Florida's senior class of recruited scholarship players is a relatively small one, and one that came to Florida in 2008 or 2009 hoping to compete for the national and SEC titles that Urban Meyer's Gators had secured in 2006 and 2008. That didn't happen, and the "true" senior class that's been at Florida for just the four seasons since 2009 is going to leave with no better than a 40-13 record — still, to be sure, a tremendous mark, but the worst for a "true" senior class of Florida players since the first class partially recruited by Ron Zook left with a 32-18 mark.
But what did happen might have been more remarkable, and evidence that Will Muschamp's sea change is building a tide for Florida.
Meyer's favorite and most popular recruiting interest was building "the fastest team in America," and the prevalence of "Speed Kills" videos on YouTube is proof that he sort of did: Percy Harvin, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps held down the offense with contributions from folks like Aaron Hernandez, a fluid tight end, and Riley Cooper, "the fastest white boy" ever; the swarming Meyer-instructed and Charlie Strong-instructed defense was usually a little undersized, but rarely outrun. But when the SEC got used to seeing the Meyer-Dan Mullen spread option, and after the defense lost almost everyone from its 2009 unit, that speed started getting overwhelmed by power; when the celestial talent that Meyer recruited at first was replaced by more mortal recruits and a number of misses, the Gators came back to the pack.
Muschamp's entire ethos is devoted to building a program that doesn't come back to the pack, an Alabama East that can produce year-after-year success like Nick Sabana's bunch does. And his first task was turning blue-chip players into blue-collar workers.
Muschamp talked repeatedly of a "blue-collar mentality" in his first season, and of the need to work hard in every facet of preparation to make sure every bit of execution was done to perfection. It didn't work immediately in 2011, with former freshman phenoms rebelling, injuries racking the Florida offense, and close games always going the other team's way. But Florida didn't lose heart, and when some of the older, less diligent coaches on the 2011 staff left, Muschamp replaced them with younger and harder-working guys who helped make the transition from flash to grit easier.
But the coaches can only do so much. And so this praise on this day is for players who remade themselves at Florida, surviving two years of tumult to enjoy a senior year of glory
Josh Evans, Jon Bostic, and Omar Hunter are probably the most prominent of those seniors, and both have gone from liabilities on defense to key cogs in the Muschamp scheme. Evans was no Florida fan's favorite in 2010 or 2011, but has nearly eliminated missed tackles, and shored up his game; there's a chance, though not a great one, that he'll get an NFL look. Bostic has been solid for Florida all year, and will have an NFL future. Hunter was Meyer's most-praised recruit ever, and underwhelmed in his first three years, but has been vital to the defensive line rotation this year.
Xavier Nixon was a top recruit who was great in his freshman year, but mediocre in 2010 and bad in 2011 while fighting illness; he's been far better in 2012, and has been one of the vocal leaders of this team on the sidelines. James Wilson hasn't lived up to his five-star potential, but has been serviceable at the thankless position of left guard, and incredible in his resilience.
Mike Gillislee, Lerentee McCray, Omarius Hines, and Frankie Hammond have all been given chances to shine this year, and have, in fits and starts; Gillislee's obviously the biggest name of that group, even if he barely seems like a senior, and has disappeared of late, but he had the most agonizing wait of them all, sitting behind players who may or may not have been better in offenses that weren't built for him before getting his chance to shine for real.
About the only senior who has just been great throughout his career is Caleb Sturgis. We're going to miss him more than we know next year.
But there are a bunch of other seniors (Nick Alaljajian, John Crofoot, Cole Gilliam, Christopher Guido, Earl Okine, Scott Peek, John Reichart, Sam Robey, and Jesse Schmitt, to list the rest of the seniors on the roster) who came to Florida with dreams and are leaving with degrees and determination. No player on a football team is invaluable, but none is without value, either, and the little things a player who will never see the field on Saturday or Sunday does on a Tuesday or a Thursday matter, too, and matter a lot more to the coach that players could have bailed on than the one that recruited them.
The transition from Meyer to Muschamp is from expecting the Gators to be better than every other team to working to ensure that Florida is better than every other program in the country. These seniors bridged that gap.
For that, and for every other memory you have made for me and millions of others in Gator Nation: Thank you.