It’s Senior Day in the Swamp for 18 Florida Gators as they play the last home game of their college careers. Over the last four, five, or even six years this class has been on quite a roller coaster ride. Many came in on the heels of the Gators last national championship season in 2008 and had high expectations of championship rings and All American lists. The reality for most was slightly different.
After the emotional near miss of 2009 when the only blemish was an SEC Championship Game loss to the Crimson Tide, the program went into steep decline. The Gators suffered through consecutive seasons where they were a combined 15-11. These players have seen a head coach quit, come back, and then quit again a year later. They’ve seen four different offensive coordinators, two different defensive coordinators, and a complete change in philosophy from the spread to pro-style.
On top of all that is a fan base with little in the way of understanding or patience.However, as far as this program fell finishing 7-6 last season, the Gators worst record since 1989, this senior class provided the bulk of the leadership to bring it back. This season the team has achieved a 9-1 record to date, finished the SEC schedule at 7-1, and will be shooting today to become only the third Gator team to finish 7-0 at home. Not bad for a ragtag bunch of previously branded underachievers. There’s great story lines running all through this senior class.
Take James Wilson, for instance. He’s been at Florida so long he qualifies for social security. But, seriously, he’s been at Florida so long he actually blocked for Tim Tebow… in high school. Wilson, from Ponte Vedra Nease high school, signed with Florida in 2007 and actually blocked for Tebow at Nease as a junior. He is a rare 6th year senior who, due to the multitude of injuries in his career was given a medical hardship redshirt which allowed him to return this season.
He was considered a 5 star recruit coming out of high school but, for the most part, had been a disappointment before this season, suffering numerous knee injuries, dealing with rumors of a transfer, and reaching the low point of his career being a scout team member at the start of last season. Wilson actually worked himself into playing shape through the season last year to the point that he was actually able to get into game action during the bowl game against Ohio State. Just before the game Muschamp informed Wilson the NCAA had approved a 6th year of eligibility for him.
“He played very well for us late in the year, really well for us late in the year,” Muschamp said before the season opener against Bowling Green. “He’s a guy that can get some girth and movement inside against bigger tackles in our league.”
Omar Hunter was another 5 star recruit that had an up and down career in Gainesville. Urban Meyer called him the “Tim Tebow” of his class putting a mark on him that would prove difficult to fulfill. Hunter arrived as an immature, overrated freshman admittedly out of shape not ready to compete at the level he needed to at Florida. Over time he matured, learned what it takes to be a successful contributor to the program, and became a solid leader on defense. This season he’s quietly having the best season of his career helping the Florida defense to a top five national ranking in almost all categories. He’s been even more useful as a leader for the young talented lineman giving them advice and helping the coaches teach technique and how to handle accolades.
One of the biggest contributors to the Gators success this season is one of the most little used prior to this season and the quietest as well. For whatever reason, prior offensive coordinators didn’t see much value in Mike Gillislee. Sitting behind Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey and dealing with persistent nagging injuries, Gillislee mostly rode the pine his first few years getting in a few carries here and there in mop up duty but receiving no significant playing time.
With Demps and Rainey gone after last season, Muschamp wanted a more downhill rushing attack. He wanted the Gators to get tougher between the tackles, and so he and Pease turned to Gillislee this season. As the feature back, he has not disappointed. He’s been a tough inside runner rarely stopped for a loss and rarely tackled by one defender. He was honored with the Walter Camp Player of the Week award after the LSU game for his 146 yard 2 touchdown performance where he dominated in the second half. With 837 yards so far, he’s on pace to be the first 1000 yard rusher the Gators have had since Ciatrick Fason in 2004. Gillislee is a huge part of why the Gators are 9-1 this season.
Frankie Hammond came to Florida as a highly rated wide receiver out of Hollywood, Florida but like many in this senior class saw his share of disappointment on the field as well. While he has not put up the numbers either he or many Gator fans may have expected when he signed, he has represented the Gators well on the field and off the field. This year he has stepped up into a leadership role for the younger receivers showing them there’s more to playing the position than just catching passes as well as showing them the importance of practice, meetings, film study, and doing things the right way off the field.
“I think he’s a great example for our young receivers to understand the way you do it and the way you approach the game,”” Muschamp said of Hammond. “It’s not just about what you do on the practice field, it’s about the meeting room and living right off the field and doing things the right way.”
Perhaps the one player who has had the most consistent and successful career in this class is place kicker Caleb Sturgis. Sturgis, from St Augustine, Florida was one of the highest rated kickers in the nation coming out of high school and has certainly lived up to his billing. He’s been successful on 46 of 60 career field goals and 96 of 101 PAT’s. The 46 made field goals is second most in school history. This season he set a school record for field goals from 50+ yards with eight and has been a semi-finalist (2009, 2012) and finalist (2011) for the Lou Groza Award. He may be the odds on favorite this season to become Florida’s second award winner in it’s history following Judd Davis who won the award in 1993.
Another steady performer who has really stepped up his play this season as well as his leadership is Jon Bostic. Bostic, a middle linebacker from Wellington, Florida, has been the heart of an underwhelming defense the last few seasons. Coming in to this season it seems he always played small. He was frequently in position to make tackles but didn’t have the size or strength to shed blocks. Often he was dragging players to the ground when he wasn’t being run over by them. After an offseason in a new strength program, Bostic transformed his body into a stronger, leaner 246 pound machine and the hard work has paid off. He’s a ferocious hitter, the teams best blitzer, and has been a beast in coverage. Additionally, he has been the unquestioned leader of this defense teaching, showing, and making sure everyone is lined up properly and doing their job. He’s the consummate coach on the field type middle linebacker and likely increased his draft stock considerably.
Josh Evans was another of those highly rated players who’s play on the field was good but didn’t quite live up to the lofty expectations they had coming out of high school. He always had the physical tools. He had size, speed, and was a hard hitter, he just lacked the mental awareness to maximize his physical gifts. Often out of place and always thinking too much he wasn’t always able to capitalize on his physicality and the defense suffered.
This season, however, the light bulb seemed to turn on in his head and he’s been able to play faster and more physical and the results have been stunning. Besides the turnovers he’s had he’s been one of the hardest hitters in run support and in coverage rarely missing tackles and almost always punishing opposing receivers and ball carriers. Earlier in the season defensive coordinator Dan Quinn called him the most improved player on the defense. Quinn attributed his growth to him getting the mental aspects of his position down which has allowed him to play faster and stroner.
Finally, Xavier Nixon was another one of those 5 star recruits coming out of high school. He became the first freshman offensive lineman to start at Florida since Reggie Green in the early 90′s. Everyone expected him to be the anchor of another championship line run similar to what they had with the Pouncey twins. Oddly, after a freshman season which saw him named as a freshman All-American, Nixon seemed to regress or stagnate. The line as a whole regressed after the 2009 season struggling to open holes for the running game or protect the passer. Asked to talk to the media this week on behalf of the senior class Nixon said,
“I think we’ll be remembered as a group that overcame a lot of obstacles and a lot of adversity, and at the end of the day, just stuck together and remained a family.”
This senior class definitely saw the highs of championship runs and the lows of a 15-11 two year run, but if anything else they should be remembered for sticking together, sticking it out, buying in, and bringing this program back to national prominence.
“It’s going to be emotional because a lot of us have poured our hearts into this program, Frankie Hammond said. “To finally have it end and finally look at it from the outside in, it will be real emotional”
There surely will be many tears tomorrow as the seniors take the field in the Swamp one last time, but hopefully they will be tears of pride for what they went through, what they overcame, and what they did for the Gator Nation.