Florida’s Jeawon Taylor, unlike many, committed to the school itself

Florida freshman safety Jeawon Taylor. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)
Florida freshman safety Jeawon Taylor. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Football prospects are advised against committing to a coach in the recruiting process.

Staff changes happen regularly, and chances are a player will have more than one position coach, coordinator and/or head coach during their college career.

And yet, kids rarely commit to a school. Recruiting is all about relationships. Playing time, proximity to home and other factors can also influence a prospect’s decision.

Florida freshman Jeawon Taylor, however, based his choice primarily on the school itself.

“If you couldn’t play football and you still had to be there for four years, is that where you would want to go? Every recruit has to answer that question,” Taylor said.

Taylor answered his on Aug. 1 of last year when he first visited Florida. The No. 1 safety in the state of Alabama fell in love with Gators.

“When I went there on that trip, I wanted to commit,” Taylor said. “Campus was a perfect spot. Nice weather, great fans, great student body and alumni. DBU. It checked every box for me.

“I had to make sure it was OK with my mom and my dad. Once they gave me the green light, I did it.”

Taylor’s recruitment slowed down after that, but the coaching carousel put it back in motion. Florida fired assistant Kirk Callahan in January, a move that upset Taylor because of their relationship.

He was personally recruited by Callahan, although defensive coordinator Geoff Collins coaches his position. Regardless, Taylor didn’t waver on his commitment.

“The coaches are important in the decision, but that’s not why I made the decision,” Taylor said. “I didn’t commit to Callahan or Collins. I committed to Florida. Coaches don’t make you. It’s about the scheme fit and the school overall. That’s why I didn’t de-commit.”

But Callahan’s departure opened the door for other schools to make a late run at Taylor. Maryland coach D.J. Durkin and Georgia coach Kirby Smart, two of the top defensive minds in college football, both tried to flip him.

Smart, who had been recruiting Taylor for several years, even secured an official visit for UGA. Taylor gave the Bulldogs consideration, but he wasn’t abandoning Florida just to play for Smart.

“There’s no way I could do that,” Taylor said. “Kirby was my guy, but he’s not bigger than a school. You can’t expect to have somebody switch after you’ve offered them so late. Once a person falls in love with a school, it’s hard to get them out of it.”

As an Alabama prospect who didn’t get an offer from the Crimson Tide, Taylor liked the idea of going to UF and creating a new trend.

“I wanted to start a tradition for Alabama kids with (Florida signees) Lamical Perine and Jeremiah Moon,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to go to Bama or Auburn to be considered a success. Do your own thing and go somewhere else. Dare to be different.

“There are other schools out there. You just have to find the right one.”

THE NEXT UP SERIES

Florida LB Jeremiah Moon overcame severe leg, weight problems growing up

Florida freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)
Florida freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)

HOOVER, Ala. — Forrest Gump isn’t the only football player who grew up in Alabama wearing leg braces.

Florida freshman linebacker Jeremiah Moon was born with a physical deformity that hindered him until he reached elementary school.

“I was bowlegged and pigeon-toed, so I had to wear braces on my legs,” Moon said. “That was not easy.”

Once Moon had trouble walking, doctors put him in braces that stretched from his feet to his knees. He wore them every day for more than a year, and each Monday his family would take him to see a specialist.

The braces helped his legs grow straight, but also caused a hairline fracture in his back. Moon overcame both issues by age 5.

“I almost don’t remember it, but I’ll never forgot how much pain I was in,” Moon said. “I used to cry because my legs hurt.”

Unfortunately for Moon, puberty created more problems with his body. He skyrocketed to 6-foot-4 as a teenager, but his weight couldn’t keep up with his height.

“I had to start taking supplements and drinking protein shakes,” Moon said. “I might gain five pounds, but if I stopped or took a break, I’d just lose the weight. My metabolism is so high it doesn’t make any sense.”

Once he got to high school, Moon began attending camps to put his name out there as a recruit. Those experiences only made matters worse.

“I went to a countless amount of camps just trying to get looked at and be recognized,” Moon said. “I would feel like I did well, but never got any offers. It was always my weight.”

Two people looked past that during the summer of Moon’s freshman year. He received his first scholarship offer from Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (then at Mississippi State) and met former Gators linebacker Jevon Kearse, who told the 195-pound Moon that he looked just like him in high school.

Collins and Kearse both predicted that Moon would eventually fill out his frame. He’s now 216 pounds, the same weight Kearse was when he started his career at the University of Florida.

Millions of Americans young and old are self-conscious about their appearance and struggle with obesity. Moon had the opposite frustration.

