Florida football is about great players stepping it up at crucial moments, and while it is not all about the stars who stole the headlines or whose career performances leave record books filled with their accomplishments, it is that legacy of great players whose names we remember long after their careers are over. This is the first of a series about great players. I am starting with the greatest thirty players in the history of the University of Florida, most of which I saw in person and many of whom I have had the chance to write about over the years. To pick just thirty players is almost sinful because there are so many who deserve mention, but here are the thirty that forty four years of watching and thirty eight years of writing about the Gators tell me are the best:
30. BOBBY JOE GREEN: The Gator coach in the 1950s was Bob Woodruff, a proponent of the philosophy of General Bob Neyland who believed that football games were won and lost by defense and the kicking game. Green was a weapon whose high booming kicks were rarely returned. He was adept at pinning teams inside the five yard line. At practice he would put hoola hoops inside the five yard line, then try to land his punts inside the hoola hoops. He would place his punts inside the hoola hoops with astounding consistency. His 82-yard punt against the Poodles in 1958 is still the longest in Gator history. Was an All-Pro punter in the NFL with the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers.
29. SCOT BRANTLEY: When he signed with UF out of Forest High School in Ocala, it was the greatest recruiting coup of the Doug Dickey era. Brantley was the top high school prospect in the country and Dickey had to outrecruit Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant to secure Brantley, a tackling machine of a middle linebacker who AVERAGED 20 tackles per game in high school. He stepped in to start as a freshman and for three years he was brilliant. A serious concussion ended his senior season in 1979 in the second game, but even with missing the final nine games of that year, Brantley is still the second leading tackler in Gator history. He roamed from sideline to sideline, hit hard and rarely was caught out of position. Had a strong 10-year career in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs. All-SEC first team in 1977 and 1978.
28. ALONZO JOHNSON: In 1984 and 1985, he was the most feared linebacker in the SEC, a hard hitter with blazing speed and a quarterback's worst nightmare. He singlehandedly disrupted the Poodles passing game with his relentless pressure in the 1984 game at the Gator Bowl, a convincing 27-0 Gator victory. He had 12 quarterback sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 1985 and finished his career with 27 sacks, a school record at the time. He had 55 tackles for loss during his career and 335 tackles, which ranks ninth best in school history. First team All-SEC and first team All-America in both 1984 and 1985.
27. IKE HILLIARD: Perhaps the highlight of highlights for the 1990s is Ike Hilliard's stop and go catch and run for a touchdown against FSU in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. The dazzling run sucked the life out of the Seminoles and helped propel the Gators to their 52-20 win for the national championship. Known for his breakaway speed and fluid moves, Hilliard put up career numbers of 126 catches for 2214 yards and 29 touchdowns. As a sophomore, lit up Florida State for 192 receiving yards in the Gators 35-24 victory in The Swamp. Still in the NFL with the New York Giants. Second team All-SEC in 1995, first team in 1996. First team All-American in 1996.
26. JOHN L WILLIAMS: After leading Palatka to two straight state high school championships, John L came to UF and proved his versatility as a devastating blocker, tough inside runner and sure handed pass receiver. He finished his career with 2409 rushing yards, seventh best in school history, and more than 700 pass receiving yards. Played mostly at fullback, but in games when the Gators could only get their yards up the gut, he would shift to tailback and pound the middle. Best game in terms of yardage was 179 against West Texas State when he was a freshman in 1982, but perhaps his best overall performance was gaining 100 yards to combine with Neal Anderson's 178 in the wild, 43-30, win over Tennessee in 1984. It was an incredible all-around performance for John L, who caught clutch passes and delivered crushing blocks to spark UF. Had a fine NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers. Second team All-SEC in both 1984 and 1985.
25. JEFF MITCHELL: He was the anchor of the offensive line on the two best teams in UF history, the 1995 team that lost in the national championship game to Nebraska and the 1996 team that beat FSU for the national title in the Sugar Bowl. His senior season ended tragically when he broke his ankle on the artificial turf at Vanderbilt. He was a tremendous pass blocker who excelled at making the right line calls. He was also an exceptional run blocker and a semifinalist for the 1996 Outland Trophy. He was the starting center on Baltimore's Super Bowl championship team in 2000 and the starting center for the Carolina Panthers NFC championship team that lost to New England in the Super Bowl last season. Academic All-SEC in 1994, 1995 and 1996. All-SEC in 1995 and 1996, third team All-America in 1996.
24. LARRY SMITH: In the Orange Bowl game in 1966, Smith broke Georgia Tech's back with a 94-yard touchdown run that many people remember not for the distance, but the fact that Smith, a 6-4, 220-pound tailback from Tampa, nearly lost his pants. He ran the final 40 yards holding the ball in one hand, holding up his pants with the other. When he finished his UF career, he had 2186 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns. He came out of Robinson High School where he ran a 9.6 100-yard dash. As a Gator the bulk of his carries were between the tackles. Hampered by hamstring injuries as a junior and senior but when healthy, he was one of the best running backs in the country. Had a good pro career with the Rams and the Redskins. First team All-SEC in 1966, 1967 and 1968, first team All-America in 1968.
