NEW ORLEANS -- By simple definition, fans are fanatical. They know what’s best for their team, no matter the circumstance. Forget coaches. The fans know.
But in the case of Florida running back Mike Gillislee, they were actually right.
While Gillislee toiled away at the bottom of the depth chart through his first three seasons, and especially during a frustrating 2011 season that featured senior scat backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps going mostly sideways and backward, fans took to Twitter to clamor for Gillislee. While watching the running offense struggle during a 7-6 campaign, Florida supporters sent out tweets with the phrase #FreeGilly, a desperate plea to whomever would listen to play the larger, more physical running back with a nose for the hole and downhill style.
Those pleas were justified this season, when Gillislee finally got the opportunity to head up the Gators offense, rushing for 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become just the seventh player in the 106-year history of the program to reach 1,000 yards.
“It’s something that I always wanted to do,” Gillislee said of the achievement. “I always wanted to be remembered. Getting 1,000 yards, I think that will be remembered.”
Heading into Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl against Louisville, Gillislee ranks seventh all-time in Florida’s single-season rushing totals — directly behind names like Errict Rhett, Fred Taylor and Emmitt Smith. With a career game of 189 yards against the Cardinals, Gillislee would pass Taylor and move into fourth all-time.
Being remembered won’t be a problem for Gillislee now.
Although that wasn’t always the case, and there was a distinct possibility he could have easily been forgotten, Gillislee has carved out his own special place in Florida lore, and his teammates couldn’t be less surprised.
“Nah. No way,” senior offensive lineman James Wilson said when asked if Gillislee’s production this season exceeded his expectations. “That man’s got wheels, he’s got shakes — it’s ridiculous. … He’s been through a lot, and he’s really tough because of it. There’s no quit in him.”
Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said Gillislee is his top concern heading into Wednesday’s game, and defensive end Marcus Smith called Gillislee the best player on Florida’s offense.
“He can put his foot in the ground and get vertical on you right now,” Bedford said. “He can also cut back. … One thing we cannot allow him to do is cut back on us. If he does, he’s probably going to take it the distance. … When Mike gets the ball in his hand, there’s no telling what can happen.”
With sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel still learning the position in his first year as a full-time starter, the dependability and consistency that Gillislee also brought to the run game was paramount. Florida rushed the ball on first down 259 times compared with just 77 throws.
Even though the Gators leaned on Gillislee early and often this season, the senior running back seemed to get stronger as games went on. Gillislee rushed for 5.14 yards per carry in the second halves of games this season compared with an average of 4.31 in the first two quarters, and his touchdown runs in the second half against LSU and Florida State helped seal two of the team’s biggest wins of the season.
Gillislee said his confidence never wavered.
“I’m a believer,” he said. “I have faith. And I knew if I stayed healthy that I was going to have a great season.”
Gillislee actually has the word faith tattooed on his chest as a constant reminder to keep believing. He has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, a potential springboard to an opportunity in the NFL and something he said he didn’t expect, especially after everything he has been through.
Asked Sunday if he has a favorite running back at the next level, Gillislee quickly replied Arian Foster. It’s not because the gregarious Foster has been one of the top backs in the NFL since earning the starting job with the Houston Texans in 2010, it’s because, like Gillislee, Foster also was once overlooked. Foster went undrafted despite finishing his career at Tennessee as the second-leading rusher in school history.
“That’s my guy right there,” Gillislee said. “I like his style of running, and I like his story. ... He showed the world what he can do.”
• Former graduate assistant turned wide receivers coach Bush Hamdan has accepted an offer to continue coaching the position at Arkansas State. Florida coach Will Muschamp confirmed that Hamdan would be leaving following the Sugar Bowl. Muschamp already has hired former Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips to coach wide receivers.