The Florida Gators won the 2008 football national championship by beating the Oklahoma Sooners in the BCS title game in January of 2009. Less than a month later the Gators signed a recruiting class that was considered to be long on talent but short on numbers. Scout.com had the class ranked 21st due to the limited numbers (16) of players they signed but the average star rating was high at 3.81 behind only Georgia at 3.89 and USC at 3.94. Rivals had the class rated 11th with the highest average star rating at 3.94.
This class is a pivotal one for the Gators as they transitioned from the glory years under Meyer from 2006-09 through the downward slide of 2010-2011. This class makes up the the largest part of this year’s senior class which helped lead the program back under Muschamp finishing this season 11-1, 7-1 in the SEC, and 7-0 at home only the third team to win 7 home games in a season.
Prior to this season there was a lot written in the media and even more on Gator sports message boards about the seeming lack of talent in Gainesville, or even more specifically, about the “bare cupboard” left by Urban Meyer. While all of that conjecture is certainly open for debate, there is no debating the fact that this senior class, regardless of their level of innate talent, stuck it out and did what needed to be done to bring this program back.
Coming in to the season a lot of message board fodder was reserved for linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins both considered top members of that recruiting class. Bostic, a 4 star player out of high school, always seemed to play too “small” consistently getting beat by fullbacks and run over by running backs, often played out of position, and was simply not physical enough for a Mike linebacker. Many felt he was a Will linebacker playing at Mike. While his talent level and leadership were never in question his physicality and mental awareness were. The coaching staff challenged him in the offseason to become a stronger, more physical player and to step his game up to another level. He did not disappoint and likely is the MVP of the defensive unit.
” (Jon) continues to excel and play very well,” Muschamp said. “Here’s a guy who ends his junior year and took to heart coaching and said, ‘Hey these are the things you want to improve, and you want to get better and take the next step, here’s what you need to do,’ and what a great example for our young players of a guy who listened and who was a really good football player last year but certainly has taken the next step and is playing really good football at linebacker here at Florida.”
The knock on Jenkins, a 5 star player out of high school, was also that he wasn’t physical enough in run support, often got beat in coverage, and couldn’t catch a cold in an infirmary. Like Bostic, this season he has stepped up his level of play with big hits, interceptions (he caught one that was called back due to penalty against South Carolina with a cast on), and a game winning touchdown against Lousiana where he caught a punt that was blocked by Loucheiz Purifoy with two seconds left on the clock and ran it in from 36 yards out.
Three other key members of that recruiting class were offensive lineman Xavier Nixon, Jon Halapio, and Jonathan Harrison. Nixon was a five star player out of North Carolina who won the high school Maxwell Award and became the first freshman to start at left tackle at Florida since Reggie Green in 1992. After the big freshman season it seemed he would be the anchor of another championship caliber offensive line but it didn’t quite happen that way for him. His career seemed to flat line as he struggled with injuries, illnesses, and had issues maintaining proper weight to compete effectively in the SEC. It reached a point where he nearly lost his job coming into the season to Chaz Green who played in every game last season while Nixon battled injuries.
Halapio and Harrison, were two more highly regarded offensive lineman from that class who have played a lot of snaps for the Gators but were criticized by fans for seemingly less than stellar play the last couple of seasons as the Gators switched from a zone blocking scheme in Meyer’s spread offense to a more traditional scheme in Muschamp’s downhill running offense. These three along with the rest of this unit were the most maligned players on the team the last couple of years, some deserved but some not so much.
The biggest thing is these guys have been through three different offensive coordinators with basically three different systems and two different philosophies. They were young and inexperienced three years ago on a team without leadership either from the coaching staff or from the experienced players. Rather than quit like many players did, or complain like is the nature of people, they embraced the new staff and their coaching styles. They went to work learning the offense, learning the techniques and this year they opened holes for the first 1,000 yard rusher at Florida since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.
When the line was most healthy, namely the two games against LSU and Florida State, they rushed for over 400 combined yards. These three guys, as much as fans have groused, were the foundation of a team that went from 7-6 last season and lacked toughness to an 11-1 team this season that won games in the fourth quarter. Muschamp had high praise for the offensive line after the Florida State game and obviously those three are the leaders of that unit.
“Offensively, the player of the game and scrap iron awards we gave to the entire offensive line, tight ends, and running backs,” Muschamp said. “When you are effective running the ball against an elite defense, which they are, you have to credit those guys.”
After the LSU game in which the Gators ran 25 straight plays in the second half to control the football, control the clock, and win the game, the offensive line was given ESPN analyst Mark Maye’s helmet sticker. More high praise for a much-maligned unit.
You could argue these guys lacked top flight talent, you could argue they were overrated coming out of high school, what you can’t argue is these guys lack toughness or character. To do what they did this season, repeatedly playing from behind, winning games in the fourth quarter, and winning big games on the road, and especially running the ball successfully up the middle in the third and fourth quarters required strength, toughness, conditioning, and discipline. This team exceeded all expectations from fans and media this season, and these guys along with many of the other ’09′s were the leaders.
