MOBILE, Ala. – By virtue of Florida State University’s win over Auburn in the final BCS national championship game, the Sunshine State programs have vaulted back into the national conversation.
The Seminoles rolled through the 2013 season unscathed with a perfect 13-0 record to capture their third national crown and have the most players out of the Big Three schools participating in the Senior Bowl. Four of the 10 athletes representing FSU, the University of Florida and the University of Miami are wearing garnet and gold for the South Team in safety Terrence Brooks, inside linebacker Christian Jones, outside linebacker Telvin Smith and center Bryan Stork.
“It’s awesome having my teammates here with me, especially because I’m real close with Telvin and T. Brooks,” Jones said. “We’re all good friend and it’s fun being out here playing and competing. We’re not just out here showing up and having fun, we’re playing to win.”
There was a time when the ‘Noles, Gators and Hurricanes dominated both rosters, went on to wow the scouts, coaches and general managers at the NFL Scouting Combine and then occupied a majority of the spots in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. Then the rest of the country caught up and all three programs went through a bit of a dry spell, with FSU’s title being its first since 1999.
Florida had a resurgence under Urban Meyer in the latter part of the last decade and won two national championships in 2006 and 2008 while sending some prominent prospects onto the NFL. Four of those Gators are currently on the Miami Dolphins in center
Guard Jon Halapio, wide receiver Solomon Patton and cornerback Jaylen Watkins are representing the Gainesville school this year in Mobile and are teamed up with their rivals from Tallahassee. They leaned on some of the other former Gators that went through this pre-draft process, including the Dolphins players, and realize the opportunity in front of them this week to remind everyone of the caliber of players coming out of the Florida schools.
“I think we all actually have a pool of talent at each school and we’re coming in here representing our schools,” said Watkins, who started six games at safety and three at corner his senior season and finished with 52 tackles (31 solo) and seven pass breakups. “I’m pretty sure Telvin and the other ‘Noles are very proud, I’m still proud no matter what happened with us and the Miami guys, too. So it’s good to be around those guys.”
When the rosters are made up for the Senior Bowl they don’t assign the players based on geographic location. There is a consistent effort to balance out the talent and try to help the NFL personnel on location get a fair look at each position. So that’s why the three Hurricanes – offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, guard Brandon Linder and quarterback Stephen Morris – are on the North squad.
Miami still boasts the most national championships among the Big Three with five but hasn’t lifted the trophy since 2001, which was a decade after the fourth title. Slowly but surely it looks like head coach Al Golden is bringing the program closer to the bar that was set back in the 1980s under Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. These three players have a chance to leave a lasting impression and a hint that the Hurricanes are on their way back.
“It feels good to be here representing the Hurricanes with Stephen and Brandon Linder,” Henderson said. “I’m happy that they’re around and it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable. We’re having a great time, we’re out here working hard and we’re just trying to get it and we’re going to beat the South on Saturday.”
One thing all of these players have in common is a strong sense of pride for the caliber of football played in the Sunshine State and the role prospects from their schools play at the next level. That’s one topic they can agree on and put their rivalries aside.
“It’s huge just for the South Floridians around us,” said Morris, who has been working out with former Hurricanes quarterback Steve Walsh. “It’s crazy to see the way we’re recruiting down in Miami, at Florida and Florida State and the prospects that we’re getting, as well as the level to where we’re at right now at the colleges. The Sunshine State has got a lot of great athletes and we’re trying to showcase that.”