GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The 2017 season has not gone how the Florida Gators had envisioned.
What started with aspirations of a third consecutive SEC Championship Game appearance turned into a season playing for pride. A 3-1 start and 3-0 record in conference play quickly evaporated with a five-game losing streak, the ousting of coach Jim McElwain three games into that losing streak, and a guaranteed losing record for the second time in five seasons.
So what’s left to play for in the regular-season finale against Florida State on Saturday?
“Just send our seniors out strong,” linebacker David Reese said.
With a 5-6 record serving as the ceiling for this team, giving the seniors a win against FSU — it would be their first win against FSU — would be a small victory in a trying season.
The Gators will be honoring 20 seniors prior to the noon ET kickoff. Some have made big contributions to the team during their four or five years. Others were walk-ons and made an impact as members of the scout team.
Here’s a look at those 20:
Cornerback Duke Dawson
Duke Dawson walked over to a group of reporters inside the team’s indoor practice facility on Monday with a fresh faded haircut and a new outlook on life.
Dawson knows his college career ends on Saturday. After that, who knows what could happen?
“I’m going into the real world now,” Dawson said. “I’m about to become an adult. I have to have a clean look and that’s what I’ve been thinking about for the past two weeks.”
Dawson is expected to be selected at some point during the NFL draft, but that doesn’t mean his contributions to this Florida football team are going to leave with him.
The stats are one thing — Dawson has recorded 5 career interceptions (3 returned for touchdowns) and is tied for third in the SEC with 12 defended passes this season — but his value to the Gators extended beyond the box score.
As veterans on this young defense went down with injuries — from Marcell Harris to Jordan Sherit to Nick Washington — Dawson became a silent leader responsible for holding together an underclassman-heavy defense.
And now, he’s ready to pass the torch.
“I know those guys are gonna do great,” Dawson said. “I love those young guys. I got nothing but love for those guys.”
Wide receiver Brandon Powell
Brandon Powell may not have the flashiest plays or the highlight-reel catches that some of Florida’s top receivers.
But he has silently showcased consistency during his four seasons.
With 122 career receptions, Powell is 11 catches from tying Percy Harvin and Taylor Jacobs for 10th-most catches in program history. He has caught a pass in 24 straight games dating back to the end of the 2013 season.
“I never would have thought that I would be graduating from the University of Florida and playing football here,” Powell said. “So it will be an emotional day for me, having my grandma and my dad out on the field. It will be an emotional day, but I’m just going to try to go out and enjoy it.”
Punter Johnny Townsend
Between the #PuntersArePeopleToo and #Johnny4Heisman movements, Johnny Townsend became a fan favorite during his time at Florida.
It also helps that he’s been one of the best punters in the nation over the last two seasons.
Townsend ranks second nationally in yards per punt this season (47.93) and finished first last season (47.89). If Townsend holds his pace in the finale against Florida State, he will finish his career with the top two single-season marks for punting average in Florida history. He already holds the career record for punting average (46.3).
Quarterback Luke Del Rio
Quarterback Luke Del Rio, the son of NFL coach Jack Del Rio, had a pair of opportunities to make an impact at Florida after transferring from Oregon State.
Injuries took them away both times.
Del Rio announced on Twitter on Wednesday that he will not return for a possible sixth season and possible third comeback from injury. Instead, he plans to focus on the next chapter of his life.
After sitting out the 2015 season, he made six starts last season for the Gators while passing for 1,358 yards, 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He played through two injuries that season — injuring both his knee and shoulder in the third week against North Texas — before being shut down after the Gators’ loss to Arkansas on Nov. 5, 2016.
This season, Del Rio took over for redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks at Kentucky, leading a 14-point fourth-quarter rally in a dramatic 28-27 win. That earned him the start the next week against Vanderbilt, but he was driven into the turf on a hard hit late in the second half, sustaining a season-ending broken collarbone.
Overall in those two games, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 138 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Tight end DeAndre Goolsby
DeAndre Goolsby’s biggest season for the Gators came in 2016. He caught 38 passes for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns, with two coming in the final two games. Florida hasn’t utilized its tight ends as much this season, but Goolsby has shown glimpses of his potential as a senior. He has 13 catches for 105 yards and caught his first touchdown of the season late against UAB last weekend.
Defensive lineman Jordan Sherit
After injuries limited Jordan Sherit early in his career, 2017 seemed to finally be the year where Sherit could break through.
Five games into the season, the defensive lineman affectionately nicknamed “Papo” began to thrive. He led the Gators defensive line with 7 quarterback hurries and 19 total tackles. He was a pass-rushing menace and had a top-notch motor.
