With Dan Mullen set to take the reins in Gainesville, Florida will have a familiar face leading the program next season.
Mullen’s success at Florida as an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer, which included his expert tutelage of quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, was the fundamental reason he was tapped in November to replace the departed Jim McElwain. Mullen understands Florida’s culture and expectations, and his resume suggests he can fix an offense that has regressed since he left for Starkville following Florida’s 2008 national championship.
Despite the fact that Florida tapped a familiar face at head coach, there will be plenty of new faces around the football building when the Gators begin spring practice this March, and that’s before you factor in Mullen’s inaugural Florida recruiting class.
But even as the winds of change swirl around the Gators’ program, the player who will be the face of Florida’s program in 2018 will be a salty, grizzled veteran.
The face of Florida football in 2018 is Cece Jefferson, and in many ways, that’s fitting.
A lifelong Gators fan with a magnetic personality and wide, country smile who grew up an hour north of Gainesville in rural Baker County, Jefferson spent many fall Saturdays attending Gators games in the Urban Meyer days.
Jefferson has seen Florida football at the pinnacle, and he’s helped enrich Florida’s football history himself, helping the Gators earn two trips to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship in his time in the orange and blue. Like Dan Mullen, he appreciates the winning history of Florida football and understands the work involved in accomplishing winning.
He’s also seen Florida football at rock bottom, a season lost before it began, a 4-7 record and a once-proud culture of winning ripped apart at the seams by off-field drama and suspensions and a faster-than-you-ever-imagined coaching change.
Jefferson is the best link to Florida’s past and the best bridge to what Florida football again could be, all rolled into one tenacious, lean, physical 6-1, 242-pound frame.
A 5-star recruit, Jefferson was one of the consensus top 10 players in the country (No. 7 on 247Sports’ list) as a senior in high school, and despite struggling to cut “baby fat” (he was 265 in August 2015) as a freshman, he managed to live up to some of the considerable hype, registering 9 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks as a pass-rushing specialist.
His sophomore year, however, was a struggle, as a leaner and more muscular Jefferson was nonetheless less productive, registering only 6.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks despite playing in three more games. And those numbers came on elite defenses that both ranked in the top 10 nationally — Jefferson was hardly the center of attention for opposing linemen or coaches.
But in 2017, even as the Gators’ campaign quickly went south, Jefferson exploded, registering a career-high 47 tackles, 14 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks despite playing only 11 games. By November, Jefferson was, according to one opposing assistant coach, “basically unblockable without help.”
Many kids parlay a big final month into a big paycheck, and it would have been hard to blame Jefferson for bolting to the NFL, especially with the coach who recruited him (Will Muschamp) and the coach who ultimately signed and coached him (Jim McElwain) both long gone.
Instead, Jefferson made a commitment to the future of Florida football when he opted to return for his senior year, despite almost assuredly being a mid-round, Day 2 draft selection. Jefferson cited unfinished business and the sour taste of a lost season as key motivators in deciding to come back, but he was also shrewdly intrigued by the opportunity to play for a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham.
Grantham’s Pittsburgh Steelers-style 3-4 scheme requires a fast, physical and versatile outside linebacker, and Jefferson fits the mold. Already a handful to block in November 2017, Jefferson can now benefit from another offseason of strength and conditioning and another full spring and summer of practices, setting the stage for a dominant 2018 season.
With the size to hold up against the power running games that teams employ in the SEC and the speed to pressure the quarterback off the edge, Jefferson fits perfectly into Grantham’s outside linebacker sweet spot. Grantham coached Jarvis Jones (a bit taller than Jefferson but with nearly identical size and speed) to All-America honors at Georgia in 2011 and 2012. More recently, Grantham coached Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat to the SEC lead in sacks (10.5) this past season.
Jefferson is poised to be the captain and star of a Gators defense returning eight starters. The unit improved steadily as the 2017 season progressed, and, with a year’s worth of experience in the secondary and more depth at linebacker on the way, Jefferson could lead the Gators’ defense back to a level of play that reaches the program’s lofty, historic defensive standard.