“I was just ready to go and get after it again,” Deonte Thompson said Thursday after practice. “You’re just so excited to be out there running around with your teammates again.”
The excitement building in the Florida locker room comes from a sense of expectation. Despite what Florida lost to the NFL last season, players look around the locker room and see a team saturated with talent. The things they see written and said across the country don’t match that.
“I feel like we’re the team that nobody expects to do good,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of hungry guys on this team, from the coaches to the players.”
No one in the Florida locker room is complaining about the lack of expectations from the national media. In fact, they embrace it. When a team loses the face of the program for the past three seasons like Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes were, the assumption is the Gators will be in store for a rebuilding season.
That’s exactly what Thompson wants people to think.
“We like it like that,” Thompson said. “We don’t want to have all that attention. Last year we had a lot of it, but this year we want to be under the radar and surprise people.”
The loss of talent would hurt most programs, but the Gators are still dripping with talent. However, it goes further than that. The team is as close as veteran players have ever seen it.
Comparisons were even made to the team chemistry that made the 2006 national championship team special.
It built on the offensive side of the ball when the players worked out on their own. Thompson and quarterback John Brantley sent mass text messages to other players about running routes, whether early in the morning before summer classes or late at night.
“This is the tightest the receiving group has been since I’ve been here,” Thompson said. “We are like brothers. We’re really close. It’s not even football. We always hang out together. We stay together a lot. We go to each other’s house and play video games.”
The chemistry of the wide receivers was tested when Frankie Hammond was arrested for a DUI in June. He returned to the team and was forgiven for the mistake, only to be accepted by his teammates with open arms. The upperclassmen preached the importance of one mistake, while also taking Hammond back on the team.
“He took it very hard,” Thompson said of Hammond. “He’s still taking it hard. He’s still kind of quiet, but he’s alright. We just tell him we’ve got his back. Everybody makes mistake.”
The work Thompson put in this offseason was to eliminate any doubts about his hands. The stigma surfaced that Thompson struggled with his hands after he dropped a few passes in games early last season.
He called it the worst thing that can be said about a receiver, but also added there’s little doubt the questions about his hands won’t be there anymore.
“It’s alright, though,” Thompson said. “It’ll get shook this year though.”
Thompson also hit the weight room hard. He played at 195 pounds last season, but thanks to strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, Thompson added ten pounds and will play at 205 this season.
That could raise worries about his speed. Thompson said it wouldn’t be an issue because he actually feels faster right now. He also claims to have run a 4.22 40-yard dash during the offseason on a wet surface.
Despite the gaudy numbers, Thompson hasn’t put together the season that justifies him as the top receiver on the team. This is the year that is likely to change, but Thompson doesn’t look at it that way. He doesn’t want to dwell on how badly Florida needs him to step up. Instead, he will go about practices this year with nothing different.
“I wouldn’t say that (there is pressure) because everybody has been making plays, from quarterbacks to wide outs,” Thompson said. “There’s no pressure on me. It may look like it, but there really is no pressure.”
The biggest relief for the Florida players is the ability to be back on the field. The offseason workouts and early morning conditioning can get tedious, but they are a thing of the past. From now on, it’s all about what happens on the field.
“It’s about ball now,” Thompson said. “It’s not about lifting weights and all that. It’s all ball now.”
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