This UF senior class helped Mullen turn program around

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Florida senior wide receiver Josh Hammond catches a touchdown pass as Missouri safety Joshuah Bledsoe defends during the second half of their game on Nov. 16 in Columbia, Mo. Florida won 23-6. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
There is no Heisman Trophy winner worthy of another statue and it’s debatable whether any of the seniors who walk Saturday will get an All-American paver in front of the Heavener Complex at the corner of Legend and Loved.
Some will leave with championships — one SEC East for the true seniors, two for the redshirt seniors — but not the ones they came here to win.
And yet (as the coach who recruited most of them liked to say), the young men who are honored before Saturday night’s Florida-FSU game deserve the kinds of roars that have been delivered to the greats who have come before them.
“I just hope that we’re remembered for, I guess, the leading class that kind of helped turn this program around,” said senior Josh Hammond.
That will depend on what the program under coach Dan Mullen becomes in the future, but there is no doubt these seniors put the program on the right track.
And they did it when it was most difficult. Florida football had become a scandal-ridden mess in the final year of Jim McElwain. We know it was easy to quit and go somewhere else because so many of the players they were recruited with did just that.
But these guys stuck together when it was easy to bail. That’s the measuring stick for a senior class — does it leave with the program in better shape than it was when it showed up?
There shouldn’t be any question about this one.
“We’ve done our part and, hopefully, it rubbed off on the younger guys to keep the tradition going,” said defensive end Jon Greenard.
Greenard, of course, transferred in from Louisville and has only spent one season here. But the emotions will still be palpable, leaking from eyes and taking the form of chill bumps in the cool night.
For all of them.
In a way, this senior class that fought through injuries, controversy, firings and hirings is kind of the new norm for what senior classes have started to look like.
Of the 14 players who have played significant minutes this season, six were part of the 2016 recruiting class, three were part of the 2015 class and four are transfers. (The 14th is long snapper Jacob Tilghman, a former walk-on and, yes, I can add.)
I asked Mullen on Monday where Florida would be without those transfers and he didn’t want to go there.
But I think you know.
Only Greenard came into a situation where the culture had already changed. The others were as much a part of changing it as the players who signed with UF and stuck it out.
“They faced a lot of different adversity,” Mullen said.
For fifth-year seniors like Nick Buchanan, the roller-coaster never seemed to want to level out. For true seniors such as David Reese II, it flew by fast, but not so fast that a legacy wasn’t created.
“No quit, play with resilience, just a team, a group of guys that came in here together and had a chance to turn this program around,” Reese said.
He’ll remember those impromptu film sessions with roommate Josh Hammond, just trying to get better because the status quo wasn’t good enough.
They will all remember the early morning workouts and what it was like the first time they ran out of the tunnel and winning games that felt so heavy and shutting out the noise when things didn’t go as well as they had hoped.
They will never forget their own impacts on a stressed-out program.
“I’ve seen the change,” said Adam Shuler, who transferred to a team that won four games the year before he got here. “It’s magical.”
When you inherit a situation as a head coach, you have a plan. But you never know how long it will take everyone to buy in. Even for Mullen, we saw the large amount of attrition through the transfer portal after his first season.
But these guys who are still around, to say they have bought in would be like saying Anthony Hopkins bought in to his role as Hannibal Lecter.
“It’s a great feeling when you have guys buy in for what you want to do,” Mullen said. “I showed up and had an idea of how I wanted this program to be and they believed in me.”
Which is why he might get a little emotional Saturday night.
“It’s always a little bit emotional to see where guys have come from and where they’ve grown,” Mullen said.
They came from all over, literally.
To be here.
For one last Swamp ride.
— Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Pat – this is a superb tribute to our senior class – may all returning Gators read your article, and may it sink in that there turn will come. This should inspire them to follow the example set by the Gator senior class – GO GATORS, BEAT THEM NOLES SILLY!!!