Gators focused on bigger picture yet Senior Night a reminder of program's turnaround
Florida’s game Satuday with LSU not only concludes the regular season for the Gators — it marks Senior Night and the final game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for 27 players, many of whom stuck with the program through a losing record and a head coaching change.
For a program on the cusp of competing with No. 1-ranked Alabama for the SEC crown and a shot at the College Football Playoff, it’s worth recounting just how far the program’s come in coach Dan Mullen’s three seasons and counting at the helm.
The Class of 2017 arrived in Gainesville as former coach Jim McElwain’s highest-ranked signing class, yet without lofty expectations compared to the rest of the conference — UF didn’t finish in the top-10 nationally and the Gators didn’t sign any five-star prospects — despite consecutive trips to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
Before that, the highest-ranked prospect from the 2016 class, defensive lineman Antonneous Clayton, transferred to Georgia Tech after three seasons. Heralded wide receiver James Robinson was diagnosed with a medical condition that ended his collegiate future before it could even begin, although he’s bounced back as a success story, becoming a mentor in his hometown of Lakeland.
And just about everyone has heard ad nauseum about redshirt senior Kyle Trask’s rise from two-star prospect to Heisman Trophy contender as a Class of 2016 signee.
If anything, Trask epitomizes the best-case scenario in a sense for a majority of prospects, the ones who don’t dominate from the onset — he embodies why coaches advocate sticking with a program through the early development process.
Recruiting rankings aren’t meaningless, but they’re far from the only factor — the classes of 2016 and 2017, now led by the former two-star quarterback, will remind the Florida faithful of that once again Saturday night.
“I just think the seniors will really be remembered first for just being a tough, hard working class,” Trask said. “We've been through some ups and downs. Obviously, we had that 4-7 year. Then we had a lot of leaders, and we bounced back to finish off the back end of our career here in college, very successfully."
Their ending remains unwritten, but it’s already a triumph in context.
Now, the Gators can sweeten the payoff by wrapping up the regular season with an undefeated record at home for the second year in a row, against an LSU program that’s been a contentious rival of UF’s since the 2017 class arrived on campus.
But Trask isn’t dwelling on that — with the focus on preparing for the Tigers and the Crimson Tide, the impending finale has yet to truly hit him.
“I haven't really thought about it, it hasn't really hit me yet but I'm sure it will be, because you know it's been a crazy journey here, I’ve made so many great friends, so many great memories,” he said. “We're just focused on getting the W. But It’s definitely gonna be a crazy feeling, you know, coming into that Swamp for the last time.”
Trask’s hand is forced in a sense — as a redshirt senior, his time in Gainesville is almost certainly up.
Others in the 2017 class have some difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks, if they haven’t already made them.
Although redshirt junior Zachary Carter may have another year of eligibility, he may choose to pursue the NFL draft after the season; regardless, he’ll see many of his classmates conclude their Gators careers Saturday.
“It’s senior night — a lot’s at stake, and I know guys, especially in my class and the class before us, it’s important,” Carter said. “We talk about it all the time within the team, what kind of legacy do you want to make? I know what kind of legacy the guys want to go out with. So it’s very important.”
Carter didn’t hesitate to clarify just what lasting impression they’re looking to leave: the goal is to win it all this season, which didn’t seem like a possibility when the now-departing upperclassmen initially arrived on campus.
“Right now we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Carter said. “We’re focused on LSU, but obviously in the end we want to end with a championship on the wall.”
Who: LSU (3-5) vs. No. 6 Florida (8-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850