GAINESVILLE, Fla. — One conversation with Florida’s CeCe Jefferson is all it takes to see his personality in full force.
A smile never seems to leave his face. The jokes are flying. The confidence is always high.
He’s the player hyping up the crowd when he’s on the sideline and the one dancing with his teammates after a sack or big hit.
And he’s the one who’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind.
So call him CeCe the Prophet.
He’s heard the criticisms about the Florida football team heading into the season. He knows the outsiders have doubts.
He’s fine with that, he said, because it will make it that much sweeter when the Gators prove them wrong.
“There’s just something special about this team,” he said. “… Everyone has that same common goal: Come in, be successful and win a championship.”
Most outside of the program, however, don’t see the Gators getting that far. The media tabbed Florida to finish second in the SEC East behind preseason favorite Georgia.
“We take that as a slap in the face because this is the University of Florida,” Jefferson said. “That name means something. For people just to disrespect us the way they do, it’s just mind boggling to me. We’ve got something for that this season.”
To an extent, there is reason to understand where Jefferson is coming from. The Gators have won the SEC East each of the last two years and are 19-8 overall (11-1 at home) since Jim McElwain took over as coach.
But then there are also the two blowout losses to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game (83-31 combined score) and the two regular-season losses to Florida State (58-15 combined score).
So what will it take to break through in the eyes of the doubters?
“Have a 15-0 season?” Jefferson pondered. “We just have to come out and beat teams to sleep from start to finish. I don’t even know if that’s going to be enough for people to start respecting us again.”
That means this defense — a young group that lost eight players to the NFL and redshirt senior Marcell Harris to a torn right Achilles tendon — must continue playing at a high standard.
And that means Jefferson, one of three defensive players with 10 or more career starts, needs to step up and lead the way.
“I feel like I’m a leader,” Jefferson said. “My teammates are making me feel like I’m a leader. Younger guys are comfortable enough to come to me with problems or any concerns they have and share those with me. My role on this team has gotten bigger.”
But just because he has his team’s respect doesn’t mean Jefferson can take his status for granted.
Speaking at the team’s media day on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Randy Shannon said he had a conversation with Jefferson a few days earlier.
Fall camp was right around the corner, and the 2017 season was a little more than a month away.
“Coach, I know how you are,” Shannon remembers Jefferson telling him. “If I’m not standing up to what I need to do on the football field, I won’t be a starter.”
Shannon’s response: “No, you won’t.”
Jefferson is Florida’s most experienced defensive lineman, playing in 26 games with 10 starts over his first two years. He has 59 career tackles, 5 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries over his first two seasons. He was on the SEC All-Freshman team in 2015, and the media selected him to the preseason All-SEC second team. He has the ability to play inside or outside, but with his 6-foot-1, 242-pound frame, he is probably better suited playing off the edge.
“He’s good and he’s strong, super strong surprisingly no matter how skinny he gets,” defensive tackle Taven Bryan said. “It’s country strength.”
Jefferson said he doesn’t set individual goals for himself. He’d rather let his play do the talking.
“I just want to be the best me that I can be,” he said. “I really don’t set individual goals. I believe that God has a plan for everybody. Whatever happens is going to happen. The only thing that I can do is prepare and put myself in those situations. I feel like I’m gonna have a pretty good season.”
That equates to spending more time in the film room, pushing the underclassmen at each practice and diving in headfirst on every rep that he takes.
Shannon has seen that from him so far.
“All we’re expecting out of CeCe is execute what we plan and master what your technique is at this particular time,” Shannon said. “Play at a high level. Never play down to your opponents that you’re playing and never assume that because I’m CeCe Jefferson I’m going to have a great day. You’re always supposed to prepare and practice to have a great day, and those things will happen.”
If those things do happen, Jefferson is confident Florida can win SEC East for a third straight year.
But he — and the Gators — want more than that.
Those losses to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game each of the last two years still leave a sour taste.
“[We want to] get past Atlanta,” Jefferson said. “[We want to] have that confetti fly in our favor this time.”
If that happens, Jefferson knows what happens next.
“We’re going to have this interview sometime soon,” Jefferson said, “and y’all are gonna be like ‘Whoa. CeCe, all this stuff that you said happened. How does it feel?’”