The 2009 Florida Gators were coming off a national championship season when they faced Alabama in the SEC championship game last season, a matchup that most people believed featured the two best teams in the country.
Bama won handily, 32-13, and ended up winning the national championship game. The Gators would go on to crush Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl by 27. The roster was loaded with future NFL talent — 22 future draft picks over the following five years, including four first-round picks and five second-rounders.
But it hasn't been a great run for these Gators as professionals to say the least.
With the New York Giants releasing Will Hill, who failed his third drug test in three years, the list of former Gator failures from that 2009 team's roster is quite prolific:
• Aaron Hernandez would apply for the draft after that season as a junior and would end up a fourth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, with character questions — go figure — knocking him below where his talent suggested he should be taken. After three occasionally brilliant seasons with the Patriots, Hernandez was arrested for and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd last summer. Hernandez since has been charged in a double murder in 2012 over what the district attorney said was a spilled drink.
• Tim Tebow, who was considered one of the most popular college football players of all time, was a first-round pick of the Denver Broncos that same spring. After winning eight of his 14 starts over two seasons, along with a memorable playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tebow was shipped to the New York Jets in a trade, where he languished in 2012. After getting cut by the Patriots in 2013, Tebow was out of the league last season but is hoping for one more shot in the NFL despite a looming broadcasting career.
• Janoris Jenkins was kicked off the Gators' team in the spring of 2011 for a second drug-related arrest in a three-month span, ending up at North Alabama that season. He was a second-round pick (39th overall) of the St. Louis Rams in the 2012 draft and has played fairly well at times the past two seasons, managing largely to stay in the team's good graces, although he was almost clocked by Steve Smith for some unwanted trash talk. The Rams have gone out of their way to help Jenkins keep on the straight and narrow.
• Mike and Maurkice Pouncey were starters at guard and center for the Gators, and they entered the league — Maurkice in 2010, Mike in 2011 — a year apart, both top-20 picks. Maurkice has not been in any legal trouble whatsoever, although his career has been derailed by injuries. He missed the Steelers' Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2011 and is coming off a torn ACL and MCL he suffered in Week 1 last season. Mike, on the other hand, was largely involved in the Dolphins' hazing scandal from the past few seasons, which resulted in the damaging Wells Report and the shipping off of both Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito in the ugly affair. That said, Mike Pouncey, who is a good football player but apparently a fairly clueless teammate, has been unapologetic about his role and said he regretted none of it.
• Riley Cooper is coming off a career season in 2013 after having been somewhat of an afterthought with the Philadelphia Eagles as a former fourth-round pick. But Cooper managed to draw headlines that attracted eyes from well beyond the football-watching world when a video emerged of him in the midst of a racist tirade at a country music concert last summer. The incident blew over publicly, but it did not sit well with some Eagles teammates.
• Former 2010 second-rounder Carlos Dunlap got off to a slow start with the Cincinnati Bengals, mainly because of injuries, in his career but logged 20 sacks in his first three seasons and earned a five-year, $40 million deal through the 2018 season. Dunlap had another solid season in 2013 (7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles), but the former left defensive end will be moving to the right side this season to take over departed Michael Johnson's old spot.
• Joe Haden would enter the NFL draft in 2010 and would be the highest-drafted Gator in the Urban Meyer era in Gainesville, being taken seventh overall. He's been every bit worth that draft spot, recently earning a five-year, $68 million contract extension as one of the top young corners in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns.
• Jordan Reed might have been listed on that Gators roster as a quarterback, but he transitioned to tight end and could be a player to watch for the Washington Redskins. The 2013 third-round pick opened some eyes as a rookie last season in an otherwise lost year for the Redskins, catching 45 passes for 499 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games (four starts). Reed entered the NFL with health questions following two concussions, hamstring issues, a sprained ankle and a bad knee in college, and he did little to quell that talk in suffering a bruised foot, a bruised right quadriceps, a hip pointer and further concussion issues in missing seven games as a rookie.
• Chris Rainey was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2012, and they thought they might have a major steal on their hands with his 4.3 speed. Rainey got off to a solid start as a rookie and was contributing on offense and special teams before he was arrested on battery charges and eventually was released by the team. Although those charges later were dropped, Rainey — property of the Colts now — hasn't done much in two games with the team.
• Brandon Spikes was taken in Round 2 in 2010, one spot behind teammate Jermaine Cunningham that year, both by the Patriots. Although he played well at various times over the past few seasons for the Patriots, Spikes was allowed to walk in free agency (to the rival Buffalo Bills) with little effort to retain him. Spikes was suspended four games at the end of his rookie season for testing positive for a banned substance, and this past season he finished the year on injured reserve for a knee injury that he and the Patriots disagreed over. Spikes has taken shots at his former team on social media. Cunningham never panned out with the Patriots, or subsequently with the 49ers or Jets. He has totaled 3.5 sacks in 38 career games, 36 of those in New England.
• Major Wright has started most of the past three years with the Chicago Bears, and he signed in the offseason with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a poor 2013 season. He'll be reunited there with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith.
• A second-rounder in 2011, Marcus Gilbert has ridden a roller-coaster existence with the Pittsburgh Steelers the past few seasons but figures to start again for the team at right tackle, if he can hold off another former second-rounder, Mike Adams, for the job.
• Maurice Hurt, who fell to the seventh round of the 2011 draft after failing a drug test at the scouting combine, has been an uneven pro with the Redskins with a combined nine starts in 2011 and 2012 and a knee injury that wiped out his 2013 season. He'll be competing for a roster spot this summer.
• Other Gators picks since 2011 — Ahmad Black (fifth round, 2011), Jaye Howard (fourth round, 2012), Josh Evans (sixth round, 2013), Caleb Sturgis (fifth round, 2013), Mike Gillislee (fifth round, 2013), Jelani Jenkins (fourth round, 2013) and Jon Bostic (second round, 2013) — have yet to do much significant in the NFL, although Evans and Bostic started as rookies and at least will be competing for starting jobs this fall. Jon Halapio, a freshman on that 2009 Gators team, was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots this spring.
What a motley crew that group must have been. It's amazing to think, too, that Percy Harvin and Cam Newton, two players whose character was closely scrutinized by NFL people, both should have been on that Gators team before leaving school for different reasons — Harvin for the NFL, and Newton for junior college after an incident with a laptop.
Haden, Dunlap, Jenkins and the Pouncey brothers have been good players on the field in the NFL, Cooper broke out in 2013 and Tebow is likely to continue being a success at whatever he ends up doing, even as the chances of his playing career continuing continue to shrink.
But the Hernandez murder has cloaked the NFL, the Patriots, the Gators program and, to a degree, Meyer, whose list of former lawbreakers at the program is extensive. Some of his former players have stayed straight and done well, but some — most definitely Hernandez — have actually gotten worse since entering the league.
Meyer stepped down following the bowl game win because of health and family reasons. Without being too cute or speculating too much, you had to wonder how much this group tested his mental and physical well-being. Considering all the adventures this group has been through in college and the NFL, you can understand why Meyer might have been thinking about a change of scenery.
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