GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The last time Gators quarterback John Brantley played at EverBank Field – a 24-20 loss to Georgia in late October – he could barely walk by the end of the game.
It was Brantley’s first game back since suffering a severe high-ankle sprain in the first half against Alabama on Oct. 1. The injury forced Brantley to miss two games and spend much of October getting treatment on the ankle in hopes of returning to finish out his senior year.
Brantley made it back in time to face Georgia and threw for 226 yards in the first half – a career-best for a half – before the ankle started to feel like an anchor tied to his leg.
He enters Monday’s Gator Bowl coming off a concussion that knocked him out of his final game at The Swamp, a 21-7 loss to Florida State.
Brantley has endured through all the injuries and the ups and downs that come with trying to replace arguably the most popular player in Gator football history. In doing so, Brantley gained respect from his coaches and teammates for not only his toughness, but his character and the way he has handled a difficult senior season.
With his college career down to one final game, Brantley expects Monday to be emotional afternoon. He remains upbeat about his time at Florida despite the injuries and some difficult moments.
“I grew up as a Gator, and now that I will be exiting this program after this game, I will always be a Gator through thick and thin,’’ Brantley said. “I will always be wearing orange and blue and watching them on Saturdays for years to come.
“I’m just fortunate enough to be able to wake up every day and put on the Gator uniform. To be able to have this opportunity to play major college football at such a great university and one that I’ve loved my entire life was a dream come true and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’’
Brantley said he is 100 percent heading into Monday’s game. He joined fellow seniors Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey, Jaye Howard and William Green alongside head coach Will Muschamp on Saturday for Florida’s final Gator Bowl press conference.
Muschamp praised the seniors on his first UF team for their contributions and leadership.
“Their senior year didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. I’m disappointed about that, but these guys have worked hard, they have been good leaders,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m very proud of their accomplishments. I think they have led us in a first-class manner through a difficult season.’’
The Gator Bowl will be Brantley’s 41st career game with the Gators. He has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and 4,618 yards.
“We’ve been here for a while. We never thought this day would come, but it’s here,’’ Brantley said. “It has gone by fast.’’
Brantley echoed what Muschamp and interim offensive coordinator Brian White have said since the departure of Charlie Weis to Kansas.
The Gators’ offense under White is very similar to the one installed by Weis in his only season.
“Not much at all [has changed],’’ Brantley said. “We’re running the same exact offense. We haven’t missed much at all. It’s been spot-on.’’
When a reporter asked Demps and Rainey about trying to find more running room in the Gator Bowl than the past few games, both sat quiet for several seconds.
“They don’t want to give up the game plan,’’ Muschamp said.
“We’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeve,’’ Demps quipped.
A lot has been said and written about Muschamp’s remarks about the Gators being soft following the loss to Florida State. Over the past month, the Gators have turned up the intensity at practice in preparation for Ohio State, considered one of the country’s most physical programs.
Muschamp said the Gators have made progress in that area that he wants to continue into spring practice. Florida has spent a lot of time on fundamentals and improving technique during its bowl practices.
“A lot of that has to do with not having to get ready for a game in a game-week situation,’’ Muschamp said. “Again, we’ve got to build our numbers back on both lines of scrimmage. That’s what is going to help us the most.’’
One of the things Muschamp is most interested in seeing in the Gator Bowl is how well the Gators tackle.
“When you haven’t tackled in a long time in a game-like situation, it is a little different,’’ he said.
The only time the Gators have played Ohio State was for the 2006 national title. Florida won 41-14.
Rainey and Demps were Florida recruits at that time and five years later are playing their final college game against the Buckeyes.
“It was exciting,’’ Rainey said of his memory of that game. “It made us want to get to Florida faster. I know they are still upset about that game. We have to be prepared.’’
“It’s kind of like a rivalry now. We expect it to be a tough, hard game,’’ he said.
Rainey has of way of saying funny things whether he means to or not.
He was asked about what it was like to play for Muschamp in his first season at UF.
“Fun, awesome, great,’’ said Rainey as Muschamp sat nearby.
“He is trying to get out of his last practice,’’ Muschamp replied.