A surreal but special Senior Day awaits Gators in The Swamp
Florida’s seniors will take the field in The Swamp for the final time Saturday night when the No. 6 Gators host LSU (7 p.m., ESPN). LSU is always a big game for the Gators, even with the Tigers struggling at 3-5, but the game will take on even more significance as Florida looks to send its seniors out winners.
A win would also give the Gators a second consecutive unbeaten season at home and extend Florida’s SEC-best home winning streak to 13. Florida lost only 5 times in The Swamp from 1990-2001, but the Gators have been more vulnerable at home in the two decades since. In fact, a win Saturday night would give Florida back-to-back unbeaten seasons at home for the first time since the 2005-2006 seasons under Urban Meyer.
Reestablishing The Swamp as a place “only Gators get out alive” will be just one of the many legacies of this special group of seniors Florida will honor before Saturday night’s game.
It’s hard to think of a group of seniors who have seen more or been through more than this group.
This senior class arrived in Gainesville in 2016 and 2017, a period of staggering and saddening transition for the program. None of these seniors was part of a top 10 recruiting class, and not a single one of them carried a 5-star rating out of high school. The group’s Heisman Trophy candidate, Kyle Trask, was a 2-star turned late bump 3-star ranked out of the top 2,000 nationally. The highest-rated player, Antonneous Clayton, signed in 2016 and was nearly a 5-star but lasted only 3 before transferring to Georgia Tech in 2019. The highest-rated players in the 2017 class were TJ Slaton, who is a now a junior and starter and James Robinson, whose career was tragically cut short due to a health condition. Robinson, for his part, has gone on to be a community leader and mentor to young people in his hometown of Lakeland and he will graduate with honors from UF this spring.
Robinson’s adversity is unique, but the seniors that remain have collectively stared down plenty of adversity together.
The 2017 class entered Gainesville as McElwain’s best recruiting class on paper, ranked 11th nationally as the program claimed momentum after back-to-back SEC Championship Game appearances and a comfortable Outback Bowl win in 2016. Less than 11 full months after they signed, the program was a cultural tire fire headed to a 4-win season and the staff that recruited them was cleaning out their offices.
Those who stayed through the transition helped usher in a new era of Florida football, one that has seen the Gators win 29 games in 2-plus seasons and capture 2 New Year’s 6 bowl victories in the process.
Plenty of those guys would normally be preparing to receive rowdy and rapturous ovations Saturday night. Instead, thanks to COVID-19, they’ll have the surreal misfortune of playing their final home game in front of 20,000 instead of 90,000.
It shouldn’t matter. The legacy of this group should be secure.
Trask isn’t the only special story, either.
Take for example Kadarius Toney, pictured above celebrating with Trask.
A 3-star athlete without a position out of Eight Mile, Alabama, Toney was ranked outside the top 400 nationally. You can’t teach the magic Toney produces with the football though and Toney made his impact felt immediately, becoming the first Gators freshman since Percy Harvin to average a first down per touch on a minimum of 25 touches.
The new staff always felt there was more in the tank though, and for 2 years, they limited Toney’s touches while challenging him to become a more complete player, one who ran good routes, blocked and was an asset in the locker room. As a senior, Toney has been all of those things and more. His 53 receptions as a senior are more than his 50 receptions in his first 3 seasons at Florida combined — but he’ll leave Gainesville the first Gators receiver since Harvin to average a first down a touch with a minimum of 25 receptions and rushes.
How about the story of senior center Brett Heggie and offensive tackle Stone Forsythe?
Heggie was an All-SEC freshman team selection at guard under McElwain but struggled with injuries as a sophomore and a junior. He embraced the never easy task of playing a new position as a senior, and has graded out as one of the SEC’s best centers this season, per Pro Football Focus. Forsythe overcame issues with weight and quickness to blossom into the SEC’s best offensive tackle in pass protection, per Pro Football Focus. A 3-year starter, he joins Heggie as a key reason Florida’s offensive lane ranks in the top 10 in sack percentage allowed, protecting the quarterback that may win the Heisman Trophy better than all but one line in the SEC (Texas A&M).
Senior defenders Jeremiah Moon and Kyree Campbell haven’t had monster careers, but both have helped oversee the transition from a defense that couldn’t pressure the quarterback in 2017 to one that has ranked in the top 25 in quarterback pressures and sack percentage every season under Todd Grantham. Moon is questionable with a lingering injury but should receive a loud ovation for his versatility and infectious attitude that saw him named a team captain early in his junior season. Campbell is a no-nonsense nose tackle who has helped Florida overcome early-season run defense woes and improve to a unit that now ranks in the top 40 nationally against the run and in the top 30 in run success rate defense.
These are just a few of the tremendous seniors Florida will honor Saturday night, seniors who will be remembered mainly for making the Gators brutal to play against again.
Of course, the loudest cheers will likely come for the unlikeliest player. Trask is the last name on the “grade” listing of Florida’s 2016 class. He will leave Florida as the quarterback who stepped in for a fallen starter and never let go of the job again, a near-certain Heisman finalist who is in the midst of one of the greatest seasons a quarterback has ever had at Florida, a place where the best quarterback seasons are honored with statues outside The Swamp. Whether Trask becomes Florida’s 4th Heisman winner, earning a statue in the process, will play itself out over the final few weeks of the season. What doesn’t need to play itself out is Trask’s status as a Gator great and folk legend, the guy who could have left but chose to stay and in so doing dragged a program out of the wilderness and back into the national spotlight.
It’s a surreal story. But for this group of seniors, it has a perfect symmetry.