that he can now get some time as a true freshman. For a national championship caliber team, that's serious."
"We're blessed and humbled by it, but this is an opportunity to show what you can do. Two-a-days gives you chance to earn your stripes, but the real deal is game time. At this level, it's what have you done for me lately. You're only as good as your last game, so you can't rest on your laurels. If you have a big game, you have to stay medium, you can't get too high and you can't get too low. You have to stay in that medium range where you are able to handle everything, but you don't get a big head if you have a big game and you don't get down if you have a bad game. If you lose, learn the lesson and that helps you from being defeated. Don't worry about the things you can't control, but my wife and I are always telling him to work on the things you can control. I can work on my technique, I can work on my attitude and if you do all those things, you'll be blessed in life and in football."
"I think he's grasped that. He's still got a long way to go. He's a college kid and the partying and all that stuff, you have to have some balance. But this is supposed to be the best time of his life, and my wife and I have told him to embrace this. Embrace the good times, embrace the bad times, embrace it all because this is something in your lifetime that you'll look back on as the most fun time in your life."
What has he said about the difference between the group that early-enrolled versus the group that arrived in July?
"One of the biggest things is Joe said last week Coach Mick [Marotti] in the strength and conditioning program at Florida is outstanding. I'm a personal trainer who trains elite high school athletes, I trained Joe, Josh, Jordan and a lot of people, but one of the things that they do here is put a serious emphasis on the training. So those guys were physically in really good shape. They do a wonderful job of getting those guys in shape. Joe said some of the other guys were throwing up, but some of the guys that came in early weren't throwing up, so some of their bodies had gotten used to it and were a little better in tune."
You've got four other sons at home, and the next one, Josh, has already committed to Boston College. How is Joe's experiences helping them out?
"It's been invaluable because Joe has been able to talk with Josh and Jordan and tell those guys about the level that he's going through. Because he's going through it now, their eager to go through it and I think they'll be even more prepared than he was. Josh is graduating early, but Joe's telling him how things go during two-a-days at this level, SEC-ACC. It's not a game. It's serious. It's business. When the coaches recruit you, they're all lovey-dovey, but when you get here, it's strictly business. It's like having another job. That scholarship is definitely earned. I think some people don't understand the level of big-time football and college sports. You earn that money. They work you, and if you embrace it, you'll only get better. Embrace when coaches are trying to critique you because they know what they're doing. It's going to make you a better football player and a better person too."
With so much going on at home, what are your plans for watching Joe play this season?
"We'll make five games (four at The Swamp and South Carolina). My wife has the color-coded spreadsheet for all the boy's games. She does a great job of planning everything out and keeping us organized. I can't take any credit on that at all, none whatsoever."