Another highly rated member of the class that has had his share of struggles is wideout Andre Debose. A 5 star recruit when he signed with Florida, he has certainly not come close to living up to that ranking. He has, however, had some moments and has contributed to the success of the team including filling in for Soloman Patton on the jet sweep after he went down to injury in the Georgia game. His problem has been the same since he arrived in Gainesville, a talented player who has yet to figure out the value of practice. He does have one more season to try to live up to the publicity Meyer gave him when he arrived at Florida.
One guy who has figured out the value of practice and has well lived up to his potential in Gainesville is free safety Josh Evans. Another highly recruited player who came to Florida from New Jersey, Evans had played well in his first three seasons if unspectacularly. After another offseason under Quinn and Muschamp’s tutelage the light began to come on for Evans as he learned the mental aspect of the game and this season he really showed his ability making interceptions, producing highlight reel hits, and becoming a solid tackler in the secondary.
Of his many big plays this season, none were bigger than the game-sealing interception against Missouri when the Tigers were inside the ten yard line threatening to score at game’s end. His play this season led both Muschamp and Quinn to call him the most improved defensive player on the team.
“I think he’s playing really well,” Muschamp said of Evans after the Missouri game. “He’s a guy that’s improved his man coverage skills, but his command of what we’re doing and how we’re doing, he worked extremely hard in the off season, he’s got really good ball skills in the back as far as playing the ball in the deep part of the field, I think he’s tackled extremely well this year, I’ve gone back and have had a hard time finding where he’s missed one and generally when those guys miss, it’s a big one. I think he’s played really well, tackled well; Josh is a tough young man. He’s a guy who will throw his eyes in there, every time.”
One guy that had come in slightly under the radar but has really increased his stock since he arrived is Jordan Reed. He came to Florida as a three star dual threat qb from New London, Connecticut not exactly the hotbed for high profile athletes but was the same state that brought Aaron Hernandez to Gainesville. Despite coming to Florida as a qb, and actually filling in as one in 2010 when Meyer and company struggled to move the football, it was obvious his more natural position would be tight end. At 6’3 and 225 pounds with a build to add weight he had the right size. It did take a little time for him to take to the move as he seems to be a slow learner in spite of his incredible athleticism.
This season, though, he has really come into his own at tight end becoming Jeff Driskel’s go-to guy and the team’s leading receiver with 44 receptions for 552 yards and 3 touchdowns. His size and athleticsm are a match-up nightmare for linebackers and nickel defensive backs and he has shown a knack for making big plays at key moments. His catch near the end of the Georgia game almost led to a Gator victory if not for the tremendous effort shown by outside linebacker Jarvis Jones to catch him from behind and make the strip.
“No one player or one play lost the game (against Georgia), at the end of the day,” according to Muschamp. “The guy (Reed) plays with great effort and passion and he made a couple of really nice plays on the (final) drive. We wouldn’t be in that position (to win) if it weren’t for him.”
Finally, we have the guy that has made all the difference in the world for the Gators this season. The guy that has bided his time quietly while others played ahead of him. The guy Will Muschamp said before the season that the team would go as far as this player would take them. That guy is Mike Gillislee. Ever since Fason left and Meyer took over the biggest knock on Meyer and his recruiting was that he couldn’t get that one franchise back. Oddly enough out of all the guys the Gators recruited in that time, and of all the guys they signed in that time, it was the one guy least equipped to run Meyer’s spread offense that ultimately would become that franchise back.
Gillislee is a running back that doesn’t have the quickness of a Chris Rainey nor the speed of a Jeff Demps. As such, he sat behind Rainey and Demps mostly because in the spread you need guys that can take it to the house on any given play. Give them a crease and they make the defense pay. Gillislee is not that guy.
What Gillislee is is a tough, hard-nosed back that will hit the hole with authority, will move piles, will not be taken down behind the line, by the first defender, or by one defender. Arm tackles? Not happening here. Gillislee is not a home run hitter, he’s a singles hitter, but he’ll keep pounding on the defense until 3 yard gains become 6-8 yard games and then when the defense is wore down late in the game he’ll pop a 37 yarder like he did against Florida State. He’s exactly what Muschamp needed to get his downhill running attack going and is exactly why he said in the off-season that the Gator’s hopes rest on his shoulders, or more specifically his legs.
After the LSU game in which he ran for 146 yards and two touchdowns, Muschamp had great things to say about his franchise back.
“Player of the game was Mike Gillislee,” Muschamp said. “He played an outstanding game, ran hard, a guy that’s just having an outstanding senior season and a great example for our football team. He’s the type of young man you want on your team.”
Earlier this week Muschamp was quoted as saying,
“He (Gillislee) is the greatest example of a team player that I have been around as a football coach.”
In a way, Gillislee is representative of all the guys from that 2009 class that actually stuck it out. A guy that might have been a little overrated talent wise, but underrated heart-wise and character-wise. That class looked good on paper and was small on numbers but ultimately was large on desire and on willingness to improve and succeed. Out of that class three guys are gone, five more stuck around but have been largely scout team players, and one guy, Nick Alajajian, is out of football due to injury. The bulk of that class, though, despite intense criticism from fans and media alike have stuck together through all the changes, worked extremely hard in the weight room, in the film room, and on the practice field to bring this program from the depths of a 15-11 two year stretch to an 11-1 team that realistically is a turnover away from playing against Bama for the right to play for a BCS championship.