Florida is over a month removed from the end of the season, but what happened in the final three games is not anything the players will get over any time soon.
Especially for those on defense.
The Gators gave up 27 points in a loss to Florida State; 29 to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game; and then an uncharacteristic 41 in a loss to Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. They closed the season on a three-game losing streak after beginning it with six straight victories.
All the offensive issues that have plagued them over the last several seasons came rushing back once Will Grier was suspended after the Missouri game for violating NCAA rules. But the returning defensive players are not pointing the finger at the other side of the ball.
Their own shortcomings, most especially against Michigan, are what continue to stick with them as they go through offseason workouts.
“That performance, that wasn’t us,” safety Marcus Maye said recently. “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to. We didn’t come out with energy the way we were supposed to. Once they got up, it was hard to fight back. That game and those last couple ball games of the year definitely are stuck in the back of our mind and are the reasons why we get up early in the morning and work out.”
While much of the focus around signing day was how Florida would revamp its offense, the defense faces some uncertainty headed into spring practice next month.
What has been a strength over the past five seasons must prove once again it has the depth to replace several of its best players. Six starters are back -- including Maye and linebacker Jarrad Davis, who gave up opportunities to enter the draft in order to anchor the defense.
But the Gators lost their top tackler in Antonio Morrison; their top two players in sacks (Jon Bullard, Alex McCalister) and a potential first-round pick in shutdown cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (four interceptions).
With Hargreaves and nickelback Brian Poole gone, Florida will rely on Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson to take the cornerback spots. Starting safety Keanu Neal also is gone, creating an opportunity for Marcell Harris, Nick Washington or even early enrollee Chauncey Gardner to take over the starting job.
There is a standard the defensive players know they have to play up to, and they have no problem with the expectations that have already been set for them.
“That’s what you want as a defense,” Maye said. “It’s a pride thing. That’s what motivates us as a defense, to be one of the best defenses in the nation, to give our offense any opportunity they can get -- if it’s us creating a turnover, getting a pick-6. We can win any ball game if we all come together as a full group, offense, defense and special teams. We can beat a lot of teams like that.”
What also is a little different headed into the spring is the mind-set under coach Jim McElwain. Now in his second year, players clearly understand what to expect. And after an appearance in the SEC Championship Game, they know there won’t be any letting up.
And what happened in the final few games won’t fly again.
“When Coach Mac first got in here, we were all like how’s this going to go?” Maye said. “He told us to just trust him and buy in just a little bit and once we did that in the beginning, we kept on rolling and it was good. Now that we’ve been here for a whole year and we did what we did last year, the expectations are just as high. He’s not going to take a step off.
“He’s still making us get up early for workouts. The mind-set is definitely hungry. We all have the mind-set of we have to continue to work. We have to get better. We came up short in a few games at the end of the year last year, so the work that we put in now could be the difference in those.”