MOBILE, Ala. – Four members of the Florida State University football lead a contingent of eight players representing schools from the Sunshine State – and that’s just one less than the BCS national champions from the University of Alabama.
In previous years, those numbers might have actually been considered low because the Big Three (UM, FSU and UF) were flooding the National Football League with talent on a consistent basis. This year’s crop is hoping they represent an upswing of players from Florida schools being invited to the Senior Bowl again.
“It means a lot definitely to have guys from our state in the game,” said Seminoles defensive lineman Everett Dawkins, who weighed in at 288 pounds and measured at 6-foot-2. “When we play against each other during the season we don’t like each other. But when you get guys from Florida and Miami and USF down here all together we form that bond just from being from Florida. So we have to represent.”
Joining Dawkins are FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel, kicker Dustin Hopkins and linebacker Vince Williams. Their archrivals the Florida Gators sent running back Mike Gillislee and offensive tackle Xavier Nixon, South Florida defensive tackle Corey Grissom is the only Bulls player in the game and Miami running back Mike James was added to the roster late Tuesday.
Gillislee became first Gators running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004, finishing with 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns on 244 carries. He had his best performance of the season in Florida’s win over LSU, rushing for 146 yards and proved the wait was worth it, as he sat for three years behind Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps waiting to become the featured back. When the 5-11, 210-pound Gillislee finally got his chance he the made most of it.
“It means a lot to me to be here, especially my senior year doing what I did and getting the invitation to be here,” said Gillislee, who also caught 16 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. “It’s a great feeling and hopefully I just keep getting better everyday. The Sunshine State has always been the best in my opinion and it’s great for all of those guys to be here and show all the scouts and coaches what we can do.”
Nixon (6-5, 314) started parts of four seasons for Gators and became the anchor at left tackle in 2012, playing solid. He battled through some injuries but was relatively healthy this season.
The 6-2, 316-pound Grissom racked up 38 tackles (24 solo and seven for loss) and 2.5 sacks for the Bulls and is well aware of the higher profile his school enjoyed in previous years. He hopes to keep that tradition going with his performance in this game.
“It feels really good to be here and to continue the tradition and I know there’s going to be a lot more people after me to continue the legacy for South Florida,” Grissom said. “What me being here along with those guys from the other schools says in my opinion is don’t take Florida too lightly out of everybody else. We do have a lot of athletes and it’s just not Alabama or Georgia or other places.”
As for James, he couldn’t stop smiling after taking the field Wednesday afternoon with the South Team for the first time. He arrived in town on Tuesday night as the only Hurricane on the roster and is eager to leave his mark and catch the eye of NFL scouts. He borrowed a playbook and copied the plays so he could study all night and be ready for that first practice.
“I’m glad I’m here and I’m glad I got the call and I want to show that I’m just as good as anybody else,” said James, who “I’m a versatile player, I’m tough, I’m responsible, I’m mature and I’m very intelligent. I’ll do anything it takes to get on the field.”
That’s the basic goal of all eight of these players and all they have to do is look at next week’s Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens for inspiration. There are seven former Hurricanes in the game (five on the Ravens and two in the Niners), two former Gators and one former Seminole (Baltimore wide receiver Anquan Boldin). Two of the former Miami players on the Ravens are on Injured Reserve (running back Damien Berry and wide receiver Tommy Streeter).