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Gators coach Will Muschamp has relied heavily on this year's senior class to turn around the program.

Friday December 28, 2012Gators' Seniors Seek a Sweet Ending to Sugar Bowl

Gators coach Will Muschamp has relied heavily on this year's senior class to turn around the program.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Most of them lurked in the shadows three years ago when the Gators were last here for the Sugar Bowl.

They were on the team but it wasn't their team.

The 2009 Florida team that trampled Cincinnati to cap a 13-1 season belonged to a group of upperclassmen led by seniors Tim Tebow and Brandon Spikes. Florida's starting lineup that night featured 16 players on NFL rosters this season.

Freshmen such as Frankie Hammond, Jon Bostic and Omarius Hines played in the game but didn't star. Hammond had four tackles on special teams. Running back Mike Gillislee highlighted Florida's freshmen playing in their first bowl game, rushing for a game-high 78 yards on five carries.

Kicker Caleb Sturgis made six extra-points and had a field goal. Josh Evans had a tackle.

Overall, 10 current Florida seniors played in the victory over Cincinnati with offensive lineman Xavier Nixon, then a true freshman, the only one in the starting lineup at left tackle.

They returned to the Superdome on Monday night for the first time since Tebow and Co. departed in one of the most impressive bowl wins in school history.

"It feels like I was a baby,'' defensive end Lerentee McCray said after Florida's practice Thursday. "Now I'm a grown man. It feels like it's been a long time ago."

It feels that way to a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

Florida's win over Cincinnati in 2009 capped a four-year stretch that included two national titles, a Heisman Trophy for Tebow and 48 wins in 55 games. The Gators finished 13-1 three times in those four years and reeled off a school-record 22-game win streak.

The game also featured the sideshow of former coach Urban Meyer retiring and then un-retiring.

Three years later and Florida's senior class has stepped from the shadows in a big way. The seniors have been instrumental in the Gators rebounding from a 7-6 season to enter Wednesday's Sugar Bowl ranked No. 3 in the BCS with an 11-1 record.

"I love this team,'' Hines said. "We don't give up. We fight to the end."

The seniors often lead the charge.

"We're just keeping everybody focused,'' Hines added. "Keeping the young guys focused and keeping them in tune with us."

Like he was among the freshmen that played in the 2010 Sugar Bowl, Gillislee has shined brightest among this year's group of seniors. Gillislee became the first UF running back to rush for 1,000 yards in eight years.

He is the focal point of Florida's offense with sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel still learning on the job.

"When we see him getting those tough yards, it just makes us want to block harder,'' sophomore offensive lineman Chaz Green said. "It makes the offense go."

Defensively, seniors Bostic, Evans, McCray and defensive tackle Omar Hunter are essential reasons the Gators finished the regular season ranked fifth in the nation in total defense.

While they have made their impact felt in head coach Will Muschamp's second season, they want more.

Muschamp can sense the Gators aren't satisfied getting to the Sugar Bowl. They want to make the trip worth it and much of that energy comes from the seniors who have been around for national championships and a two-year stretch that included 11 losses.

"I think certainly when you hit the bottom of the barrel so to speak at a place like the University of Florida, it makes you appreciate things a little bit more,'' Muschamp said. "That's something where you've got to stay grounded in your approach as a player and a coach to understand that you don't just roll the hat out there and win football games.

"It takes work, it takes preparation, it takes recruiting, it takes development, it takes the strength program, it takes character building -- it takes all of those things to encompass to have the type of program you want to have at Florida. You've got to make it happen. That's what I think these players understand a little bit more."

Despite the rocky road traveled to get back here, Nixon said the trip was worth it.

"I feel like there was a couple of stones skipped,'' Nixon said. "I'm not going to regret anything that happened. I'm going to appreciate all my experiences here."

Shortly after Nixon spoke Tuesday afternoon at the Superdome, Green took his place in front of the cameras and microphones.

When Green first arrived some of the team's younger players were criticized for being selfish at times. Over time they have bought into Muschamp's blue-collar approach and turned the program's fortunes around.

As a piece of the future, Green wants to makes sure this season's progress isn't dampened by a loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

"We want to finish out on a good note going into next season. We've got everything to play for although we fell short in terms of a national championship,'' Green said. "If we perform well in this game, it will let the nation know where we are and where we've come from since last year."

Meanwhile, as he prepares for his final game at Florida, McCray is confident the program is once again among the nation's elite where it was when the seniors first arrived.

But they have one more task to complete if they want to experience another celebration like the night Tebow threw for a Sugar Bowl-record 482 yards to win MVP honors.

"It's a very important game for the program,'' he said. "I believe it's a statement game."


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