Garcia thankful for time at Florida

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Asked to sum up his Florida career, and all Max Garcia could do is smile.

Finding a starting point was difficult for the Florida center.

There were times when Garcia couldn’t have been happier in Gainesville and other frustrating times on the field. Reflecting on his career Friday afternoon at Legion Field, he admitted that he wouldn’t have changed anything from his time in Gainesville.

“My time at Florida has just been all positive,” Max Garcia said. “It just made me a better person, a better athlete, a better student, just overall a better person. I just can’t thank Coach Muschamp enough for the opportunity and just being at the University of Florida, getting a high-class education and being able to experience the football game with the teammates I’ve had and the coaches I’ve had. It’s just been a great experience.”

Something didn’t feel right during Garcia’s first two years at Maryland. He started every game at left tackle during his sophomore season, but he ultimately wanted more. It wasn’t a good fit for him, so he set out on the search to find where the right place would be. Garcia looked at multiple Southeastern Conference schools, including his home state Georgia, before ultimately deciding Florida was the right fit.

“I just thought I needed a fresh start, to my whole life pretty much,” Garcia said. “I was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen and to live it out on a more positive note. When I found the opportunity, whatever it was, I decided to do things the right way. I think that’s really what it came down to -- me making those conscious decisions to weigh out, whether it be good or whether it be bad. Not a lot of people get a second chance.”

Garcia’s second chance wasn’t needed because of any off the field issues. He just wanted a fresh start at a new school.

Then came the hard part.

NCAA transfer rules forced Garcia to sit out during the 2012 season, and he worked as the left tackle on the scout team. That’s when he learned more about work ethic and game preparation. With linebacker Michael Taylor sitting next to him at the podium on Friday, Garcia told stories about the linebackers getting mad at him during practices in 2012 because he wasn’t like the other scout team offensive linemen.

“A little competitive, that’s all,” Taylor said with a smile about Garcia.

Offensive line coach Tim Davis recommended Garcia slide inside to guard for the 2013 season, and he was the only offensive lineman to start every game for the Gators in 2013. When that season wrapped up and three-year starting center Jonotthan Harrison graduated, Will Muschamp approached Garcia with an idea.

He wanted the transfer to move inside one more time and spend his senior year at center. Garcia admitted he laughed at the idea at first, but the more he thought about it, he wanted to do it. First, it was what the Gators needed for the 2014 season. They needed a leader in the middle of the line that was smart enough to handle adjustments. He also realized it would help him at the next level to be more versatile and a more appealing prospect in the NFL Draft.

“I just never thought I’d play center my senior year,” Garcia said. “It ended up being a good decision.”

Garcia will take the field in a Florida uniform for the last time on Saturday at 12 p.m. EST when the Gators take on East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. It’s his last chance to put on the uniform that changed his life, and he couldn’t be more thankful that it happened.

“Moving from the ACC to the SEC, I don’t know too many that do that,” Garcia said. “I just understand how valuable and how crazy it is to get a second chance. All the people around me have just supported me and just gave me the opportunity to be successful. That’s something that I’m going to take with me.”?

It’s easy to see what Garcia does for his team on the field. Watch him before the snap, he can help adjust protections and point out opposing blitzers. He’s a valuable piece of the Florida offense.

Off the field, he’s even more valuable.

“He’s been a consistent starter for us for the past two years,” interim head coach D.J. Durkin said. “Probably the most consistent player. One thing he didn’t talk about is what he means to us off the field. You can’t find a better person. Max is a great football player and a better person. He’s been a great leader for us, and a great guy that leads by example. Anytime you have a guy that performs that consistently in practice and game in and game out, it’s a great guy to point to for the rest of your team and say that’s what we’re looking for.”

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