All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is notoriously fickle with the media.
The Florida Gators’ junior star is well spoken. Only he hates talking.
But after No. 11 Florida’s 27-3 beatdown over archrival Georgia on Saturday, Hargreaves held court for the first time all season and explained exactly how coach Jim McElwain had engineered UF’s dramatic turnaround.
“One of the first things he told us is that it’s not a buy or sell kind of deal,” Hargreaves said, who added his fourth interception of the year in the win. “I’m going to show you how to do it, and if you don’t do it right then there’s another guy who will.”
After two subpar seasons in a row, Florida was open to change. A talented Gators team needed something or someone to believe in.
They found what they were looking for.
McElwain’s early message about accountability resonated, and now Florida is one win away from booking a ticket back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
“He didn’t come in and try to put his foot down on anybody and say how it was,” Hargreaves continued. “He told us what we had to do to be great. The guys listened. It’s working for us.”
It really is.
The Gators, who remained ranked No. 11 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, bulldozed the Bulldogs behind a suffocating and relentless defense and an opportunistic offense. It wasn’t always pretty, but effectively ugly has worked all season for Florida (7-1, 5-1)
UF was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East. The Gators were an 18-1 shot to win the SEC championship.
Now, they tout the best résumé of any one-loss team in the country.
“Everybody knows what it’s like to lose to your whole schedule,” Hargreaves said, alluding to UF’s 4-8 and 7-5 seasons the past two years. “Nobody wants to feel that way anymore. Guys are just determined. Guys are motivated, and guys want to be good. It’s just trickling down.”
McElwain is obsessed with the details and “focusing on the now.” His team has bought in, and the players shrugged off distractions, suspensions and the loss of budding star quarterback Will Grier.
The offense remains a work in progress, but the defense hasn’t lost a beat. The Gators are winning as a team, and after Saturday’s rout, McElwain praised UF’s preparation.
“They’re starting to get the why,” he said. “It’s not about thinking about going to the championship. It’s about what do we do right now to get better, because the championship will never come if we don’t take care of the now. And our guys are getting that.”
A homecoming win over Vanderbilt (3-5, 1-3) would secure a berth in the SEC title game for the first time since 2009. McElwain would become the only coach in school history to reach the title game in his first year.
The Gators’ remarkable resurgence has increased expectations. Two turbulent seasons seem like a distant — but necessary — memory.
“Where we are now, we can only stop ourselves,” Hargreaves said. “[Finishing] 4-8, 7-5 is not the expectation. But we grew from it. It helped us a lot. I’m glad we went through it actually. It’s helped turn around this year.”