23. JASON ODOM: He started at left tackle as a true freshman and before his career was over, he would win the Jacobs Blocking Trophy in back to back seasons. He was a finalist for the Outland Trophy in 1995 also. He rarely gave up a sack and was an above average run blocker. Known for his consistency, he started 49 straight games in the NFL before chronic back injuries forced him to retire early. Academic All-SEC in 1993 and 1994. All-SEC second team in 1993, first team in 1994 and 1995. Second team All-America in 1994 and first team in 1995.
22. JAMES JONES: If there is one back who defines the successful transition from the Doug Dickey era to the Charley Pell era at UF, it is James Jones. He emerged as the starting tailback following Pell's 0-10-1 1970 debut and for the next three seasons he was the team's leading rusher. He finished his Florida career with 2026 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. He was a fine pass receiver out of the backfield as well as an accomplished blocker. He parlayed those skills into a successful career in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and the Seattle Seahawks. First team All-SEC in 1981 and 1982. Third team All-America in 1982.
21. RICHARD TRAPP: It was against the Poodles in 1967 that Richard Trapp showed his greatness. With the Gators trailing in the fourth quarter, Trapp took a short pass from Larry Rentz and he turned it into the all-time highlight reel run in Florida history. He was hit nine times but never went down as he weaved his way over, under, around and through the Poodle defense for a touchdown. With the clock winding down later in the game, he nearly duplicated the touchdown run with a 40-plus yard reception and run which saw him break seven tackles to set up the winning field goal by Shade Tree Barfield. Trapp was a two-time All-American who caught 132 passes in his Gator career. Played with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL. First team All-SEC in 1966 and 1967.
20. RALPH ORTEGA: A dominating middle linebacker from Coral Gables, he started for three seasons in which he combined for 357 tackles, forcing 12 fumbles, recovering eight and intercepting five passes. He was a hard hitter who was known for being the smartest player on the field. Coach Doug Dickey would call him his "coach on the field" throughout his career. Played in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins until a knee injury ended his career prematurely. First team All-SEC in 1973 and 1974. First team All-America in 1974.
19. LOUIS OLIVER: He came to UF as a skinny walkon from Belle Glade. He left as the most feared defensive back in the nation, 6-4, 225 pounds with the speed of a corner and the hitting ability of a linebacker. A noted headhunter who destroyed receivers over the middle, he played the run like a linebacker, often meeting backs at or behind the line of scrimmage. Had an excellent NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnat Bengals. Academic All-SEC in 1987 and 1988. First team All-SEC and first team All-America in both 1987 and 1988.
18. NEAL ANDERSON: Out of tiny Graceville, he came to UF ranked behind the more publicized James Massey and John L Williams. By the time his career ended, he had gained 3234 yards which still ranks as the third best total in UF history. Had 1034 yards in 1985, his best as a Gator. Scored 30 rushing touchdowns. His greatest game was a 178-yard performance against Tennessee in 1984, a game in which his 80-yard touchdown run helped UF to a 43-30 win over the Vols. A softspoken but popular team and campus leader, he had a fine pro career with the Chicago Bears. After his pro career, he came back to UF to endow an athletic scholarship in his mother's name. Academic All-SEC in 1983. Second team All-SEC in 1983 and 1984, first team selection in 1985.
17. KEVIN CARTER: As a true freshman, he started at defensive end and by the time he was a senior, he was the best in the nation at his position, a relentless pass rusher who was always double teamed but still came up with big plays. As a senior, he had 11.8 quarterback sacks. He had 21.8 sacks for his career along with 41 tackles for loss. As a freshman, he was part of the best defensive line in Gator history, a unit that included future pros Tony McCoy, Ellis Johnson, Brad Culpepper, William Gaines and Darren Mickle. Has had a fine career in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans. First team All-Pro in 1999. Has a Super Bowl ring with the Rams in 1999. Second team All-SEC in 1992, first team in 1994. First team All-America in 1994.
16. CHARLIE LAPRADD: A great two-way tackle who helped the Gators to their first bowl game, the 1952 Gator Bowl, Charley LaPradd was a leader on the field and in the locker room. He was a tough defensive player, known as a sure tackler who rarely was blocked cleanly. On offense, he was one of the top blocking tackles in the nation. After a career in coaching and athletic administration, he became president of St. John's River Community College. Third team All-SEC in 1950, second team All-SEC in 1951 and first team All-SEC in 1952. He was a first team All-America in 1952.
Players #1-#15 will be revealed tomorrow... Don't agree with the rankings? Talk about it on our message boards!