For the first time this spring, Matt Elam fielded questions from the media Monday.
His answers were quiet, barely even audible, which is why the subject he touched on most seemed ironic. Elam, a sophomore, will be tasked with replacing all-Southeastern Conference strong safety Ahmad Black, who led the team with 108 tackles and five interceptions last season.
But more important than his statistical output, Black emerged as the team leader in the first year of the post-Tim Tebow era. At UF’s NFL pro day two weeks ago, Will Muschamp called Black “an ambassador to the program.”
Black was the mouthpiece of the Gators, both internally and to the outside world. In September, former coach Urban Meyer compared Florida’s chances of beating Kentucky to a coin flip. Later that week, Black joked about Meyer’s comments, sarcastically hinting he had no idea if the Gators could win. Then, at a press conference two days after UF’s 48-14 victory, Black pulled out a coin, indicating how supposedly lucky his team had been.
With little to salvage from a disappointing 8-5 season, Meyer frequently pointed to the improvement of Black, who evolved from a freshman with an attitude problem to someone Meyer called a member of his family.
Now, Elam is looking to go through a similar — albeit accelerated — transition.
“One of the things I need to work on is being a leader,” he said, his voice hardly louder than a whisper. “I’m not used to being vocal. I might have to take on that role.”
As quiet as Elam was Monday, one player assured everyone Elam is a much different person while wearing a helmet and pads.
“He doesn’t have any problems with his speech,” cornerback Cody Riggs said. “That’s just Matt. Some people handle the media different, but it only matters how he handles himself on the field. When Matt makes a call, I listen to him.”
Even if Elam can emulate Black vocally, replacing him as the team’s most consistent tackler could be problematic. While he saw more game action than most members of Florida’s hyped freshman class last year, his 22 tackles ranked 14th on the team. He also broke up one pass and recovered a fumble.
Perhaps more so than any other player in the 2010 recruiting class, Elam signed with the Gators because of his connection to Meyer.
Elam, who was among the first five players to verbally commit to UF as a high school junior, actually decommitted from the Gators in December 2009 when Meyer first stepped down. After Meyer assured him that he was in fact returning to Florida, Elam recommitted about a month before National Signing Day.
When asked how he felt about Meyer leaving, Elam just smiled and said, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
He proceeded to say he was getting along well with Muschamp and the rest of the new coaching staff.
Just how well they get along with him, however, could depend greatly on whether Elam can fill Black’s shoes. After a year of serving as Black’s understudy, Elam feels confident the transition will be smooth.
“He helped me a lot,” Elam said. “I learned a lot from him: the way he practiced, the way he handled his situations, things like that.”