Tate Casey laughs out loud when he considers that he could go down in the Florida record books as one of the few football players ever to do Senior Day twice. Now, that wasn’t part of the plan when he got here five years ago, a big time recruit for then-Florida coach Ron Zook, but then again, exactly what has gone according to plan for Tate Casey?
From a top tight end prospect who became a dangerous red zone threat as a true freshman to the forgotten man at the position, Casey’s career has endured more twists and turns than a week on the set of a soap opera. This is the year he hopes all the drama will come to an end. He has a fifth year thanks to a successful medical hardship appeal, 20 pounds of new muscle to fill out his long, lean frame to 255 pounds, and there added level of maturity, perhaps the result of so many ups and downs over the last five years.
Signed out of Longview, Texas by Ron Zook back in 2004, Casey was considered the top tight end prospect in Texas and one of the best at his position in the country even though he was way too skinny at 6-6, 219. As a Florida freshman, he made the most of the few opportunities he had to catch the ball. He caught eight passes for 127 yards but four of them went for touchdowns.
Zook was fired during that 2004 season, replaced in December by Urban Meyer, whose high-tech, roll up the score offense at Utah rarely utilized a tight end. Casey wasn’t fazed and instead of making a few calls back to Texas to find out who needed a tight end, he bought into Meyer from day one and became an asset for the coaches when they brought in recruits.
After a sophomore season in which he caught 10 passes, Casey endured a junior year when the ball sailed through the wickets far too often. He had six catches during Florida’s national championship run but due to some early season drops quarterback Chris Leak rarely looked his way toward the end of the season. Unreliable as a receiver and too skinny at 225 to be an effective blocker at tight end, it seems he got lost in the shuffle.
Then came his senior season and that’s one he’d like to forget. One complication became another in a year he thought would never end.
“I had an inflamed elbow that I hurt during the spring,” said Casey. “That kept me out of spring. Then I blew out an ankle during two-a-days which kept me out. I got back the first two games and played. The ankle went out again during the third week, during the Tennessee week.”
The ankle was bad and the elbow still wasn’t right. It was determined that he would have to have surgery on the elbow at some point but with the lack of depth at tight end, he was still needed. He dressed out every game even though he knew he would only see the field in case of emergency. If there weren’t any emergencies, he knew there was a chance he might be eligible to appeal for a fifth year as a medical hardship.
As long as everybody stayed healthy, he knew he wouldn’t play, but he still had to be ready to go on a moment’s notice. The uncertainty took a toll.
“It’s not like I wasn’t preparing for games,” he said. “I knew that if Aaron (Hernandez) went down or CI (Cornelius Ingram) went down, we needed two tight ends and I would have to play,” he said. “I knew that. I was told that. I was prepared every week to play. It’s kind of one of those deals where you have to be ready to go but at the same time you don’t have to in order to get that medical redshirt.
“It’s one of those things that you almost have to eat it and it’s a hard pill to swallow when you look at it from the outside, but at the same time whatever is best for the team as far as playing your role and whatever you have to do to win games … if we needed something like that to happen then I was fully aware of my role on the team and what I would have to do.”
He wasn’t needed the rest of the season. He knew he had to have surgery but there was nothing guaranteed about the medical hardship appeal. Just to be on the safe side, Meyer wanted Casey to hear the appreciative roar of the Florida fans at The Swamp one last time, so Casey did Senior Day when the Gators annihilated Florida State, 45-12, in November.
“I think Coach wanted to make sure I had a Senior Day in case the appeal didn’t go through,” said Casey. “That was something I couldn’t help but it was a nice gesture by Coach in order for me to get a Senior Day in case it didn’t work out the way it did.”
The appeal worked and so did the elbow surgery and that brought Casey to a crossroads. Call it one of those moments when a young guy has to decide if he’s willing to take that next step on the road toward being a fine adult.
Casey says he was looking in the mirror trying to decide what to do when it hit him. Maybe it was the skinny body he saw — he was 235 at the time, bigger than he was when he got to Gainesville but still undersized for a tight end — or maybe it was the chance to redeem a career gone south.
Whatever it was, he made a decision to do something about his Florida football career.
“I sat with Coach Mick (Mickey Marotti) and Coach (John) Hevesy (Florida tight ends) in January and told them I wanted to completely change the whole perspective of me as a tight end,” said Casey. “I think the last three years have been a struggle to do that and mainly because of me. It wasn’t about coaches not doing what I think they should be doing. I’ve never been the one to say anything like that or feel that way.
“I think for me it was to sit back, look in the mirror and ask, ‘what are you doing wrong and how can we fix it?’ In the offseason, the main thing I wanted to get done was to commit myself to get bigger and try to gain weight and try to work on technique and try to get stronger in the weight room.”
With a new attitude and a newfound determination, Casey added 20 pounds of muscle. That’s a huge amount of weight for a guy that has always struggled to add weight.
He has also spent plenty of time working with Hevesy, trying to learn more about staying within his base so he can use the added strength and weight to become a more effective blocker. With Ingram gone for the season with a blown ACL, Casey knows he will have to play a lot of football so the added strength and weight should make him far more effective on the field.
Off the field, Casey carries the weight of being a senior and a leader quite well. He is determined to be a positive force in the locker room for a team that has the potential to be very good. Having been a part of a national championship team that was blessed with outstanding leaders, he knows what a vital element that is.
“Even though we are lacking seniors as far as a lot of seniors, we have quite a few that have been around the block a couple of times and a lot of us played on that national championship team and we know what it takes,” he said.
Not everybody on the team knows what it takes to win a championship and that’s where Casey knows he fits in and the message he has to send to his teammates.
“A lot of young guys that are immature don’t know what it takes,” he said. “A sense of urgency is what it takes to win championships.”
Teammates have been giving him a hard time for being a veteran of Senior Day — “I take a hard time with that probably the most,” he said —but it will all be worth it on November 22 if he can take that stroll out to midfield of The Swamp knowing that the Gators are East Division champs with a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference championship in Atlanta.
Not every Gator gets two Senior Days. Not every Gator gets a chance to play for two SEC championships and even fewer have the chance to play for two national championships.
He thinks about the possibilities that lie in front of him and he grins a grin that has been forged from more hard times than he ever thought he would go through when he came to Gainesville back in 2004. All the tough times will melt away if he can finish all this off with another championship.
“That would be nice,” he says. “That would be really nice.”