As they walked from the locker room out to the practice field to begin preparation for the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl the Florida Gators were excited. It had been some time since the team was back together in pads and getting a chance to do what they love but this was different. Something was missing.
“It was kind of scary at first,” redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Caleb Brantley said. “I’ve always had [Jon] Bullard there. Last practice when we split up, he was like ‘hey Caleb, it starts here.’ I’m one of the older guys now. It’s definitely new, but we’ve got to embrace it.”
Florida’s incredible season was driven by guys like Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Brian Poole and Vernon Hargreaves; veteran leaders both by their actions and their play and they were nowhere to be found.
It’s part of Jim McElwain’s idea to have the Florida Gators utilize a split squad practice until the team gets into a true game-planning mode for Michigan. For the seniors and players who have decided to forego their final year of eligibility and enter the draft it’s a nice break for them. They’ve given a lot to the university and this is a way for them to relax and soak up their final days in Gainesville.
The real purpose that the spilt squad practice is serving is the 2016 Florida team. When the Gators take the field this spring Bullard, Morrison, Poole and Hargreaves won’t be there. New leaders will have to take their place and McElwain’s decision to give the younger players a glimpse of that in December will help.
“It’s weird now, because I feel like I just came into college, but now I’m basically going into my junior year,” sophomore cornerback Quincy Wilson said. “Me and Jalen [Tabor] are one of the old guys now. It’s weird, but it’s time to take on that role.”
In a way, the bowl game is a reward. Even with a record amount of bowl games (41) this year, playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game still holds a certain prestige. Florida earned the right to play on a national stage and they’ll enjoy a week in Orlando. What McElwain has done is give the younger players, the ones who will need to step into new roles next year a glimpse of what that responsibility will feel like and they’re responding.
“Of course I like it,” Wilson said.
Not everyone can lead and the team, but the spring camp style of practice is giving players who took a redshirt the chance to step into more practice reps and show the coaching staff what they have learned and how much they have grown over the course of the year. Florida’s offensive line in particular had a young flavor in 2015 and they’ll count on several redshirt freshmen to come in and fortify the line in 2016.
“They’re, they’re all excited about it. They’re taking practice more serious. They’re going harder than they usually go, trying to show the coaches that they’re ready for next year, so that’s always great.”
The 2015 Florida Gators will take the field as a team one more time this season on New Year’s Day. The team wants to send the seniors off with a win and end a two game losing streak. More importantly, they want to set the tone for the 2016 season and take a step forward in reshaping the Florida Gators football team for the next season to come.