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Florida Football

ITG Feature: The Unit That Needed Van Jefferson

January 11, 2019
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There was a sense in the spring that this group could be different, or special, or any number of adjectives that sets them apart from their past counterparts.

For longer than most like to admit, the Florida Gators have been searching for a receiving corps that could capture some of the magic that manifested itself in the perfect chemistry of the unit a decade ago. There were moments of intrigue and flashes of hope but ultimately they were nothing more than flashes in a pan instead.

Then came this 2018 group that scored more than any unit since 2009 and gelled in a way that embraced their differences. There was Kadarius Toney, the scat cat who coaches can’t help but compare to Percy Harvin; Tyrie Cleveland, the deep threat hero from 2017 who peers say is the funniest of them all; Josh Hammond, the dependable legacy who prefers to let his play do the talking; Trevon Grimes, the energetic new kid who has the potential to be legendary; Freddie Swain, the laid-back do it all man; Jacob Copeland, the athletic young guy we’re still getting to know.

And then there’s Van Jefferson, the affable, unflappable veteran.

He transferred in to the young unit during the spring of 2018 amidst a coaching change, becoming an anchor in what was at the time an unknown situation.

“I think [Van’s] helped a lot just with the experience part, being able to show guys how to prepare for a game and on the receiver side how to prepare for a game and how to go through a week of practice, take care of your body, take care of your business outside of football, in the classroom, things like that, just how to go about your business,” explains quarterback Feleipe Franks.

An expert route runner with impeccable technique, Jefferson immediately raised the bar of what was to be expected out of this unit; then he pulled everyone else along with him.

“I think one of the big things is his approach to how he works every day. I think that rubs off on a lot of guys,” proposes head coach Dan Mullen.

“He attacks every day very serious about this work ethic and what he does out there on the field—if you see him mess up a route during the day, he’ll stay after practice and do it 10 times to make sure he gets it right…we have some really mature older guys that are mature, older guys in that room. How they approach their preparation, I think he’s added to that room to help guys with that.”

When Jefferson left Ole Miss he said good-bye to a pass happy team that highlighted their receivers. He actually had more yards and touches as the 4th leading receiver for the Rebels in 2017 than he did this past season as Florida’s leading receiver (503 yards, 35 receptions). Part of that has to do with the Rebs narrowing their targets—the Gators targeted 62% more receivers this season than the Rebs. But he also left behind a team embroiled in turmoil, uncertainty and NCAA sanctions.

It was a blessing for both parties. The depth chart at the position was crowded in Oxford while depleted in Gainesville. Bringing with him three years of experience in college football’s toughest conference’s toughest division, he led the Gators this 2018 season as the aforementioned leading receiver (with a unit leading six touchdowns) and Franks’ favorite target.

It was more than the experience he had under the offensive minded Hugh Freeze that helped Jefferson make a difference in this corps though. It was more than the maturity he exhibits, gained from a life that asked him to grow up quicker then his years. It’s even more than his dad.

It would be easy to assume it was his dad. It was be easy to assume this has always been Van’s fate. It would be easy to point to the 13 years Shawn Jefferson played receiver in the NFL or the 13 years since he’s spent as a position coach in the league and say that’s the reason Van has become this difference making player for the Gators. And it wouldn’t be wrong…but it also wouldn’t be the whole story.

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Marla Jefferson remembers the day well. Her son, Van was in 7th grade and ready to make his strongest argument to date. See, she and her husband had decided long ago that Van wasn’t going to play Pop Warner or tackle football before he was really ready.

“[Van] started talking about playing football because he had cousins that were playing Pop Warner and I just wouldn’t ever agree to him doing it because he was so small. He was always just a lanky, skinny guy and my husband being a football coach supported that same decision as well. He just did not want Van to play early; he didn’t think that he needed to.

“It just wasn’t as important as people made it out to be—‘to be great at football you have to start early, you have to play from six years old and you have to put on pads early’—my husband was never a proponent of that happening because that wasn’t his story. He played one year in high school, his senior year and got a scholarship and went to play football so he never had that whole, ‘in order for you to make it to the NFL or for you to make it to college and be able to play ball, that you’ve gotta do it this way, you’ve gotta start it early.’ So that wasn’t his story and we knew it was possible for him to be great at a sport and not start when you’re a toddler.”

That didn’t mean a toddler Van didn’t try though. He played flag football, bummed he couldn’t play Pop Warner with his cousins, but trying his best to recreate the sport he was drawn to in the living room recalls Marla.

