Jalen Kimber had a choice to make prior to his debut with the Gators just over three weeks ago: To postpone his first game with Florida and undergo surgery on his broken left hand, or put a cast on it and play through the injury while extending his recovery timetable.
His decision, ultimately, played a crucial part in the Gators squeaking out their 31-28 victory over the USF Bulls on Saturday night.
Kimber intercepted a Gerry Bohanon pass late in the second quarter and returned it for a touchdown that extended Florida's lead to two scores, 24-10. It proved monumental as the Gators only needed to score once in the second half to regain control — they were down by four points from 11:14 through 5:05 in the fourth quarter — and win the game.
"That's the difference in the game," Napier remarked on Saturday, acknowledging Kimber's pick-six and the Gators' three takeaways from the Bulls.
Kimber's choice was influenced by a similar situation that he faced at Georgia a year ago. The then-redshirt freshman suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp with the Bulldogs that required surgery after Week 1, sidelining him for the rest of the 2021 campaign, one in which he was expected to contribute to what became a National Championship-winning defense.
"Honestly I just wanted to keep playing, keep going out there fighting with my brothers," Kimber explained after the game. "I didn’t want to get surgery and miss any more games, ‘cause I already missed last season, so I just wanted to keep fighting with my brothers.”
The Gators were aligned in Cover 3 when Bohanon dropped back at the 3:20 mark of the second quarter, with Kimber on an inside shade of the right outside receiver.
Bohanon immediately stared down the receiver's slant and pulled the trigger well after the route was broken into, which allowed Kimber to patiently observe the read before quickly crashing the top of the route and snatching the pass over the receiver's right shoulder. He made it to the endzone untouched otherwise.
"[Defensive coordinator Patrick Toney] really called the best call he could possibly call on that play," Kimber recalled. "I read it, got the ball and I just scored.”
The pick-six was also noteworthy beyond its Week 3 implications. For one, it was Kimber's first career interception following a turbulent start to his college career.
It was also the first interception returned for a touchdown by a Florida defender in 39 games, last accomplished by nickel corner Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the Gators' 41-15, 2018 Peach Bowl victory over the Michigan Wolverines, his final game with the program.
The streak likely wouldn't have been snapped if not for Kimber's dedication to his craft, as he began to practice catching passes the day after his cast went on. He didn't want the team to be left without a second key depth piece at the cornerback position.
"I think it's impressive. The kid got banged up [and] made a decision he was going to play through," Napier said on Monday. "Could have had a surgical procedure ... or he could just wear the cast, deal with the pain management.
"It really says a lot about the kid's character because he knew our situation with Jaydon Hill being out. So he was in the rotation, chose to go the long haul there, and for him to make a pick-six at a critical moment, I think was big."
Nickel cornerback Tre'Vez Johnson — who also recorded a pivotal interception against USF, in the fourth quarter to set up Florida's game-winning touchdown — expressed a similar sentiment to Napier's about his running mate in the Gators' secondary.
"That was another big play we needed, that game-changing play," Johnson said. "I know he's going through a little something with his hand, but for him to just keep playing instead of going through surgery on it and stuff and toughing it out, that was big for him. He had a big moment in the game, so I'm happy for him."
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