NEW ORLEANS — Prior to the season, Mike Gillilsee’s comments about having goals of 24 touchdowns and 1,500 yards were well publicized. But there was another objective Gillislee was preparing to take aim at, one he achieved in regular season finale, a 37-26 Florida Gators victory against Florida State.
Gillislee aspired to have his picture posted in the running backs meeting room at The Swamp, a distinction earned only by those who rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season.
Despite a tremendous year, particularly given the fact Gillislee was used sparingly during his first three seasons with the Gators, he fell short of the more publicized marks. However, with a four-yard rush in the first quarter against the Seminoles, Gillislee surpassed 1,000 yards on the season, earning a spot on the wall.
The picture has not yet been assembled. Soon, however, it will be hammered home just as Gillislee’s remarkable season will be hammered into the Florida record book.
“It’s a great feeling, just something that I always wanted to do,” Gillislee said Sunday. “I always wanted to be remembered. Getting 1,000 yards, I think I’m gonna be remembered.”
As Gillislee prepares for a Sugar Bowl matchup with Louisville on Wednesday, he does so having completed one of the best statistical seasons a running back has had for the Gators.
Carrying the ball 235 times this season, Gillislee has 1,104 rushing yards, enough for the eighth-best season in Florida history. Gillislee has the opportunity to ascend in the record books against the Cardinals, needing just six yards to surpass Errict Rhett’s 1,109 yards in 1991.
If Gillislee is able to turn in a performance similar to those he put together against Florida State or LSU, he could move even higher. Ciatrick Fason, Rhett and Fred Taylor each have marks that could be passed if Gillislee is able to eclipse 200 rushing yards in the game.
Gators offensive coordinator Brent Pease expects more of the same from Gillislee against Louisville. Having carried the ball so many times during the regular season, Gillislee’s body began to wear down near the end of the season. But with an extended break, Gillislee is fresh and ready to continue being problematic for opposing defensive coordinators.
“I think Mike’s really focused,” Pease said. “He understands what we’re doing. He’s dialed in.”
Despite the chance to improve his place in Florida’s storied history, Gillislee, the epitome of a program-first player, is more focused on sending his senior teammates out with a victory and giving the rest of the roster something to build on heading into next season.
Gillislee credits his selflessness to his family. With an older brother and younger sister, Gillislee is the middle child of a blue-collar, hardworking family — attributes similar to how he carries himself on and off the field.
However, another helpful hand in Gillislee’s development is current Louisville running backs coach Kenny Carter. Carter, who held the same position at Florida before leaving the Gators for Louisville with Charlie Strong, recruited Gillislee out of high school and is known for his calming demeanor.
Gillislee credits Carter for teaching him more than how to be an effective running back in the Southeastern Conference. Carter showed him how to be a man.
“He stayed on me,” Gillislee remembers. “I had braids or whatever, and I stayed with a doo rag in, and I never liked to take it off. When we went to dinner, he was just like a pops to me and would come up and snatch it off my head. Stuff like that. He made sure I had proper clothes on. He just was a father figure to me.”
The virtues Carter implemented in Gillislee’s life — honesty, humility and sacrifice — were put to the test during his first three seasons at Florida. Running behind a number of other backs including Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, Gillislee was forced to bide his time and wait for an opportunity.
With a team-first attitude that endeared him to coach Will Muschamp, Gillislee never took a day off from working, and he never had a negative word to say to a coach or teammate. That, senior offensive lineman James Wilson said, is the true testament to the man Gillislee has become during his time with the Gators.
“Every time [Gillislee] gets praised, he comes and hugs us,” Wilson said. “We love blocking for him every day.”
Of Gillislee, fellow offensive lineman Jon Halapio said, “We just love running the ball, and when we can spring Gilly out in the power plays, it’s going to be a good day.”
Those good days were few and far between for Gillislee during his first three seasons. But with one game left in his collegiate career, he is ready to put the finishing touches on a season he has been building toward since the first time Carter told him to tuck in his shirt or fix his tie. Gillislee is ready to take on the Cardinals.
After that, he will get back to work making sure his picture earns its rightful place next to other Gator greats.
“When I come back, hopefully next season, I will come in the running backs room and see [the picture],” Gillislee said. “And it will be a great feeling.”