Florida State University and the University of Florida sent a combined 23 players to Indianapolis for a chance to increase their stock in the upcoming NFL Draft, with the Seminoles leading the way with 13. There are 10 Gators, matching the number that the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide sent and two more than runner-up Notre Dame.
Four other schools from the Sunshine State combined to send eight players – three from South Florida, two from Miami, two from Florida International and one from Florida A&M. So FSU and UF account for 74 percent of the state’s contingent and that brings with it lots of pride.
“It says a lot about where our program is,” said Seminoles quarterback E.J. Manuel, who was the MVP of the Senior Bowl. “We have four or five juniors actually coming out early, too, so that’s a great thing. We had a great team and I know early in the year we knew we had an opportunity to have a lot of guys come out, so that’s good. It does help seeing so many familiar faces here, not only the guys I work out with down in Boca (Raton) but also guys I went to college with for four or five years and we’re all proud to be here.”
Seven of Manuel’s teammates play on the defensive side of the ball, four of them are on offense and the other one is kicker Dustin Hopkins. In addition to Manuel, running back Chris Thompson, fullback Lonnie Pryor, wide receiver Rodney Smith and offensive tackle Menelik Watson represent the offense. Defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, defensive ends Cornelius Carradine, Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, cornerbacks Greg Reid and Zavier Rhodes and outside linebacker Nick Moody round out the FSU crew.
There is a similar balance among the Gators, with inside linebacker Jon Bostic, free safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, outside linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Lerentee McCray and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd represent the defense. Running back Mike Gillislee, tight end Jordan Reed and offensive tackle Xavier Nixon are the offensive players and kicker Caleb Sturgis is the lone special teams player.
“It just shows the strength of Florida football,” Nixon said. “We had a down year but the Gators will always bounce back and we’re looking to springboard ourselves into the future and keep having good years. It’s a good experience to have familiar people here and I’ve spent a lot of time with Jordan Reed going over our playbook and try to get everything right for our interviews here.”
Gillislee and Nixon were at the Senior Bowl together and the soft-spoken running back shares the same sentiment as Nixon as far as what it means to the program to have so many players at the Combine. He hopes to follow the path of other former Gators that excelled during this process like Miami Dolphins center
One thing Gillislee felt comfortable about before arriving on Thursday was how much going through NFL practices at the Senior Bowl prepared him for this process. He had a bit of a head start on some of the questions he was going to be asked because of that experience.
“I learned a lot and a lot of it had to do with preparation because when I go to interview with a coach I already know what they’re going to ask,” said Gillislee, who rushed for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns on 244 carries in his first stint as Florida’s primary back. “Now I just want to show them my skill, that I can catch the ball and that I’ve got some speed on me.”
Seven of the remaining eight players from the state are on defense, led by South Florida’s Cory Grissom (DT), Sam Barrington (OLB) and cornerback Kayvon Webster.
FIU free safety Jonathan Cyprien is garnering a lot of buzz after his eye-opening performance at the Senior Bowl. He is joined by defensive end Tourek Williams.
The Miami Hurricanes brought eight players to town last year, but they only have two this time around – running back Mike James and cornerback Brandon McGee.
FAMU inside linebacker Brandon Hepburn is the lone Rattler.