The Florida Gators (7-5) concluded their 2014 season on Saturday, earning a 28-20 win over the East Carolina Pirates in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl, a victory which marked the end of the four-year Will Muschamp era in Gainesville, Florida.
While the Gators have since announced a coaching staff and are prepared to move on under new head coach Jim McElwain, there are still some odds and ends to wrap up from the end of the 2014 campaign.
Bowl game injuries
A number of Florida players were hurt during the Birmingham Bowl but most appeared to be relatively minor injuries. That was not the case for junior linebacker Antonio Morrison, the first player since Ahmad Black in 2010 to record more than 100 tackles in a single season.
Morrison, who was considering leaving for the 2015 NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining, was on the field screaming in pain with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. He was carted off the field, and UF interim coach D.J. Durkin could offer nothing more than a general statement about Morrison’s injury after the game.
“I can’t say enough about that kid. He’s very special to me. He’s a guy, we’ve been here together the whole time. Whatever it is, how serious it is, I know one thing, there’s not a tougher guy in this country than Antonio,” Durkin said. “Whatever it is, he’ll bounce back from and be back playing 100 percent somewhere, sometime soon.”
Three days later, the Gators have yet to announce any specifics about Morrison’s injury, though OnlyGators.com has contacted a spokesman for an update but not heard back as of press time.
Where was the starter?
Junior running back Matt Jones traveled with Florida to Birmingham, Alabama, and intended to play in the Birmingham Bowl. He even suited up and could be seen on television in full pads on the sideline. Jones, however, did not play due to a shoulder injury he suffered during practice leading up to the bowl game. As a precaution – he has already declared that he will declare for the draft with a year of eligibility remaining – Jones did not play in the contest.
“Matt wasn’t 100 percent going into the game,” Durkin said. “He was dinged up a little bit with a shoulder. We just made a decision that it wasn’t best for our team or him to play in the football game.”
As a player who has dealt with serious injuries throughout his career with the Gators, Jones needs to be healthy as he goes through the pre-draft process – it is more important for him than a player with a clean bill of health for his career to be injury-free as he meets with teams and gets physically tested over the next few months.
Going out with a bang
Junior defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. is projected to be a first-round selection in the upcoming draft but played in the Birmingham Bowl like it was the first game of his career, giving an all-out effort throughout the contest. He finished the game with three sacks and not only proved his dominance but also showed NFL evaluators that he will give top-notch effort no matter the situation.
“His celebration dances were not very good. In fact, I wanted to take him out a couple times,” joked Durkin.
“No, Dante was disruptive in the backfield all day long. I think something needs to be said, a guy we know Dante’s intentions and his future. For a guy in this situation to go out and do what he did and play how he played, you can’t say more about a guy’s character. That’s pretty amazing. You talk about a great teammate, a great person and a great football player, that’s No. 6.”
What was Fowler’s motivation?
“Just to put the team on my back, the defense on my back and keep going because Antonio’s basically our leader, our quarterback on the defense. When he got hurt, I just told him, I told him I was going to hold him down and I was going to anchor everything. My job was to keep fighting hard, no matter what, keep fighting hard for my brothers,” he said.
Fowler was emotional after the game, explaining why it was so important for him to give maximum effort and play to the best of his ability on Saturday.
“[I wanted to go] out with a W and celebrate with my teammates and my coaches that I came in with – Durkin was one of my recruiters. To see how everything is ending is kind of crazy. I feel like this was the best decision I ever made. I was fortunate enough to do great things here, which will let me go to the next level. Just being able to go out with a bang with my brothers … I couldn’t ask for a better feeling,” he said.
“It was crazy just to see Gator Nation happy and everybody else happy. You know, that’s all I want to do is put smiles on peoples’ faces and make everybody happy. So if I can do that then I’ll always do that. Once I take this jersey off, it’s coming with me, so I’m still going to wear it sometimes.”
According to Darren Heitner, Fowler has agreed to sign with agent Jimmy Sexton.
An emerging talent?
With Jones out and sophomore Kelvin Taylor struggling in the contest, Durkin turned to redshirt freshman RB Adam Lane Jr. to tote the rock on Saturday. And he did to the tune of 109 yards and his first career touchdown on a team-high 16 carries. Lane earned the bowl’s Most Valuable Player honor in the first game he’s seen significant action in his career.
“It was great just to be able to help get a W for our team, send these seniors off right and send this coaching staff off right,” Lane said after the game. “It was just a great accomplishment and a great feeling to help those guys.”
As far as not getting an opportunity to shine previously, Lane dismissed the notion that it put a sour taste in his mouth.
“It just built a bigger fire inside me and made me want to work harder. I took the opportunities that I did get and made the most of them,” he said.
Durkin’s next step
As OnlyGators.com reported last week, there has long been mutual interest between Durkin and Michigan for an opening on Jim Harbaugh’s new staff. But while Durkin was considering his post-Florida options, he still had an opportunity in front of him that he wanted to give 100 percent of his concentration – leading a team as head coach for the first time in his career.
The Gators, under Durkin’s leadership, pulled off a 28-20 victory over a talented Pirates team on Saturday. Florida won, as it has often over the last four years, with defense, but the team as a whole was most certainly motivated by Durkin throughout the week leading into the game.
“Words can’t really describe how I feel about these guys as a team. I’m so happy for our players to go get that win. We were just trying to get guys to buy into something, buy into playing for one another, relationships they have in that room. I think it’s pretty evident guys bought into that. It was just a great feeling of pride and happiness for those guys after the game,” Durkin explained.
As Muschamp noted prior to departing the program, Durkin said there is plenty of talent remaining on the Gators roster for McElwain and Florida’s new coaching staff. He is also impressed with the quality of player on the team, noting that he appreciates the high character of the individuals on the roster.
“You saw it. There were young guys all over the place,” he said. “Even a guy like Adam Lane, who we hadn’t seen that much throughout the year, he stepped up and showed what he can do. He’s a great football player. There is, there’s great talent.
“Probably even more importantly than the talent is the amount of character on this team. I think that really showed. This would have been an easy situation to not go out and play like we did and compete like we did and believe in one another like our players did. That’s what I’m most proud of and that’s the most important thing left in this locker room.”
Durkin will almost assuredly wind up coaching under Harbaugh again for the Wolverines. The position he ultimately winds up coaching will likely be determined by who else Harbaugh adds to the staff, a source told OnlyGators.com on Monday.
Just injured, not transferring
Redshirt freshman LB Matt Rolin has yet to play at Florida, but it is not for talent or want-to reasons. Rolin, who joined the Gators with an ACL injury and had a second surgery after re-tearing it prior to his freshman campaign, sat out the entire 2014 season as well at the behest of the school’s doctors and trainers. He announced Tuesday on Twitter that he has no plans whatsoever to transfer and is fully committed to Florida going forward.
“No I am not transferring lol. I am a gator and will be a gator till the end of my career,” he wrote in a picture message. “My athletic trainers and coaches were super cautious with me this season and decided it was best to take it slow this season. I’m looking forward to the opportunity that I will have come spring ball and in the fall. Go gators”
Chucky passed on?
With Fowler (the recipient of the Chucky doll from Dominique Easley) set to leave the Gators, one of the most pressing issues early this offseason is who will carry on the new tradition inside Florida’s locker room.
Well, it looks as if it might be Taylor.
— KelvinTaylor (@Kelvintaylor21) January 6, 2015