While he was in Atlanta this summer, being perceived as the new face of Florida football with his infectious energy and optimism at SEC Media Days, rush end Cece Jefferson already knew he had been suspended from the first two games of the season.
He just wasn’t ready to let anyone know about it yet, especially his teammates, who he knew would be disappointed about the suspension — and in him for letting it happen.
When Jefferson finally revealed the news to them just before the start of the season, it struck him just how much he was letting them down.
“Most definitely,” Jefferson said. “When I broke it to them, I could just see it in their faces. It was just like, ‘Come on, C. Come on, C. You can’t do that.’
“I had my nights of crying, but I picked my head up. I apologized to them. I took that on the chin as a man. We’re just moving forward from that and I’m enjoying what little time I have here left.”
Senior leaders are expected to set an example by doing the right things on the field and in the classroom. But Jefferson strayed from the leadership path early in the summer, falling behind in a class and failing to complete his work.
The academic issue led to the two-game suspension.
After making the tough decision to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft, Jefferson’s mistake cost him two precious games. Sitting them out hit him hard.
“Oh yeah, that’s the thing, those first two were home games,” he said. “You’ve got to cherish every moment you get to run out that tunnel and enter The Swamp. So it hurt, it hurt me pretty bad.
“I dropped the ball a little bit with my grades, but I’m looking past that. And now, I’m getting better every day as a person. I’m contributing to my team with what time I have left. So, just taking it day by day and going as hard as I can and just putting in that work.”
Jefferson watched the first two games from the sideline.
Missing the opener against Charleston Southern was tough, but doable. It was a much different story the following week against Kentucky.
Jefferson felt hurt and helpless standing there as the Wildcats ran through the Gator defense for 303 yards in a 27-16 loss.
“I wasn’t even focused about coming back the next week,” he said. “I wanted to sneak and put my uniform on, get back out there that night. It definitely hurt me knowing that I could have gone out there and made a difference. Not saying I would have.
“It definitely hurt me a lot, knowing I could have made a difference in that game, just my presence. Not being out there really killed me and I let my teammates down. That’s what hurt me the most.”
During his suspension, Jefferson carried himself like a leader. He was there for his teammates, encouraging them and giving them advice. He also delivered a message about being responsible and doing the right thing, because there are consequences if you don’t.
“You’ve got to be accountable in every situation,” Jefferson said. “That’s just a part of being a man, and that’s what this game teaches you. You’ve got to be accountable, you’ve got to take care of your business, you’ve got to be where you’re supposed to be.
“And if you don’t, the results I got are some of the things that can happen to you. So, I definitely think the guys, especially the younger guys and some of the older guys, will learn from my mistakes. It’s just seeing that you just have to do what you have to do. You’ve got to take care of your business.”
Now that his suspension is behind him and his classroom work has been made up, Jefferson is all about taking care of business on the football field.
He got off to a slow start in the win over Colorado State, failing to record a tackle or put his name on the stat sheet.
He played a more prominent role in the win at Tennessee last Saturday. Playing with energy and effort, Jefferson tackled UT running back Tim Jordan in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter. He had two other tackles and helped bring steady pressure against quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who completed only seven of 18 passes and was intercepted twice.
“He had a great impact,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said of Jefferson. “It’s just great when we’ve got all our guys healthy and everybody back together. We’re a tight unit and a big family, and we play for one another. It’s just like when you get one of your boys back. It just changes the dynamic of the team.”
Nobody’s happier about Jefferson being back than Jefferson.
“It feels great getting back out there with my brothers and taking care of business,” he said. “Getting out there again and feeling that energy. It feels amazing.”