Special to the Journal
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The play came early in the second half at South Carolina last Nov. 12. A nondescript screen pass. In the big picture, it was about as memorable as Florida’s offense was in the 17-12 defeat that day.
Gators cornerback Marcus Roberson flew into the pile to clean up a short gain on a screen pass. Something he’d done hundreds of times in his football life.
After the hit, his neck hurt a little bit.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Roberson said.
It wasn’t until after the game the talented freshman informed the UF Sports Health Staff about the soreness. Roberson came in for tests and X-rays the next morning. That afternoon, he went to Coach Will Muschamp’s office in a neck brace and tears.
“At that point, the conversationd aren’t about football,” Muschamp said. “They can’t be.”
Roberson had suffered a vertebral fracture that not only ended his season, but gave the Gators pause regarding his future.
With injuries to the neck area, you just never know.
“It was a freak accident,” Roberson said. “I never thought it was as bad as it turned out to be, but it did sort of bring me back to reality. You start thinking about the things that are really important; stuff other than football. But my plan was always to get back out on the field, so I guess I was lucky it wasn’t worse.”
Yes, Roberson was fortunate. Here he is, back on the field.
Under the guidance of the sports health staff, the fracture healed cleanly. Roberson was cleared to resume non-contact training well in time for spring drills and Sunday will get his first taste college football collisions in more than 10 months when the Gators put on the pads after two days of helmet-only work to open their 2012 training camp.
“I feel great,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance.”
The Gators, in turn, might just feel like they’ve been given a bonus defensive back.
Florida finished the 2011 season ranked eighth nationally in total defense (299.5 yards per game), as well seventh against the pass (166.8 ypg) and second in third-down conversions (27.1 percent). The Gators played the final three games of the season — including a home loss to Florida State and victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl — without Roberson locking down his side of the field.
His return is only going to bolster the secondary and add depth — something the Gators have been lacking all over the field the last couple seasons — to what should be one of the strongest units of the team.
“We’ve got some guys back there that have played well for us at the corner and cover positions,” Muschamp said of a group that includes Cody Riggs, Jaylen Watkins and Loucheiz Purifoy. “That means we’ve got competition and that’s the best motivator a coach can have. They all want to play.”
That is true, but they also want Roberson, the player and teammate, back there with them.
The 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore was one of the top-rated defensive back prospects at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, where his team went 15-0 and won the Class 5A state championship. Roberson arrived at UF and wasted no time staking claim to playing time, becoming one of the rare true freshman — the first since Janoris Jenkins in 2008 — to start a season opener at corner.
In 10 games, Roberson tallied 22 tackles and one interception before his season was cut short that afternoon in Columbia, S.C.
“I hated missing the FSU game,” he said. “And the bowl game.”
His teammates senseed as much.
“It was so disappointing when he got hurt because he was having a great freshman year,” said Riggs, the junior who played with Roberson at Aquinas. “To see it end like that, I felt bad for him. We all did. But he’s back now, he’s 100 percent and I can’t wait to see what he does this year.”
Junior safety Matt Elam has a pretty good idea what that will be.
“It’ll make us 10 times better,” Elam said. “He’s been through a tough time. He’s had to watch and I know that had to be hard. But knowing you can’t be out there, that just makes you more eager and more hungry. I know how bad he wants it now.”
That desire to return, however, came with parameters carefully laid out by the health team.
“As you start to work thru it, you find out more about the injury. The more information you have, the more comfortable you feel about the diagnosis,” Muschamp said. “You start to get a timetable for the healing process. Then the young man has to be willing to come back and play in a very violent sport. From the get-go, Marcus wanted to be a part of that.”
He’s always love it, always been good at it.
Roberson’s rangy build and body are unique to his position, allowing him to use his arms to stifle receivers at the line of scrimmage and make plays when the ball is in the air. He added five pounds of muscle to his frame this offseason. The next step is finishing plays. Roberson, whose spot on the field (left side vs. right side) is dictated by individual matchups, admits he dropped a few potential interceptions last season.
He has set his sophomore goals high, like someone of his skills set ought to.
“If I play my role, I believe I will win that spot back,” he said. “I’m not going to try to do too much or put any more pressure on myself. I’m just going to do my thing, get better, work on my technique and everything else will take place.”
That’s exactly what Muschamp and his defensive staff are counting on.
“He’s a really, really good player,” Muschamp said. “For a guy to come in and play at a high level as a true freshman in this league, that’s hard to do. He’s mature, driven and understands what it means to be successful.”
Add appreciative to that list.
“I’m just thankful to be back,” Roberson said. “Can’t wait for that first hit.”