Kan Li / Scout

Florida Gators playing for each other

As a freshman on the Florida defense last season, Jalen Tabor heard things he never expected in a college locker room.

Some of the veterans on the Florida roster openly talked last season about being ready to leave college and head to the next level. They wanted their statistics to show up on the page when the game was over, and while they all wanted Florida to win, not everyone showed it.

The new Florida staff set out to change that mentality. When defensive coordinator Geoff Collins met with the team for the first time, he preached a message about the importance of being together as a unit. Whenever the defense created a turnover, the Gators practiced celebrating together. Instead of some players running to the sideline after a turnover and finding a spot on the bench, Collins shared the importance of celebration and being truly happy for a teammate that made a big play.

“Coach Collins, he always talks about that -- play for one another,” Tabor said. “Now that we’re playing for each other, we became more of a unit than we did in past years and I feel like that’s showing on the field.

Saturday’s 27-3 win over Georgia was a perfect example to Tabor, and it brought his mind back to how far the players in the Florida program have come. The Gators had four interceptions by four different players against the Bulldogs. After the game was over, players that recorded the interceptions were thanking the players that created pressure on the quarterback and forced the errant throw.

On the interception by Vernon Hargreaves III late in the first half, defensive end Alex McCalister hit the quarterback’s arm and forced the ball to flutter through the air and into Hargreaves’ arms. Tabor pointed to Brian Poole posting a picture of McCalister on Instagram and thanking him for helping the secondary out.

“When you see our Instagram, we’re posting other people,” Tabor said. “It’s crazy. We’re just playing for each other. On that play, they had a double move set up. But with our defensive line, they didn’t have time for double moves. You hit a double move, we’re so aggressive on the back end that he just tipped it and Vernon was right there and got the interception. Just playing together and playing for each other has done a lot for us this season.”

The message from coaches are important to the players, but the biggest lesson they’ve learned is the losses that have piled up over the last two seasons when they tried to do things their own way. First-year coach Jim McElwain and his staff deserve the credit for the drastic turnaround and putting the Florida program’s rebuild well ahead of the anticipated schedule, but the staff also took over a team desperate to buy into new leadership.

“The guys were tired of losing, man,” Florida running back Kelvin Taylor said.

Becoming a national punch line proved to the players that they needed to start over. When McElwain and the staff brought a new message to Gainesville, the players were eager to fall in line and bounce back. As the staff preached a message of togetherness and built the offseason program around it, the players found it easy to trust McElwain and his staff.

“We’ve seen where individualism takes us,” Tabor said. “We made a change. We don’t want to keep doing that. If you won’t change, you’re going to keep getting the same results. So as a team, we just buckled down and started playing for each other.

“Who cares who gets the interception? Who cares who makes the tackle? Before the season, we said that if we win, everybody’s going to eat. If we win, everybody’s going to get where they need to go. If we keep doing what we’re doing and end up in Atlanta and make the playoffs, some of those (players) who weren’t high projected are going to go because the team is doing good. Team success breeds individual success.”

Once the team bought into playing for each other, the rest of the proper mindset took over. McElwain knew he had work to do on the offensive side of the football in restoring the confidence of a unit that has been one of the worst in the Southeastern Conference over the previous four years.

The best way McElwain knew to go about fixing the psyche of his offense and the entire team was with positivity. 

“Coach Mac is very positive,” Florida receiver Valdez Showers said. “A lot of positive energy from him, and that’s one thing that I think certain guys respond to differently, and that’s probably what these guys respond to better is the positivity that he brings. It’s not to down you or anything like that. He definitely brings that positivity that a lot of guys needed.”

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