Then the injury bug struck again. Sherit suffered a season-ending hip injury against Texas A&M, halting his best season of college football while it was hitting its stride.
While his professional football future is in limbo, Sherit has a solid backup plan. He is working on his master’s degree in international business and spent a week last spring in Munich, Germany, as part of a study abroad trip.
Defensive back Marcell Harris
Hard-hitting safety Marcell Harris came into the season ready to build on a breakout 2016 season and build up his draft stock.
He never had the chance to accomplish either. Harris tore the Achilles tendon in his right ankle before fall camp and sat out the season due to the injury.
It was a tough blow to a secondary that only had three upperclassmen with valuable experience heading into the season, and was without a sure-fire tackler in the back end of the defense.
In his career, Harris has played in 37 games (nine starts) and has recorded 102 tackles, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.
Defensive back Nick Washington
Like most of the veterans on defense this season, Nick Washington’s final campaign was cut short due to an injury.
Washington re-aggravated a shoulder injury that has hampered him for most of his Florida career during the LSU game and has sat out the last five games.
Regardless, the alligator-hunting safety had some memorable moments during his five seasons in Gainesville — the highlight of which was recovering a fumble in the end zone to open the scoring in Florida’s 27-3 win over Georgia in 2015.
Washington played in 43 career games (15 starts) at Florida. He had 107 total tackles, 1 interception and 2 fumble recoveries.
Linebacker Cristian Garcia
Cristian Garcia is the feel-good story of the class. He joined as a walk-on prior to the 2015 season after working on Florida’s video staff. And while he has 25 career tackles in 24 career games (including two starts), Garcia is most known for what he has done off the field.
Quarterback Malik Zaire
Malik Zaire transferred to Florida from Notre Dame with the hopes of being a starter in his final season of eligibility. Instead, he spent most of his time at Florida as a backup.
After entering during the fourth quarter of two blowout losses, Zaire finally earned his first start against Missouri, during which he threw for 158 yards and an interception on 13-of-19 passing. One week later, he suffered a knee injury against South Carolina and did not play against UAB. His status is up in the air for the finale against Florida State.
Zaire has the option of returning for a sixth season should he apply for a medical redshirt for his 2016 season at Notre Dame, but a decision has not been made yet.
Mark Thompson’s first season at Florida after transferring from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College did not go as planned. He managed just 299 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in 2016 after seeing his playing time reduced due to fumbling problems.
This season has been a different story. After Jordan Scarlett was suspended prior to the season opener and Malik Davis went down with a season-ending injury against Georgia, Thompson has helped prove his worth during the final month of his collegiate career. Thompson has only 238 rushing yards this season, but 153 of those have come in the last four weeks along with his lone 2 rushing touchdowns.
The rest of the group
- Tight end Brian Fallace: Fallace joined the team as a walk-on ahead of the 2015 season and did not appear in any games.
- Tight end Ryan Ferguson: Ferguson joined as a walk-on ahead of the 2014 season and did not appear in any games.
- Defensive back Eddie Giles: Giles joined the team as a walk-on ahead of the 2014 season and has appeared in three career games. He has not recorded any statistics.
- Wide receiver Jacob Mesenger: Mesenger joined the team as a walk-on ahead of the 2017 season and has not appeared in any games.
- Defensive back Joseph Putu: After transferring from North Dakota State College of Science, Putu has played in 19 career games at Florida as a backup cornerback. He has 9 total tackles.
- Linebacker/fullback R.J. Raymond: After sitting out his first two seasons, Raymond played in nine games in 2016 as a contributor on special teams. He has played in all 10 games this season on special teams and as a fullback in the Gators’ jumbo packages near the end zone and in short-yardage situations.
- Offensive lineman Antonio Riles: Riles played in 19 career games for the Gators (six starts at right guard), but injuries hampered his opportunity to make an impact. He sat out the 2016 season after tearing an ACL during fall camp and suffered another injury in the South Carolina game this season.
- Defensive back Garrett Stephens: After walking on before the 2013 season, Stephens earned a scholarship as a redshirt sophomore. He’s proven his worth, too. Stephens played in nine games total from 2014-16 as a reserve defensive back and on special teams before becoming one of the Gators’ top special-teams contributors in 2017. He blocked a punt in the season-opening loss to Michigan and was a valuable asset on all four return units before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
- Defensive back Cameron Town: Town walked on to the team ahead of the 2017 season and has not appeared in a game.