T.J. Pridemore knows what it’s like playing for a championship. Still, the Florida freshman fullback can’t wait to play for a BCS National title game against Oklahoma on Jan. 8 in Miami.
Pridemore, a 2008 Buford High grad, saw four straight state quarterfinals, a state semifinal and he was a major factor behind the Wolves’ Class AA state title last year.
However, playing to be the top team in college football is far more nerve-racking than any high school title game.
“It’s really unbelievable,” Pridemore said. “Being a freshman and having a season like this is just a dream.”
Unfortunately for Pridemore, he won’t be able to play in the game after breaking his wrist during the first week of training camp. He played with the wrist wrapped in bandages during Florida’s game against Hawaii in the season opener, but when the injury wasn’t healing, he decided not to play and requested medical redshirt status so he could have surgery without losing a year of playing time.
“It’s not really what you want to play with as a fullback,” he said. “It’s hard to block like that.”
But the setback didn’t keep the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Pridemore from contributing to the team. He participated in whatever drills he could, and played on the scout team and special teams in practice.
“I sat down with the coaches and told them I’d like to do whatever I could,” Pridemore said. “I missed about a week and a half of practice after surgery, but that was it.”
Despite the injury, Pridemore is still excited about what looms around the corner for the Gators in the upcoming weeks. When he came home to Gainesville, it was his last chance to relax before preparation for the National Championship continued.
Now comes the hard stuff.
Getting a team ready for a championship game is no easy task, and Pridemore’s daily routine reflects that. Florida’s practice schedule begins with weightlifting at 6 a.m. followed by a 7 a.m. breakfast, followed by viewing film. The next two and a half hours is devoted to team meetings, and the actual physical practice begins in the early afternoon. Players have a break after practice before meeting again in the evening for a team dinner.
“You have to stay committed and stay focused all the time,” Pridemore said. “Every day you have to go out there and compete for a job against everybody.”
That being said, being one of the nation’s top defensive prospects out of high school and having a state championship under his belt has not made playing for the Gators an easy task, broken wrist or not.
“You come in being a highly-recruited guy thinking they’ll go easy on you and they don’t,” Pridemore said. “You start off at the bottom and you have to work your way up.”
Pridemore has kept his nerves calm by talking to his former coaches at Buford, the ones who were keeping him in check when the Wolves were preparing for the state championship game in 2007.
“They’re telling me to stay committed and believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “Being down here and competing for a job is a lot harder than it was in high school.”
Changing positions didn’t help either. The former linebacker didn’t become an everyday offensive player until he arrived in Florida, who wanted to utilize his 4.58 speed as a goal line fullback. As a result, Pridemore had to adjust to being part of the offensive game plan.
But Pridemore believes that playing for a program as successful as Buford, which had 13 college football signees from the 2007 championship team, played an important role in preparing him for the next level.
As much as it could, at least.
“There’s nothing you can really do to get ready for college, it’s such a big transition and bigger difference than you think,” Pridemore said. “But Buford does a great job at preparing athletes for college. The schemes they run and things they do are pretty advanced for the high school level.”
Advanced enough that not just one, but two defensive players from the 2007 team ended up with the Gators. Defensive tackle Omar Hunter also committed to Florida, and shares a suite with Pridemore in Gainesville, Fla.
“We hang out a lot outside of football and took some classes together,” Pridemore said. “It’s nice having somebody from high school because you go through everything together and makes the college transition easier.”
It’s that kind of reassuring support from teammates and former coaches that has made preparation for the biggest game of Pridemore’s career an easier challenge to face.
“Every single day we have to go out there and get better,” he said. “We still have a lot to prove and a lot to do before playing in the National Championship.”