“I used to look in the mirror,” Moon said, “and ask myself, ‘Why can’t I gain any weight?’ But my family told me the reason and always kept that in my head. That helped me deal with it.”

Moon is not the first football player in his family who had trouble putting on weight. His uncle, Darius Gilbert, was a linebacker at Alabama from 1998-2001.

“He was around 220 pounds when he came out of high school and he got up to 260 in college, so my family can gain weight,” Moon said. “I’m only 17, so I’m still young and still growing. My body just isn’t ready yet. It’s going to take some time. I know it will come, just not right now.”

Florida linebackers coach Randy Shannon didn’t want Moon worrying about his weight this summer. He had him channeling his inner Forrest Gump.

“He goes, ‘I just want you to run.’ That’s all he asked for,” Moon said. “He needs me to be able to run sideline to sideline and not get tired. He told me they’ll put the weight on me, so don’t stress about that.”

After years of struggling with his physique, Moon knows better days are ahead.

“They can’t come soon enough,” Moon said. “It’ll be crazy to see myself when I’m fully developed and NFL ready. I’ll have a book to write about my body one day.”

Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi

THE NEXT UP SERIES

New Gator Antonneous Clayton addicted to more games than just football

Florida freshman defensive end Antonneous Clayton. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)
Florida freshman defensive end Antonneous Clayton. (Zach Abolverdi/AJC)

VIENNA, Ga. — Football has not always been Antonneous Clayton’s first love.

For several years, it was another game.

“I’m a huge Call of Duty fan,” Clayton said.

But Clayton is not your typical athlete who likes to play video games as a hobby. His history with his Xbox is much deeper — and darker.

“I got my first Xbox in 2010,” Clayton said. “Ever since then, no one could stop me from playing. I never came out the door at all.”

Clayton, who enrolled at Florida this week, hasn’t always been the popular 5-star recruit he is today. Early on in high school, he was an outcast. Clayton had few friends and no aspirations, especially in football.

“I’ll be honest, I really didn’t take sports or school seriously,” Clayton said. “I wasn’t dumb at all. I was a major nerd, but I was a nerd who loved video games. That was the only thing I really ever cared about. I just figured I’d get my diploma, go work at Burger King and play Call of Duty every day.”

Clayton’s obsession with the game set in during his first year with an Xbox. The inaugural edition of ‘Black Ops’ came out in November of 2010.

During Thanksgiving break, Clayton and five of his friends agreed to do a week-long tournament. Clayton took it a step further.

“I stayed up for five days straight. No sleep at all,” Clayton said. “I dimmed the blinds, shut my curtains and turned the game on.”

Clayton bought five cases of red bull and several bags of Doritos to keep in his room. His mother didn’t approve of his escapade, but brought him meals nonetheless.

“She opened the door one time and my eyes were bloodshot red,” Clayton said. “It sounds crazy, but I know guys who’ve stayed up longer than that. The gaming community is very serious.”

There are seasonal tournaments every year for professional video gamers called the Major League Gaming (MLG) Championships. Clayton has competed in three of them (Dallas in 2012 and 2013, Anaheim in 2013).

“I did terrible,” Clayton said with a laugh. “I was still in high school, and you’ve got grown guys there who just game 24/7. So being young really limited me, but it was fun experience meeting other people who have the same passion as you.”

Those trips were a breath of fresh air for Clayton. Other than his group of friends, he had trouble relating to most kids his age.

“At first, I really used video games to escape from reality,” Clayton said. “I had a lot of problems socially. People would judge me and say I had no life. But I was around friends who loved me for who I am and what I did.

“I’m still cool with those people to this day. They’re really proud of me, too. They didn’t see football in future at all, and neither did I.”

Clayton didn’t join a team until eighth grade, and that year he cried in the locker room after a game because he didn’t get any playing time.

“I was actually nervous because so many guys were bigger than me,” Clayton said. “I wasn’t good enough to play. I always think back to that, because out of all those guys, I was the one.”

Clayton would blossom into a 6-foot-4, 230-pound defensive end with elite pass rushing skills. However, his talent didn’t get noticed by college coaches until the spring of his junior year.

Ole Miss offered him his first scholarship on March 26, 2015. Clayton would land 27 more offers in the next three months from a who’s who of big-time programs.

Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and the Gators won him over in the recruiting process.

“Coach Rumph thought somebody had modified my film,” Clayton said. “He told me there’s no way I could come out of my stance that fast. He actually thought somebody sped it up and put it on Hudl. Then he watched me in person and goes, ‘OK, you’re the guy.’ He told me I was a million dollars walking.”

