As the Florida Gators took the field for Monday’s Outback Bowl against Iowa, the backbone of its defense could only watch.
Linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone were in sweatpants, replaced by true freshman Vosean Joseph and walk-on Christian Garcia. Safeties Marcus Maye and Nick Washington were also limited to the sideline, making room for the emergence of true freshman Chauncey Gardner to accompany redshirt junior Marcell Harris.
With a group of veterans held out of the game, the underclassmen were given a message.
“Listen we may be young, some of you guys probably stepping up in roles you never had to play before,” freshman safety Chauncey Gardner said. “Just go out there and have fun.”
The defense looked like it had fun in its 30-3 win, the offense found some occasional success, and the youth movement in the Gators’ 2016 season finale showed potential for what’s to come with this football team next season.
“Just so proud of them,” UF coach Jim McElwain said after the game. “[It is] well-documented, obviously, how beat up we were, and yet we never once all year used that as an excuse in any way, shape or form.”
Instead, it allowed McElwain to see what he will have left in the tank after the bulk of his defense leaves for the NFL. In addition to his five seniors — defensive linemen Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr., linebacker Daniel McMillian, Davis and Maye — another quartet of defenders are expected to forgo their final season of eligibility and declare for the draft.
Gardner earned Outback Bowl MVP honors after forcing two fourth-quarter interceptions, the first of which was returned 58 yards for a touchdown.
Joseph, a former Miami Norland High standout known for his big hits, had a career-high six tackles in his first career start. He, along with fellow true freshman David Reese, redshirt freshman Kylan Johnson and Garcia will be back at linebacker next year.
And the defensive line saw production from redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga (two quarterback hurries) as well as sophomores CeCe Jefferson (three solo tackles, one for a loss) and Keivonnis Davis (a tackle for loss and forced fumble), among others.
And overall, the group held Iowa to just a field goal and 226 yards of offense — including a season-low tying 55 passing yards.
“They set the tone for next year,” Ivie said. “As of now and as of how they played, I don’t think there’s going to be much of a drop-off.”
As for the offense, UF is losing just graduate transfer quarterback Austin Appleby, senior receiver Ahmad Fulwood and potentially junior offensive lineman David Sharpe.
That means lead tailback Jordan Scarlett (889 rushing yards, six touchdowns, 5.0 yards per carry), all six receivers and tight ends with at least 14 catches and 150 yards, and five offensive linemen with starting experience are expected to report back for spring camp.
But as the next movement begins, McElwain knows there is still work to be done before Florida can think about next season -- a year in which the Gators open against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and a year in which UF goes for a third consecutive SEC East title.
The Gators finished the year 116th in total offense and failed to gain 300 yards of offense in six games this season.
“I don't think we did enough,” McElwain said. “We've got good skill players, but we've got to develop a mentality up front that says we're not going to be denied, and that's going to happen over this offseason.”