While defensive end Cece Jefferson and offensive tackle Martez Ivey were contemplating their future last January, one simple number combination made a difficult decision much easier for both.
The two five-star prospects who came to Florida expecting to play for championships didn’t want to leave that way — with a losing record and a lot of depressing final memories of their stay in Gainesville.
So, the two made the decision to return for their senior season — and Dan Mullen’s first season — instead of heading off early to the NFL.
“I didn’t want to go out 4-7,” Jefferson said. “I knew about Coach Mullen’s resume, his past here, and I just trusted it. I talked to Martez and C’yontai (Lewis) and a couple more seniors and we all wanted to go out as winners. We knew we could with the staff that was coming in. That’s pretty much it.”
It was pretty much the same for Ivey.
“I wanted to leave on the right note,” he said. “Not leaving on the 4-7, forget that. That’s not the Florida Gators and that’s not what we represent.”
Ivey and Jefferson came back, and now they’re leaving the right way. Both have had productive senior seasons and both have played a role in helping Mullen turn around the program.
When they, along with 18 other seniors, come out of the tunnel for the last time today on Senior Day, they will do so as winners, part of a 7-3 team that is ranked 13th in the College Football Playoff standings and has a chance to earn a berth in a New Year’s Day six bowl game.
“It means a lot,” Jefferson said. “Who wants to go out 4-7? It feels good being a winner. We dropped the ball a few times this year, but anything is better than last year, so definitely going out with my head up high and a smile on my face.”
And tears in his eyes.
“Oh, overflow of tears,” Jefferson said. “I’m not even going to try and hold it back. I love this place. I grew up an hour away from here and everything about me is being a Florida Gator. Growing up I was a Florida Gator fan and it was a no-brainer that I wanted to come to school here.
“Will you have some tissue for me if you’re going to be there? Some Kleenex, because I’m going to get pretty messy. I might just leave my helmet and run down with my head down. Yeah, lots of tears Saturday.”
Ivey is expecting an emotional day as well, and with no doubts that he made the right decision to return for his senior season.
For the first time in his career he’s made it through a season injury free, and it’s made a difference. He’s played his best football in his final year. Just this week, he was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week for grading out 91 percent in the win over South Carolina.
He’s going out on top, not strapped with a 4-7 record as his final memory.
“It’s big to me,” Ivey said of Senior Day. “I grew up wanting to go to Florida. I dreamed about playing in The Swamp. I think it was one Senior Day I watched, it was Andre Debose. He was on everybody’s shoulder pads and he was crying.
“It just showed how much it meant to be a Gator, how much it meant for him to have the logo on his chest and just to play in The Swamp. I don’t know how I’ll feel when it’s all said and done and it’s my last game here. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Earlier this week, Mullen said several seniors have come up to him recently and expressed that they wish they had more time here with this coaching staff because of where the program is now — and where it’s headed.
Count Jefferson and Ivey among them.
“Oh, of course,” Jefferson said. “We have the chance to win 10 games, including the bowl game. Come on, it speaks for itself. I would definitely go back and have those four years with coach (Nick) Savage in the weight room and coach (Todd) Grantham as (defensive coordinator). Yes, I would definitely do it again if I could.”
Over the past four years, Ivey and the Gators have experienced a lot of ups and downs. As his career draws to a close, everything is trending up — for him and the program.
We’re steadily changing the culture each and every day, going out every day and practicing harder, wanting to win, wanting to bring championships back here,” Ivey said. “I know for a fact it’s going to get done. Once everybody gets used to everything and just starts buying in more and more, it’s a matter of time before it happens and Florida is going to be an elite program once again.”