Van Jefferson shook his head and laughed over the admission.
“My form was not very good, I’m not gonna lie. I mean I just tackled the bag and it went down, that’s pretty much it.”
Luckily for the senior wide receiver, the tackle was symbolic; meaningful in the metaphorical sense more than anything.
It was the “last tackle”—a traditional moment for seniors to stand up and speak to their teammates before taking off towards a tackling dummy. For guys like running back Lamical Perine, it was a bookmark for his four years.
"It wasn’t that big of a tackle but I did what I could do. Just knowing I done had a lot of great experiences from my first practice to my last, seeing a lot of things throughout my four years here. So just a surreal moment for real.”
The surreal moment was intense for some more than others. Offensive lineman Nick Buchanan said the 15-yard run felt like 200.
“Kinda laborious but you know, pushed through for my teammates.”
The “laborious” run for Buchanan made the tackle difficult for the Gators leading tackler, linebacker David Reese, who has 89 so far this season.
“The bag was all drenched in sweat and stuff like that,” accused Reese.
“I didn't even hit the bag like tackle-tackle. I just pushed it to the ground.”
The No. 9 Florida Gators are now in Miami, preparing for Monday night’s Orange Bowl against No. 24 Virginia. All attention is turned towards the final game. There will be more more practices in Gainesville for the 2019 Florida Gators. There will be no more meetings or walk-throughs. No more team dinners or late night workouts where it’s just them, the dimmed lights of the practice facility and the sway of the palm trees.
“[It was] last practice in Gainesville man, last time I’ll ever see those guys for a long time. Last time in a Gator uniform. So I mean it’s emotional but next chapter of our lives we gotta get prepared for so life goes on,” reflected Jefferson.
Added Perine, “Just knowing everything, the trials and tribulations and things like that. Like just fighting through adversity really. That’s the biggest things about college. You’re gonna have your good times but you also gotta be able to know you gonna have bad times as well and being able to handle that.”
The adversity is what shaped this senior class. The group that went to a SEC Championship their first year (and first two for redshirt seniors) then had to endure a 4-7 season, fictitious death threats and a mid-season coaching change. Then they became the bedrock for a rebuilding program that has resulted in back-to-back 10 win seasons. Overall, the class has gone 25-16 (35-20 if you include the 2015 season for redshirt seniors).
“I came in that first year, we went to the SEC Championship, and then the next year we went to the SEC Championship. So I was thinking, this is what we do, we go to the SEC Championship,” recalled Buchanan.
“So I came in here thinking the SEC Championship was what we do, and the next year it didn't really go our way, so it's really great that we had the opportunity as like seniors to show the young guys what it takes to win 10 games, to compete for championships, you know, because it's a lot of work because everybody felt like we worked so much harder this year than last year, and we improved one game. So the margin of victory once you get into nine, 10, 11, 12-win seasons is just so small. It just shows that you have to work that much harder in the off-season.”
The 2018-2019 seasons not including SEC Championships would indicate they haven’t been as successful as Jim McElwain’s first two years. But Buchanan believes what the Gators are doing now under Dan Mullen is more sustainable.
"It's just the work ethic that was passed down. I feel as though us as seniors have done a pretty good job, the seniors last year obviously did a great job of passing down what it takes to work to get to the SEC Championship or to get to a 10-win season. Coach Mullen, he also knows that that's what he brought back was the Gator standard. So as long as you do it to the Gator standard, then you're going to be in a favorable position at the end of the year.
“You know, versus when we first went, it was not a surprise, but like I didn't know what was going on basically. I wasn't playing. I was just like, ooh, we're here, we're in Atlanta, like especially your freshman year. The season goes by so fast your freshman year, but now we put such an emphasis on the young guys, teaching them what it takes to be successful.”
That’s what Buchanan passed along to the ones he’s leaving behind.
“Just told them that you come to Florida, make sure you graduate. Try to put something back on the wall—National Championships, SEC Championships. Make sure you have fun while you’re here, make the most of it.”
Then he and his fellow seniors—bad form and all—laid one last tackle on the Gainesville turf and headed south to finish their Florida Gators career.