Florida's senior project


Florida will honor Frankie Hammond Jr. and 18 other seniors today at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 7:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 8:42 p.m.

They come from different cities, towns and backgrounds. They have different interests, play different positions and will pursue different career paths. But these eight Gators share a common bond, a common legacy.

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Florida will honor Frankie Hammond Jr. and 18 other seniors today at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Doug Finger/Staff Photographer

They are the last link to Florida's championship past, and they will be playing their final game in The Swamp today.

The eight go back to 2008. They were part of UF's last SEC and national championship team, the one that defeated No. 1 Oklahoma in Miami.

“It's going to be fun, man,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “I remember getting here as a freshman, all the excitement I had my first game playing. I think it's going to top that (today).

“My last game in The Swamp. I'm definitely going to enjoy it. It's definitely going to be emotional.”

Hunter is one of the eight remaining scholarship players on the Florida roster who experienced a championship season in Gainesville. The others are wide receiver Frankie Hammond Jr., running back/receiver Omarius Hines, outside linebacker Lerentee McCray, defensive end Earl Okine, center Sam Robey, place-kicker Caleb Sturgis and offensive guard James Wilson, a sixth-year senior who started his Gator career way back in 2007.

The eight are part of a 19-man senior class that will be honored today at Senior Day.

“It's going to be emotional because a lot of us have poured our hearts into this program,” Hammond said. “To finally have it end and finally look at it from the outside in, it will be real emotional.”

The fifth-year seniors (and Wilson, the sixth-year senior) have been through a lot, some good, some bad. Their Gator experience has been unique.

They experienced the championship high in 2008, the crushing near-miss in 2009, the disappointing decline in 2010 and 2011, and now the remarkable resurgence in 2012.

“It's been a long time,” Sturgis said. “There have definitely been some ups and downs. Hopefully, we're going to finish on a good note.”

For the 10 true seniors who were not here in 2008, there also have been great moments to go along with bitter disappointments — and the chance for their careers to end positively in Will Muschamp's second season.

They signed with the Gators a month after UF won the national championship and came here expecting to win SEC titles and play in the BCS Championship Game.

They will leave without any championships.

After losing to Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship Game, the Gators fell to 8-5 in Urban Meyer's final season and 7-6 in Muschamp's first season.

Senior middle linebacker Jon Bostic was asked earlier this week what was the highlight of his UF career.

“Really, just getting everything back on the right track (this season),” he said. “I was here my freshman year and went to the SEC Championship Game, so I've kind of been here through the highs. Then, you know, (disappointing) sophomore and junior seasons. Now, just being able to turn everything back around and get everything back on track.

“We had pretty much a philosophy change on offense and defense (when Muschamp took over in 2011). We knew it was going to take some time. We wish it hadn't taken this long, but we definitely got back to Gator football — the way Coach Muschamp actually wants to run this program.”

These seniors are nearing the end of what has been a remarkable turnaround season. The Gators did not win the SEC East, but they are 9-1, ranked seventh in the nation and are in the No. 6 spot in the BCS Standings, with a chance to move up and possibly earn a BCS bowl berth.

They also can end their careers with an undefeated season in The Swamp.

“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,” senior offensive tackle Xavier Nixon said.

Muschamp said he appreciates everything the seniors have been through, everything they have done in their time at Florida.

“They've been an outstanding group to work with as far as their buy-in to the program and what we're trying to do and where we're trying to go with this,” Muschamp said. “Starting in the right direction and continuing the direction we're headed is a strong statement for them. Outstanding.

“I'm very proud of them.”

Muschamp said it will be an emotional Senior Day.

“It always is. It was last year,” Muschamp said. “You think back to going through the tough years (quarterback) John (Brantley) had with the injuries. Chris Rainey. Deonte Thompson and all those guys, Willie Green, Jaye Howard. Those guys gave a lot to the program.

“You come to the University of Florida to win a championship and unfortunately their last two seasons did not go as well as planned. I appreciate the work they put in and the foundation they helped set for us.

“It's certainly helped this season. You've spent a lot of time with these young men and seen them develop in two years' time. They're very special to me. Always will be.”

Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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