By Garry Smits, GateHouse Media Services
ATLANTA — Cece Jefferson was honest with himself.
He wasn’t ready for the NFL.
“I didn’t feel I was physically or mentally ready for the NFL,” said the University of Florida senior defensive end before his appearance at SEC Media Days, at the College Football Hall of Fame last week.
Jefferson, who played high school football at Baker County, just wasn’t sure enough about his prospects for the next level, and said his decision to return to the Gators “was a no-brainer.”
“If I’m going to the next level, I want to be 100 percent ready, no doubt in my mind,” he said.
Jefferson also was honest with his teammates.
During an unplanned discussion a few of them had in the locker room after a recent workout with strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, the mood got bitter.
Jefferson said the conversation turned toward last year’s disastrous 4-7 season that began with nine players suspended, went through the turmoil of coach Jim McElwain getting fired after a 42-7 loss to Georgia, and ended with a 1-3 November under interim coach Randy Shannon.
While the offense was largely to blame, the defense gave up an average of 32 points in the last five games. Jefferson said the entire situation turned his stomach.
“It disgusts you,” Jefferson said of Florida’s second four-win season in five years.
But Jefferson decided to remain in school and try to end his college career on more of an upbeat note under coach Dan Mullen. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s new scheme will move Jefferson from the interior line to a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, which hopefully will free him up to make more big plays.
“The defense will help all of the outside linebackers,” said middle linebacker David Reese. “They’re a scary athletic group. They can put their hand in the dirt of stand up and it fees them up to do what they want.”
Jefferson said that the defense owes the team one after a season in which it gave up 24 or more points in seven games, and 33 or more in four. And the informal team meeting ended with everyone taking the collective blame, and vowing to improve.
“It was a disappointment because I knew we could have done a lot better,” he said. “But everyone took the blame. We didn’t point fingers, ‘hey, you weren’t in your gap … you didn’t make the right read.’ This defense is hungry. I can see it in their eyes every day.”
As one of three returning seniors on a defense that has 10 starters back, Jefferson is being counted to provide more leadership.
He said it’s not in his nature to be that vocal and he hopes his actions will serve as example enough.
“I’ve heard a lot that I need to be a leader, but I’m not a rah-rah guy,” he said. “I’m a lead-by-example guy.”
Mullen hopes that’s the case but is mindful that his team still has numerous players who were members of two SEC East division champions in 2015 and 2016.
“There’s a new way we’re doing things, so even the leaders are learning,” he said. “The guys here today that came with me, David Reese, [offensive tackle] Martez Ivey and Cece Jefferson are guys that have played a lot of football at Florida, have been around the program, have seen changes within the program, have a lot of pride in the school and want to win. A lot of players in the program look up to them because they’re guys that played in SEC championship games.”
Jefferson believes the Gators can be back in Atlanta for that game in five months.
“This team could be very, very good,” he said. “It’s a high-energy culture now and I’m going to practice what I preach, keeping showing my teammates that it will be hard but if you want it, you have to go and get it.”
Garry Smits is a sports writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.