When the last bits of confetti had been collected from the Superdome turf after the 2012 BCS Championship game, Florida fans were able to officially close the book on one of the most disappointing years in recent memory. The 2011 campaign had been an utter disaster.
Considering the Hindenburg of a season they had just endured, few could have blamed fans for wanting to avoid any reminders of Will Muschamp’s inaugural year. They could quietly keep their heads down until the kick-off of spring practice in March allowed for a fresh start.
But alas, even March was too long a stretch to go without even a subtle hint of the year that was. Just over a month after the conclusion of the season, NFL Draft talk began to pick up steam.
With the bevy of pre-draft obligations including the NFL Combine and various pro days kicking into high gear, UF supporters were offered another disappointing memento from the previous year in the form of a severe lack of hype surrounding Florida prospects.
The Gators had a grand total of three players invited to the combine, and when Jeff Demps declined in favor of going pro in track, the Gators were ultimately left with two participants.
The embarrassment increased the following month when one — that’s right, one — NFL head coach bothered to show up to Florida’s Pro Day. And perhaps the only reason Jacksonville’s Mike Mularkey bothered to show up (other than the short drive) was because he is a former Gator.
It was no secret Florida was down on upperclass talent, but the lack of interest, deserved or not, was still stinging. For a program who had seen at least one player taken in the first round for five consecutive years, the lack of attention from the NFL was another reminder of the current state of Florida football.
Fast forward to this year however, and the question on March 12 may be if there is enough space for both scouts and current UF players to share Florida Field when everyone gathers to evaluate or cheer on the Gators’ crop of future NFLers.
Before players can enjoy the intimate setting of a pro day however, a few have willingly chosen to subject themselves to the frenzied circus that is the NFL Combine.
Beginning this weekend, the NFL will permit a cornucopia of scouts, coaches and team representatives to descend upon Indianapolis, Ind. where they will poke, prod, and investigate to the point of discomfort, their future investments. This year, the Gators will have five times the number of players in attendance than they did last year.
Representing Florida at the combine this weekend will be: linebackers Jon Bostic, Lerentee McCray and Jelani Jenkins, safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, running back Mike Gillislee, tight end Jordan Reed, offensive lineman Xavier Nixon and kicker Caleb Sturgis.
Despite questions concerning its true usefulness, the NFL Combine continues to be a popular event for both players and fans. The NFL has seen to it that nary an event is left uncovered by its TV cameras, giving interested onlookers a chance to see every test and drill offered.
Once players have completed their final college games, their sights are immediately set on reserving spaces in a number of specialized training camps just for the combine. From South Florida to Tampa to Arizona to Los Angeles, arrangements are made for players to practice everything from their start times in the 40-yard dash, to meeting with paid experts to discuss interview etiquette.
The goal when all is said and done is to impress the litany of NFL representatives to the point where a player becomes a first round commodity — a must have.
Currently, the Gators have only one player, Floyd, who is being unanimously trumpeted as a first-round selection. Floyd has continued to shoot up the charts, with several “experts” on NFL.com predicting him to be taken with the No. 3 overall pick by the Oakland Raiders.
Much like the careers of the players themselves, predicting the order of the draft is a crapshoot. Although there are a plethora of charlatans who claim to have it all figured out, the truth is, not much can be known until draft night.
However, that has yet to stop the “experts” from breaking down and evaluating seemingly every draft-eligible player the country has to offer, including the list of Gators who will be in Indy this weekend. Here is a peek of what is being said about a few of UF’s combine participants on NFL.com:
Bostic: “Bostic is an absolute hammer in the middle. … He fights to take out blockers and to accomplish his assignment, but when he attacks with his shoulder Bostic fails to make a play on the football … instincts for the ball make him a potential mid-round pick and gives him a chance to eventually earn a starting job at the next level.”
Elam: “Elam is one of the higher profile prospects at his position due to his on-field emotion and energy when lining up big hits in the open field. … When looking beyond the splash plays, Elam lacks urgency to his game and can be seen standing around while others make the play. … If the Gator can harness the electricity he flashes, Elam could end up being one of the top safeties in this class and is a potential first-round pick.”
Gillislee: “Gillislee didn’t get an extraordinary amount of touches until his senior season, there isn’t a lot of mileage on his tires. … He has a good build for the position, and is a solid downhill type of runner … will likely be a mid-round pick that works in a committee.”
Reed: “The junior was forced to play inline at times, but he projects as a move or Joker tight end in the NFL due to his smoothness in space and natural catch and run abilities. Aaron Hernandez is a special player in the NFL, but the similarities between the two far exceed the college both attended.”
Floyd: “While Floyd is rough around the edges and will take time to develop as a two-gapper, the Gator’s quickness, athleticism, and scheme versatility will make him coveted by 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike in the first round.”
While Floyd seems to be in the luxurious position of being able to do little to curb his draft stock, a number of players will be using this weekend as a hopeful springboard into the consciousness of team decision-makers.
Florida has several players that could see a big boost this weekend, starting with Elam. Save for maybe Manti Te’o and Alec Ogletree, the interview portion of the combine may not be more important for any other player besides Elam. At this point, Elam may only be able prove through his words that he has the ability to control his emotions.
Elam is perhaps the only player who will be relying more on the off the field itinerary this weekend. The remaining Gators will have their fingers crossed that they can shine during the on-field drills, particularly the skill players in Reed and Gillislee. If both Reed and Gillislee can put up better than anticipated numbers in the 40, 3-cone and shuttle, they may find their names being called earlier than anticipated on draft night.
Florida’s increased presence at the combine is another small victory for Muschamp, who has begun to turn things around in a brief period of time. After last year’s underwhelming turnout at UF’s Pro Day, Muschamp appeared embarrassed by what UF had been offering to the pro ranks.
“We need more guys out there in position to be drafted,” Muschamp said. “That’s pretty evident as you go through our last two pro days.”
“We need to do a better job recruiting, need to do a better job evaluating, need to do a better job developing our players and coaching. That’s the bottom line.”
In corporate terms, the “bottom line” is often used as a description for a company’s net earnings.
While championships will always be the goal, if having players being drafted is also an equivalent of monetary earnings for Florida’s program, the bottom line is again projecting to be pretty good in Gainesville.