Florida's seniors helped turn program around
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When they arrived here and looked around the locker room, star power was everywhere.
There was Tebow, Spikes, Harvin, Cooper, Haden, the Pouncey brothers and others. Those players are in the NFL now, but when members of the Gators' 2012 senior class first hit campus, they were the faces of the program.
They played for a star coach in Urban Meyer and the hottest program, one that won two national titles in three years.
Those wide-eyed freshmen figured the joy ride would continue without so much a bump in the road. That was in their youth. As they prepare for Senior Day on Saturday at The Swamp, Florida's 18 seniors have a different story to tell.
"I’m much more mature now,'' defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "When I first came in, I wasn’t that mature. I thought everything was going to be handed to me.
"I saw I had to work for things and be more mature. Throughout my years, I’ve become better as a person and a football player.”
Their story starts off as mostly reserves or redshirts on a national championship team. Then the shift began. Meyer stepped away and came back. He finally left for good following an 8-5 season in 2010 that included three consecutive losses.
Plus, all those stars eventually left and started their professional careers.
Enter new head coach Will Muschamp last season and a 7-6 record, which included a winless October. Yes, they expected a much different story than the one they were living.
But a funny thing happened in their final season. The Gators climbed back toward the top of the polls and enter Saturday's game against Jacksonville State 9-1 and sixth in the BCS standings.
The program they walked into received a makeover once the blue-collar Muschamp arrived. It took time and remains a work in progress. But still, the progress is evident.
Muschamp said that wouldn't be the case without this year's 18 seniors setting a good example and playing key roles.
"They’ve been an outstanding group as far as their buying into our program with what we’re trying to do and getting this started in the right direction," Muschamp said. "It’s a strong statement for them, and they’ve been outstanding."
Senior receiver Frankie Hammond has been one of the leaders Muschamp called upon regularly. Hammond is a team spokesman and contributes on the field as one of the Gators' most dangerous threats at receiver.
He can't believe his Senior Day is finally here, that he'll be running out of the tunnel at The Swamp on Saturday for the final time.
"Time flies fast when you're playing ball,'' Hammond said. "The years I've spent here have gone by and the time is here. I've enjoyed it. It's been a great experience for me.
"A lot of us have poured our hearts into this program. To have it finally end and to finally look at it from the outside in, come December, we’ll be spectators of the game. It will be real emotional having that hit you like, ‘Wow. I’m not playing and now I’m sitting back and watching.’ It definitely hurts, but it’s time to close that door, and other opportunities will come.”
This year's group of seniors has produced on the field to help the Gators return to relevancy on the national stage.
Running back Mike Gillislee is fourth in the SEC in rushing. Jon Bostic is among the SEC's top linebackers. Safety Josh Evans has continued to improve and is having an excellent final season. Offensive linemen Xavier Nixon and James Wilson have battled injuries but played a big role in some of the Gators' top wins this season. Caleb Sturgis remains one of the nation's most reliable kickers.
They have made a difference, which this year's team needed if it was going to challenge for the SEC East title the way it did.
"I hope we play one of our best games, leave it all out on The Swamp,'' Evans said. "It’s going to be a very emotional day. We all came in as freshmen, grew up together and had a brotherhood, pretty much leaving a legacy of winners. I just want to leave as a winner."
Florida's seniors can help the Gators finish 7-0 at home with a victory on Saturday, something that has been done only two other times — in 2006 and 2009.
Those were the glory days that attracted these seniors to Florida in the first place.
Four, five and six years later in the case of Wilson, the program has a different identity. The flash has been replaced by grit. The approach has gone from fast and furious to tough and physical.
Muschamp looked forward to Friday night's senior dinner. The players have an opportunity to stand up and share stories with their teammates.
It's their night to talk.
"It is a very touching time to see a lot of those guys express themselves. ... Some you wouldn’t expect to express themselves,'' Muschamp said. "It is one of my favorite times of the year.”
Their story didn't always go as planned, but in the end, it turned out well.
Asked how he would like this senior class to be remembered, Nixon said: "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."