Patton and Clark, Blazing a Trail

It didn't take long with the start of spring practice to notice Solomon Patton and Robert Clark. They were two guys on offense that looked like streaks running past defenders from day one. Patton and Clark were signed by Florida for their speed and agility and both are working hard to establish themselves as slot receivers. Along with Chris Rainey, they have had some dynamic moments this spring.

A year ago it was a position with little to no depth and lacking a true playmaker. Brandon James never seemed to get it going and there really was no other quality athlete the Florida Gators could throw into the slot position to make the offense run like it was designed to do.

Part of the issue was the injury to freshman receiver Andre Debose, who missed the entire year to a hamstring injury that eventually required surgery. Debose was supposed to be the heir apparent to Percy Harvin, who left after the 2008 BCS title season to go and earn NFL riches and an eventual rookie of the year award in football's highest league.

Debose still isn't ready to do anything and with his status up in the air, the Gators had to make sure they were going to have some skill at the slot position that can do the things in the offense to make it as dynamic as it once was.

One move in the off season has been junior running back Chris Rainey to the slot. Rainey has always had the physical ability for the position. He is a dynamic play maker and a talent that the staff really wants to see with the ball in his hands. Rainey was slow to pick the position up a year ago and so his move there last year was halted early on in the process.

Rainey has come on this spring and really looks natural, but an injury to his hamstring in practice one sidelined him until practice seven. In his absence, Robert Clark and Solomon Patton stepped up and slowly begun to earn the trust of the coaching staff.

The competition between the two has been great, both showing flashes of brilliance and then disappearing for long periods of time like all freshmen do. But they are both really pushing hard to be the best.

"I have picked up my intensity in the game," Clark told the media last week when asked what he has improved on the most. He knows that this isn't like high school when he could easily dominate guys on the other side of the ball. He described the differences from the players he was going against just last December.

"Everyone's physicalness, everyone is big and strong and has the same ability and speed (as me)," he said. "I used to blow by people but not out here. It isn't happening like that."

The two blazers also have a lot to learn in the play book. It isn't easy learning the slot position which also requires them to hop in the backfield and run as a running back at times.

"It's been going good," Patton said about his first couple of weeks in his first spring on campus. "I am trying to get down the plays so I am in the books every day trying to get in the play with the older guys. We are all working hard and it's a fresh new group. We are all just trying to show the Gator Nation what we are going to do next year.

"I am getting it day-by-day. It's going a little slow, but every chance I get I am looking at my play book trying to pick up stuff every day. By the end of spring I feel it is all going to work out."

Rainey has come a long way with knowing the position and really helps the two when he spots them in a quandary. They are also getting tutelage from the other older receivers on the roster that are always seen praising the young guys efforts on the field.

"Rainey just helps us out whenever we need help," Clark said. "He tells us where to line up and stuff."

"Graduating early and being able to learn from people like Deonte Thompson and Frankie Hammond on being a better athlete," Patton said.

"Adjusting to the game speed and the plays is the toughest (thing), Clark said. "It is difficult compared to high school. In high school they tell me what side of the ball to go to, in college you have to know that and go play."

As the two continue to progress, so will the friendly rivalry between the two. Word leaked out that Patton ran a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash in January for the Florida strength and conditioning staff. When quizzed by the media, Clark wouldn't admit to being any slower than that. When it comes to winning the position battle Clark likes his chances.

"It is pretty tough but I am going to come out with a win," Clark said with a smile.

Patton knows it is a grind and he has to just keep on keeping on.

"It's great that I am able to fight for the 'H' position right now for some playing time next year," Patton said. "It sounds good and if I just keep working hard and stay healthy, I should be able to see the field next year."

As mentioned, knowing the position means being able to run the ball from the backfield. On Monday, the two got a real taste of running the ball in a scrimmage type setting where almost the entire practice was geared toward the running game. Patton and Clark each got several repetitions in the backfield and each came away with some big time runs.

Running back coach Stan Drayton got to coach them up and really liked what he saw from the two freshmen.

"They are two young freshman guys that we are trying to find out a little bit about," Drayton told the media after all the running on Monday. "We had a little run emphasis going on out here and we had to find out a way to get the ball in their hands. We put them back there in a couple of plays we thought they could run and they showed some good sight, burst, and some good flashes. You never know I may have two more running backs when all is said and done (jokingly)."

It is easy to sit back and say that one will likely redshirt as a freshman because they play the same position. If a healthy Debose returns soon enough and Rainey stays as effective as he has been so far in the position, there might not be a a need for both Clark and Patton at the slot in 2010. However, their prowess doesn't end on the offensive side of the ball.

Both Clark and Patton excel at special teams. Patton was a big time return man in high school and will get a look at both kick and punt returner now that Brandon James has moved on. Clark is great at both as well and has a chance to be a special player at the gunner position on punt coverage. These skills will minimize the chance of either of them redshirting in 2010.

It is these special abilities that have the coaching staff at Florida excited about Robert Clark and Solomon Patton. The two lead the way in blazing a trail for the rest of the heralded freshman class that Florida signed in February.

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