Since Florida ended its regular season back in November, the players have had to study for final exams and during the past several days, they've implemented the game plan for Iowa in several hard practice sessions. Having the chance to take the time away from practice and spend time with their families is a small reward.
"It's been a long grind," said Coach Urban Meyer after the final pre-Christmas practice session Wednesday morning. "I've always believed that Christmas they should spend with their families."
The thought of going home was a bit of a distraction but practice went well enough that Meyer felt good about letting the team take a few days off.
"Today was okay but the last few days were really good," he said. "We're going to give them a break and come back on the 26th."
Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said that the extra days without practice before Christmas should have an extra benefit for the Gators.
"The season is such a grind, especially in the SEC," he said. "You get beat up a lot during the season. I've seen more speed this week just because we didn't do very much the week before finals and then last week when they had finals.
"Just that little bit of time away and we saw a real improvement in their speed and quickness in practice this week. I'm sure we'll see them moving a little bit quicker when we get back together in Tampa. Those extra few days really will pay off that way."
Once the Gators regroup, the focus will be getting a win for the seniors in the Outback Bowl.
"You wish you would have got them [the seniors] a championship," said Meyer. "They're leaving here without a championship but our goal is to get them a bowl win. That's our focus.
"I won't say the whole class is that invested but there are some seniors in this class who are as invested as any I've ever been around."
VERNELL UPDATE: Vernell Brown went through his first full practice session since spraining his ankle and breaking a bone in his leg during the Vanderbilt game back in November. The senior cornerback is making tremendous strides to get ready to suit up and play one more game for the Gators in the Outback Bowl.
"He's sore," said Meyer, "but that's looking better than it was."
Brown has become one of Meyer's favorite players, having earned the coach's trust back during mat drills and spring practice. The 5-8, 169-pounder proved on the playing field that he could get the job done, but it's his leadership that Meyer says will be missed most next year.
"Right now on offense we're lacking leadership in some regard," said Meyer. "On defense you felt like Brandon Siler, Vernell and Jarvis (Herring) were the leaders. I felt like the whole stadium felt like when the young guy [Brown] broke his leg on the punt return. I felt myself like oh, no … not just because he's a great player but a great leader who keeps everybody rolling. Any time you lose a guy like that it stings."
Brown is an integral part of the Florida defense that is ranked seventh nationally (289.8 yards per game). He became Florida's most dependable cover corner during the season, which came as a surprise to many observers because Brown had spent his first years at Florida shuffling from corner to wide receiver and back to corner.
"I think he's our best corner," said Meyer. "That was very noticeable in spring practice and throughout the fall. He was the most consistent guy on the back end. He and Jarvis were our most consistent players and it's not a surprise. Usually players play the way they practice and that's what Vernell. He played very well in practice and he played very well in games. He's a terrific player."
Brown wants to continue playing football at the next level. Size once again will be an issue, but Meyer says if Brown gets a chance to show what he can do, don't be surprised if he overcomes the size objections.
"I'm anxious to see if he gets a shot," said Meyer. "He's going to battle size again but he wants a shot in the NFL and if you go on nothing else --- not on how many stars after your name and you look on just pure production on the field --- he deserves a chance to play at the next level. Can he hang with the size issues? If anybody can it's Vernell. I don't know if anybody can but he certainly deserves a shot."
NICE WEATHER: Even though Floridians might think the weather is a bit on the chilly side, Meyer found the morning practice weather (temperature in the 50s) much to his liking.
"Getting ready for bowls in Florida and then in 10 below zero … it's kind of nice to be here," he said.
Last year he prepared Utah for the Fiesta Bowl by working indoors due to the cold the entire time his team was in Salt Lake City before they headed down to Tempe.
"It was all indoors," he said. "That's all I know. We had built a brand new indoor facility and we used it the whole time. It was cold!"