“Before a game, whatever team it was, he’d put on the uniform or whatever for whoever’s playing that day so he’s in front of the TV and he’s watching guys play, and when he’s watching his dad play, he’s pretending like he’s playing, he’s throwing the ball to himself, he’s tackling himself…he’d have headbands on, wristbands on, he’d have wristbands around his ankles too. I don’t understand how that happens but we have pictures and it is just the cutest thing and we look back now and think wow.”

There was a bit of wow factor at the time too. His parents thought basketball would be Van’s sport. He played on an AAU team, it got the bulk of his attention, and he was good. Yet he couldn’t ignore football, which brings us back to the day in 7th grade when he came to his mom with a plea…and reinforcements.

“So he comes to me in middle school and when he came to me to ask me he brought friends with him so he wasn’t by himself. So he was like ‘ I really wanna play.’ And they were like ‘yea I’m playing.’ So it was more of like ‘ok I want him to be able to foster these friendships with these guys.’ Cause we moved around a bit with my husband playing and coaching. And I just thought that would be good and I thought it was cool that he brought his friends to ask too. So I said ok we’ll give it a shot. But in my heart I thought, it probably won’t be the sport for him; it’ll probably be basketball. And here we are.”

“That was a hard one because you can get hurt, things like that,” laughs Van, remembering the conversation before adding, “actually I broke my leg in the ninth grade. My mom was right. But once I healed up and things like that, she kinda got better. Before every game she calls me, and we pray on the phone for maybe like an hour. We’ll be on the phone just praying, asking God to protect me while I’m out there. Now she’s more confident in what I’m doing. Now I just tell her, I’ll make sure I’m careful, Mom.”

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A prayer and a promise had to be the compromise because looking back Marla says it didn’t take long to see the writing on the wall.

“It was the sport for Van almost immediately. He went out there on the field and was doing things and playing like he had been playing Pop Warner football or had been doing things since he was a toddler like some of these families do.

“My husband was never the dad that made sure he’s teaching you things or showing you how to play this. He wasn’t doing that…so when he got out there and he was playing like he had played, that’s when I thought I can see that this can be a thing.

“But the fact that he wanted to do it, he loved it, he didn’t feel pressure just because his dad was a coach or his dad was a player, that he should do this or should do that, that is what I’m most proud of, that he didn’t have that type of pressure. The pressure came later on when he got into it. But the beginning of it, it was actually really organic.”

His dad, seeing how serious Van was, began taking him to the facilities, putting him through drills and teaching him technique. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it right.

Says Van, “I remember countless times going to the facility and doing drills. He’s been a big influence on my game and a big influence on my life. He’s just been there with me through everything. I owe a lot of my skillset to him.”

It’s all those hours and work, time around those who played the game for a living, which took the naturally gifted receiver and created a player with a wealth of knowledge.

“He definitely brings a different aspect to the game,” explains Josh Hammond.

“He’s really knowledgeable of the game being that his dad and a lot of his family come from that football background so he might know things that some guys don’t because he’s had that experience at the next level and just seeing how those guys work. Definitely brung in a lot of work for the receiver group because he’s seen it so he knows what it takes and he’s seen what it takes.”

For Van, passing that on is as much a part of his role as his game.

“Why not pass it on to the next player so their abilities can be better than mine? You always want your guys to be better. Anything I can do to help them achieve their dreams, their goals you know I’m going to do.”

“It’s been really, really great to be able to watch this transformation from Ole Miss to Florida,” muses Marla.

“It is night and day. When Van was at Ole Miss of course you have the team and we’re all family and it’s great but he had just a core group of guys that he was like really close with. Here at Florida it’s like everybody’s close with everybody, it’s not a few or just this core people. It’s everybody. I’m trying to explain it to you in a way that you can understand what I’m feeling in my heart and what I’m sensing. It’s almost like he was new but you wouldn’t know it because they accepted him as if they’d known him forever.”

Now that Jefferson has decided to return for his senior year, the entire group gets another year together, another season to learn from each other and build on the dynamic that helped make this the most productive season for a Gators offense in a decade. It was that dynamic that took a hodge podge of players and created an exciting receiving corps; but it was one that needed that guy who could exhibit impeccable technique and show those around him how to get there as well. It needed its anchor and steady force in the midst of change.

It needed Van Jefferson.

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