“Free Gilly” became a rally cry for Florida Gators fans in 2011 when the team’s undersized but speedy starting running backs were simply not getting the job done. Senior rusher Mike Gillislee got that well-deserved and long-desired freedom in the first week of the 2012 campaign and has used his talent, coupled with a humble, team-first attitude, to emerge as one of the best players not only on his team but in the entire Southeastern Conference.
“Playing running back is all about being patient and having faith in your offensive line and knowing that the holes will open up soon,” Gillislee said Saturday after toting a career-high 34 carries for a beastly 146 yards and two touchdowns against the LSU Tigers, a team that features one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
But Gillislee’s patience does not only manifest between the sidelines.
A four-star prospect out of Deland, FL in 2009, he committed to Florida knowing he would have to work to earn carries in then-head coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense. When Meyer left and Will Muschamp took over promising to overhaul the offense with a pro-style system, Gillislee’s hopes for playing time were undoubtedly raised.
A combination of injuries and roster depth hurt his chance to break out in his true junior season as he carried the ball two fewer times for exactly as many yards (328) as he did in UF’s final year under Meyer.
Instead of getting down on his luck, Gillislee kept his head up and plowed forward.
“[He’s] a great example for everyone on our football team,” Muschamp said. “This guy puts Florida before himself and that’s really hard nowadays with a lot of young people. They want everything now and that’s not the way Mike is. That’s not the way he’s built.”
Gillislee admitted as much after Saturday’s game.
Read the rest of this feature story on Mike Gillislee…after the break!
“It was difficult for me, but I’m a team guy. I knew one day my opportunity was going to come,” he said. “I was frustrated. I put the team first. Whatever happened with the coaches, what they wanted, who they wanted in, I was satisfied. I just wanted to win. I’m a team player, man.”
With Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey both graduating following the 2011 season, Gillislee was told he would have to earn his role as the starting running back and did just that during camp, outworking the two younger players breathing down his neck. Muschamp may not have necessarily seen it the year prior, but he knew this spring that he had a running back that could lead his offense.
“I’ll take Gilly over anybody. I tell him that all the time, and I mean that,” he said. “I felt that way in spring and going into fall camp. I thought he had a great camp, and he’s prepared himself through the summer.
“He’s a Will Muschamp guy. He don’t ever say anything. He just does his job. He lines up. He runs the ball. You ask him to block, he’s going to block. You ask him to catch it, he’s going to catch it. He’s just a really, really, really good football player. He plays special teams. He does everything we ask him to do. He’s a program guy.”
Gillislee through five games in 2012 has more carries and rushing yards than he had in any prior season of his college football career. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, 109.6 yards per game and 1.4 touchdowns per contest, all while being counted on to be the Gators’ primary offensive weapon.
As ESPN pointed out early Sunday morning, Gillislee is one of three players who have rushed for more than 140 yards and two touchdowns against LSU since 2006. The other two – Cam Newton and Darren McFadden (twice) – finished either first or second in voting for the Heisman Trophy in their respective seasons.
Gillilsee’s performance Saturday was a culmination of all he has worked so hard for, yet he is well aware that he has plenty of other goals to meet and much more he can achieve this season, his last wearing the Orange and Blue.
“We had a saying coming in: ‘Now or never.’ I pretty much motivated my offensive line throughout the game,” he said. “I kept telling them, ‘Now or never.’”
Gillislee may have been riling up his teammates with that mantra but there should be no doubt that, in the back of his mind, he has also been fueling himself by acknowledging that this is his last opportunity to make a major impact on the collegiate level.
“It’s a dream come true, and I’ll never forget this moment – the feeling, the win,” he said. “It’s a dream come true, and it’s an opportunity that I’m going to do the best to keep this opportunity because the other running backs [on the roster] are just as good as me.”
Gillislee’s backups may be equally as talented when all is said and done with their careers, but the attitude and determination that the man affectionately known as “Gilly” has shown throughout four years at Florida puts him in a class all his own.
Photo Credit: Phil Sandlin/Associated Press