Photo credit: Gators Creative Media
Gators linebacker Derek Wingo, a few of his teammates, and over 90 Florida fans glaring through the lens of his Instagram Live walked into a room with a 28-foot wide by eight-foot high projector screen, a carpet carefully designed with hash marks to replicate just over 10 yards of a football field, and seats perfectly aligned across seven rows on Sunday.
The chairs in the Gator Room are temporary, assistant athletic director of recruiting strategy Katie Turner told Wingo.
There is a greater purpose beyond meetings and press conferences, both of which will be held in the room, for the mock field setup inside of Florida's new James W. “Bill” Heavener Football Training Center.
"It's to give the best possible view to be able to walk through and simulate what they will see on the game field," Florida's director of football operations Joshua Thompson told AllGators on Sunday.
Wingo took a second to process the Gator Room's function after Turner explained it, left in awe, before letting out "oh, that's cool" twice and a "that's crazy" while his live stream viewers crept upward. His next thought, which he exclaimed to his teammates, was about preparing for Florida's season-opener against the Utah Utes on Sept. 3.
"They did this thing the right way. You’re talking about every bell and whistle," head coach Billy Napier said on Monday, broadly speaking about the new facility. "I think there’s some huge advantages here relative to the technology that’s in the building from a teaching standpoint."
The Gator Room is one of those advantages, and it isn't a common one.
"The way that we're doing it is unique," Thompson said. "A lot of programs have projectors and we decided, because of the multi-purpose that the Gator Room has, that wanted to be able to do different things with it. Like, coach press conferences will be in there. We'll also be able to host really nice meals in there. That screen does not turn off, it's on at all times. We did our research and I feel like we did it right."
If any Florida players want to interactively study film after, say, a few rounds of billiards and their nightly dinner, they can head to the Gator Room, pull up footage of their next opponent and mimic their alignment as it would look on the field. Part of Napier's approach as head coach is to ensure the team has good sleeping habits, but theoretically, a player could do this for all hours of the night.
Thompson believes that the Gators' defense will frequent the room more so than the offense, which would make sense, as offenses line up a certain way depending on their play-call whereas defenses adjust their look based on what the offense gives them.
Wingo and safety Trey Dean III are among the players that have vocalized their appreciation for the concept.
“You walk in the room and simulate the game as another plus on your opponent, because we know the more times you get the more game reps in your head, it’s going to make the game easier," Dean said on Monday. "Practice makes perfect. Preparation prevents poor performance."
However, its use will certainly extend beyond film study, so the chairs will be kept nearby. Former University of Tennessee cornerback and motivational speaker Inky Johnson helped break the room in on Tuesday when Florida hosted him for a team speaking event.
Senior director of student-athlete development/alumni relations Vernell Brown Jr. believes features like the Gator Room helped Florida set a new standard when it comes to state-of-the-art football facilities — one that other programs will surely attempt to surpass.
"[There are] definitely some unique things within the facility, the Gator Room being one of them," Brown said. "I definitely think we've set a new standard. You know the reality of facilities, though, as soon as you have one for a year, you're behind because somebody else is already building or trying to build based on what you have.
"So, I think we've made a lot of improvement and surpassed everybody, but the thing that's different between a lot of schools and the University of Florida is the winning tradition and everything that comes along with being here."
Napier has made note that one of the biggest perks of the new facility is its location, eliminating the 36-minute round trip walk between the stadium, which included the team's only locker room and the coaches' offices prior to the opening of the Heavener Center, and the practice fields.
The 63 hours of walking shaved from the Gators' yearly schedule, as calculated by Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times, can now be used in the Gator Room as an extension of practice, among the many other things to do in the new facility.
"I think," Napier pondered, "we’ve given ourselves a few more resources relative to the development of the player.”
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