That specific comment changed Clayton’s entire outlook on football — and life. He never viewed the game as a means to an end. Football, not Call of Duty, had just been a hobby to him until he became a coveted prospect.

“I realized I can have my family set for generations to come,” Clayton said. “Money isn’t everything, but it does eliminate most issues and most worries. The NFL is paying players millions of dollars to go tackle somebody. It’s completely insane, but why not? I’m blessed with the physical abilities.”

As a senior, Clayton shifted his focus from Call of Duty to the game of football. He hasn’t stopped being awake at crazy hours of the morning, but it’s not to play Xbox.

“I’m used to staying up late and now I do it to study,” Clayton said. “I get up between 3:00 and 4:00 every morning to work out. It’s a habit for me. I can’t help it. But I’ve made a major 180 degree turn, and I had to make a change.

“You owe football, football doesn’t owe you. You have to dedicate yourself to the game and to your team. It helped form me as a person. It helped me take things more seriously. It helped me make wiser decisions. I found something that I can truly cherish, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Clayton still plays Call of Duty regularly and said he’ll be a gamer for life. He also hopes EA Sports can bring back NCAA Football before he’s done at Florida.

As for the potential millions awaiting him in the NFL, Clayton plans to take the Marshawn Lynch approach with his money.

“I’m not really a big spender,” Clayton said. “If I were to get rich, I’d mostly save it and just eat food. I don’t get a lot of shoes and clothes. I might buy some video games.”

Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi

THE NEXT UP SERIES

Florida DC challenging Gators to fill defensive void

Geoff Collins (Courtesy of AJC)
Geoff Collins (Courtesy of AJC)

GAINESVILLE — In his first year at Florida, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins inherited a veteran group of players who set a high standard for his unit.

UF finished No. 8 nationally in total defense and ranked highly in several other categories.

As the Gators work to replace five starters this spring, Collins doesn’t anticipate a drop-off in talent.

“No, we’ve stepped right where we left off,” Collins said. “The expectation is to take it even higher than (where) we were, so that’s nothing we’re going to shy away from.”

Florida lost six starters from 2015 in defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister, linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III, Brian Poole and Keanu Neal.

Collins said the returning players and newcomers on defense are well aware of the void that’s been left by those departures.

“In the first or second meeting in the offseason, what we do is put up a production sheet of what we lost at each position,” Collins said. “We challenge those guys: ‘Here’s what we’re going to miss. Here’s stats that are coming off the board right now.’

“Who’s going to step up? Is it going to one, is it going to be multiple? Either way is fine, but somebody’s got to fill that void for us. And they know that and collectively work to make up for that.”

One thing Collins said he learned last season was how to use the skill level and football IQ of Florida’s defenders to his advantage. He noted that it helped UF have one of the nation’s best third-down defenses.

“The kids that we had last year, very talented. They can make up for things that sometimes scheme can’t fix,” Collins said. “They’re smart enough to figure out splits, backfield sets, formations and then understand how they fit into the defense, and their athletic ability and their speed takes over.

“It doesn’t have to be the right call. Just get them a call and let them figure out and let them play. As the season went on, we would just get calls in faster and faster, let them process it because they’re all highly intelligent kids, and then let them play because they’re really good players.”

Collins believes this year’s group is capable of being just as advanced physically and mentally, which is the standard that was set in 2015.

“Based on last year there’s a high expectation with that group,” Collins said. “The guys that are supposed to step up — Marcus Maye, Bryan Cox, Jarrad Davis, Caleb Brantley — are doing that. They’re talking. Jalen Tabor out there running his mouth like he does, does a great job.

“There’s positive energy, enthusiasm and guys flying around. The four mid-year guys, the older guys are really taking it upon themselves to get them ready. Making sure they know the defense, know the expectation in our room.”

New defensive backs coach Torrian Gray looking to build depth in Gators secondary

GAINESVILLE — At Virginia Tech, Torrian Gray built a reputation as one of the top defensive backs coaches in the country. He coached nine players who were eventually taken in the NFL, including Kam Chancellor and All-Americans Victor Harris and Kyle and Kendall Fuller.

Torrian Gray (Photo by Getty Images)
Torrian Gray (Photo by Getty Images)

But when Florida coach Jim McElwain came calling in search of a new defensive backs coach, it was an opportunity too good to pass up for Gray, who is also from Lakeland. Continue reading “New defensive backs coach Torrian Gray looking to build depth in Gators secondary”