GAINESVILLE — Panic ran quickly Thursday night through Gator Nation.
Florida fans, still on their heels from last year's injury-plagued 4-8 season, fretted about cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III's bruised left knee. Could hopes of a rebound season be doomed at the first open practice of the fall?
Even national media chimed in, expressing concern for the sophomore standout from Tampa's Wharton High.
"Vernon Hargreaves from Florida is the best freshmen cornerback I have ever studied," said ESPN analyst David Pollack said via his Twitter account. "Has it all. I hope his injury isn't serious."
The Gators list Hargreaves as day-to-day, so it doesn't appear he'll miss significant time, tbut the reaction highlights just how important the rising star is to Florida.
He is one of only two Gators selected to the preseason All-SEC first team. ESPN has listed him as one of the Top 10 sophomores in the nation. You can't pick up a preseason publication without seeing or reading about Hargreaves.
He is the face of a program he once never envisioned joining.
"I definitely didn't see myself playing here," said Hargreaves, citing his early days as a Miami fan. "But as I got older and I grew up, I felt this definitely was the best place for me. I love it here. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else."
By some measures, Hargreaves got a late start in the game. He played soccer, baseball and basketball, and even though his father was a football coach, his parents decided he wouldn't play tackle football until he asked.
That request came in fifth grade.
It was in ninth-grade when his mother realized what the rest of the SEC discovered this past season: Hargreaves has a natural talent for the game.
"When he was a freshman in high school, our team had gone to the semifinals and the game was on the line," Jackie Hargreaves said. "Vernon had an interception with like two seconds left, and our team in North Carolina wound up winning the game. And that's when I kind of opened my eyes and said, 'You know what? Maybe he's kind of special.' That's when the light went off for me."
Florida fans had a similar epiphany last season. Hargreaves had an interception in each of his first two games, the start of success he admits came earlier than he expected.
"I knew I had a chance to come in and maybe play, but to have the season that I had, I'd have to say that really surprised me," he said.
"My first time on the field I couldn't even think," he added. It was loud, it was hot, I was nervous. I was kind of setting out there. I didn't really know what to do. But then I kind of just got into the game. I got hit pretty good by a lineman vs. Toledo, he came and pulled on me and got me pretty good. And that kind of loosened me up and got me into the game. After that, it was just playing football."
He started the final 10 games, earning first-team freshman All-American honors from multiple organizations, College Football News National Defensive Freshman of the Year, and third-team Associated Press All-American honors. He ranked second in the SEC in passes defended (1.17 per game) and had three interceptions.
"He came in very mature," junior defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard said. "He was a highly-recruited athlete, but you couldn't tell. He came in to work every day. He did extra, and as a young guy that's rare that you see. You could tell that he takes pride in what he's doing and that's paid off."
The success last season was not by accident. Hargreaves arrived on campus in early June, then quickly moved up the depth chart in fall camp. As the season progressed, his reputation grew as a highly-skilled cover corner.
"There's a certain way you have to play at corner," he said. "You have to be confident; you have to trust yourself. And that's kind of how I always played. … Coach (Will Muschamp) gave me a chance, and soon as he gave me a chance I didn't look back."
Hargreaves won't catch any SEC opponents by surprise, and he'll have to fight to avoid succumbing to the hype surrounding him. Muschamp said he's not concerned. It's just not in Hargreaves' nature.
"He's been raised right," Muschamp said. "I saw his mom (recently). She was here in town making sure he is doing right. I worry about other guys that maybe aren't as mature, aren't as hungry, aren't as driven. I've seen nothing (different) in his approach in the offseason. …
"He's a guy, if we start lifting at 10, he'll be in there at 9:30 stretching on his own. When weights are over, he's stretching. He's a pro at what he does. He understands that part of it and what it takes to be successful."
Hargreaves said Muschamp's trust isn't one he intends on betraying.
"I'm way more confident now," he said. "I was confident last year, but now I know, I've seen it, I've done it. So now I feel like I've got to push myself to another level."
To understand the work ethic, the drive, the determination, the refuse-to-fail attitude that Hargreaves embodies, you have to go back more than a decade. Hargreaves' father, Vernon Hargreaves Jr., now the Houston linebackers coach, is a former linebackers coach at the University of Miami. He was a member of the staff in 2001 when the Hurricanes went undefeated to win the national title.
"Vernon was very fortunate because he was constantly around some of the greatest football players — Edgerrin James, Andre Johnson, Dan Morgan — and he saw what those guys did," Jackie Hargreaves said. "That was just kind of how he grew up. Vince Wilfork was his babysitter. He grew up with guys who always worked hard. And at the time my husband recruited some of those guys, they were just regular kids, not all big, five-star guys. They got that way after being at Miami. And Vernon just watched and saw how hard those guys worked and I think that's what was embedded in his system."
Hargreaves said his main goal right now is to gain the trust of the Gators' incoming defensive backs, then try to help develop them as quickly as possible. The young man teammates say is wise beyond his years isn't just trying to make himself better, he's trying to make the Gators better.
"People ask me about the (individual) awards and everything, but honestly I'd much rather win," Hargreaves said. "I just want to help my team win. If my teammates need help, they know they can come to me. I'm constantly helping them when they are there, in the game (in practice), and I'm not. I'm not trying to be too much of another coach for them, I just want to be their teammate. As a team, we're all coming together. It's a process. We're not there yet, by any means. But we're coming together, and I'm excited to see what happens."
For Jackie Hargreaves, seeing her son's collegiate career skyrocket has been surreal, and a testament to her son's upbringing.
"I can't even put into words, it's just absolutely amazing to watch him evolve and have fun at what he's doing," she said. "Vernon just loves playing football and it warms my heart to see him so happy. He enjoys what he's doing. It just makes you proud. … He's not perfect by any means, but I think he really does try to always do the right thing. He knows what's expected of him from myself and my husband and he tries to please us by doing the right thing."
At SEC Media Days in July, Muschamp stunned reporters by bringing the second-year player to the league's biggest media event of the year. By day's end, much of the talk was about how well he handled himself at center stage.
"It all goes back to how I was raised," Hargreaves said. "My mom and dad raised me on strict terms: show respect and you'll get respect. And that's just kind of how I carry myself."
So far, it's working. On and off the field.
Contact Antonya English at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Gators.