When the Gators head into hostile territory for only the second time this season, they will face a unique task with Texas A&M.
Just one offseason removed from the compilation of the best recruiting class in modern history, the Aggies fail to turn that talent into first-year wins with the group. Despite entering the contest as a 3-5 team (1-4 SEC), the influx of elite young talent that sees more and more time each week can prove demanding for Florida (4- 4, 1-4 SEC) ahead of the 12th man on Saturday.
Head coach Billy Napier acknowledged that fact on Wednesday.
“There are a lot of players contributing as young players for them,” he said. “For me, I sit and think about it and that’s a good thing because rookies can impact your team. the competition there and they have a role in their team for sure.
“They’re such a talented group, in terms of depth, in the top seven, that we’ve seen. They’re an impressive group. We’re going to have our challenges with this opponent, that’s for sure.”
Namely, first-year defenders like Walter Nolen, Shemar Stewart, Brice Anderson, Jacoby Mathews, Jarred Kerr and others have contributed to the Aggies in various roles this season. Napier pointed out how that talent has strengthened the defensive line, especially this year.
However, emerging stars Evan Stewart is the ultimate beneficiary of College Station’s young talent plug-and-play. He’s the most intimidating weapon on the Gators’ game plan as a pass-catching option – alongside the slot Moose Muhammad III — given his impact on elevating a Jimbo Fisher offense in recent weeks.
He is also a familiar face at the University of Florida.
Drafted heavily by former head coach Dan Mullen and wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales, Stewart showed a legitimate interest in the Gators during his recruiting process in the 2022 cycle.
At the time, Stewart marveled at Florida’s dominant passing offense in 2020 and the potential to play with a close friend. Nick Everswho had signed on to play quarterback in Florida before opting out and signing on in Oklahoma when Napier and Co. took over the program.
He even named Florida as the leader in the summer of 2021. However, instead of heading to Gainesville, Stewart opted to stay in his home state, joining a record number of talent in the Texas A&M class.
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Now the once-coveted wide prospect is producing at the elite level many expected of him when he arrived on his future college campus, showcasing a struggling Gators secondary with a tough game to handle.
“I saw him,” UF defensive end Prince Umanmielen said Wednesday. “I feel like he’s made a name for himself. I feel like our DBs need to keep an eye on him.”
Umanmielen is right.
With 38 receptions, 478 yards and two touchdowns this season, Stewart led the Aggies offense in receiving for 10 weeks. Over the past three contests, the wide – possessing elite speed, crisp movement in and out of his breaks and catching ability challenged to be safety cover for the A&M quarterback lined up behind center this year – draw more than ten targets for 95 yards or more.
Despite the shortcomings that are sure to arise as a rookie, his reliability flashes as one of the best and most versatile in the country.
His explosiveness adds an element to the offense that his true freshman classmate Conner Weigman can exploit as he steps in to make his second career start against Florida.
As a result, Florida’s defensive backfield will focus on Stewart in an attempt to limit his production, likely deploying Jason Marshall Jr. in the press men’s coverage – which Patrick Toney called more against Georgia and found some levels of success compared to the off-man zone they operated earlier in the year – when Stewart is about to limit its overall impact.
Even the Gators are widening Xzavier Henderson is intrigued by Stewart’s talents heading into Saturday. He was instrumental in recruiting former top 15 talent in Florida.
“That boy is a speedster,” he said Wednesday. “He’s a good player, a real explosive player in attack. I can’t wait to see him play.”
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