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CeCe Jefferson’s Florida Foundation

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Beyond grateful for his current opportunity, CeCe Jefferson is absolutely immersed in it.

"You can ask my girlfriend, ask my momma; sometimes I just come out of the blue and say 'you know what?' and they say 'what's wrong?' I just say 'nothing, I really play for the Florida Gators'."
~CeCe Jefferson

Entering his senior year, Cece Jefferson has become an absolute fixture at Florida. The Glen St. Mary-native will soon enter his fourth season in the starting lineup as he earned first-team honors four times as a highly-touted true freshman back in 2015. Already, Jefferson has compiled 106 career tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. He has made two SEC Championship Games, has a winning record versus Georgia and recently represented the Gators at league media days, a noteworthy distinction for any player.

Jefferson isn't just the face of the franchise at Florida, he's the heart and soul, too.

This fall is poised to be a banner season for Jefferson. In new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, Jefferson will likely play different positions, roles based on circumstance; such flexibility should allow him to be more prominently featured as a pass-rusher. Fittingly, Jefferson is a team captain for the Gators and will set the tone for Florida with his attitude and perspective. Jefferson, looking even further down the line, will almost certainly be a high NFL Draft pick, a move he turned down for one more go in Gainesville months ago.

Jefferson is a lot of things: a leader, a playmaker, a future pro. Even as his legacy grows, Jefferson still can't believe he's a Gator.

"Florida is everything I thought it would be, everything I dreamed about. From meeting the Gator greats, to working out in the weight room, seeing my name on the locker, getting texts from the coaches sending me the itinerary. To this day it is just such a surreal moment, because it's been a childhood dream for me,"Jefferson beamed. "You can ask my girlfriend, ask my momma; sometimes I just come out of the blue and say 'you know what?' and they say 'what's wrong?' I just say 'nothing, I really play for the Florida Gators'."

Beyond grateful for his current opportunity, Jefferson is absolutely immersed in it. You could call him the mayor of Florida football, but those terms ultimately end; Jefferson has been a Gator since the beginning and a big part of him will stay on campus long after his eligibility expires. Born and raised in north Florida, Jefferson, a U.S. Army All-American out of high school, didn't actually leave for college, he came home, instead. 

With his team coming off of a rare losing season and a new coaching staff in place, Jefferson was still the event's most upbeat and engaging student-athlete at SEC Media Days in Atlanta. His passion made a point. There is a very real spirit to Jefferson, an aura that sometimes comes when someone has great conviction in where they are and what they are doing. A synergy follows Jefferson around the room like he chases the quarterback in the open field.

If Jefferson, regardless of the situation, seems excited and proud, understand that every moment has been two decades in the works.

"I've always wanted to come to school here ever since I was a little kid. I knew during my whole recruiting process that I was coming to school here no matter who the coach was, because CeCe Jefferson wanted to be at the University of Florida," he shared. "I just felt like that was the perfect fit for me."

On the field, in the classroom or in the community, Jefferson approaches every opportunity with a powerful sense or purpose. 

Motivation, for Jefferson, is easy to find. It starts with his memories. Growing up rooting for the orange and blue, there is an inner-desire, uncompromising and unrelenting, that drives Jefferson forward. His goals are clear, but the efforts of those who came before him are, too. Who Jefferson plays for has a multi-faceted meaning.

With all that he does, Jefferson hopes to measure up to a specific set of expectations, ideals he, in some ways, was raised on.

"That 'Gator Standard', man. Just the way they carry themselves, the way they still keep in touch and will come back and talk like they just graduated yesterday. Just the love, who wouldn't want to be a part of it? That's something special. That brotherhood, that lifelong family. Florida football is the biggest fraternity in the nation," he nodded of his predecessors. "You talk about real brotherhood, real go-getters, just relentless effort, that's us. That's our standard, it's been that way and it's our job to get that back."

Not far removed from a nine-win season that featured victories over the likes of Georgia, LSU and Iowa and a trip to the SEC Championship Game, Florida clearly has potential. Jefferson believes the 2018 edition of the Gators has an upside that is ready to be fulfilled. There is returning production everywhere on the depth chart. Seven different Florida players recently received pre-season all-conference recognition from league media, including Jefferson being picked, quite prominently, as a first-team defensive lineman. 

Internally, expectations are high.

"This team can go extremely far. CeCe Jefferson as an individual is going to give this team everything that he's got," Jefferson stated. "I know what it takes to get there. We've just got such a special group of talent, these guys just don't understand it yet. And I feel like God brought me back to voice that we've got it, we've got the pedigree, we've got it right here. We've just got to put it together, put every block with a block, and this with that, and we've just got to buy in. This could be special, this thing could be special."

Dan Mullen's return comes with a throwback to a championship era. The offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida from 2005-2008, Mullen won two national titles in Gainesville and helped Tim Tebow win a Heisman Trophy. At Mississippi State, he went a successful 69-46, was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2014 and, at one point, took the Bulldogs all of the way to number one in the country. Most pundits gave Florida's Mullen hire rave reviews. 

Jefferson has been impressed. In the locker room, anticipation is building for Mullen's debut.

"He demands respect, he demands a work ethic and he is a man that isn't going to rest until his entire team is on pace and working towards a common goal. He's never satisfied and his resume speaks for itself," Jefferson explained. "At the University of Florida, such a prestigious school, he's been a part of two national championships. Guys just want to listen to what he has to say, because the proof is in the pudding. I'm just looking forward to making more memories with him."

What happened last season, prior to Mullen's arrival, of course, was a disappointment. Getting back to the norm has fueled Florida's off-season. Missed opportunities now in the rear-view, the Gators have a renewed sense of direction and persistence. The energy around campus is palpable, with a fresh outlook of optimism serving as the team's foundation. Through storms literal and figurative, fall practice will undoubtedly be one of focus, steadfast in all kinds of weather.

Collectively, it's about the who, what, when, where and why for Florida.   

"That 4-7 season definitely motivated us. Florida isn't used to that," Jefferson reflected. "Being part of that team that dropped the ball, you know we're used to being one of the top ten defenses, just being a part of that team that felt like they dropped the ball, let Gator Nation down, let the Gator greats down, it's not a good feeling and that's just not something I want to go through again for me or my teammates."

For veterans like Jefferson, there is an extra sense of urgency and a big-picture understanding that can only come with time. 

"When that clock gets to ticking, the little things become so much more important, because if you can take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves," he added. "I just try to remind my teammates daily that it's going to fly by, so get what you can get out of it and just be the best that you can be and you've got to love it. You just have to love it, if you want something out of it, you just have to love it. If you love your job, then you'll never work another day in your life."

Regardless of what the future holds, Jefferson has made an impact at Florida and Florida has made an impact on him. The stories of the two are directly intertwined. Remarkably, there is even more to be written.  

The upcoming senior season will undoubtedly be a special one for Jefferson. He has a mission to return Florida to prominence, the chance to leave his mark on the program's all-time record book and the possibility to graduate from his favorite school and be drafted to play in the NFL. First and above all else, Jefferson will continue to be the person and player he both always thought he could be and never thought he could be all-in-one.

In or out of the spotlight, Jefferson has already come full-circle.

"I'm me and I play for the Florida Gators, just like that little kid that grew up watching Dallas Baker catch all those touchdowns and watching Percy Harvin slice the field. I'm living that now, I'm on that same field, so it just means a lot, it means the world to me," Jefferson smiled. "If my son wants to follow in my footsteps, then so be it, I'm not going to lie, I'll lead him to the University of Florida."

At the end of his career, CeCe Jefferson will look back on a lifetime's worth of experiences. Those moments, he will have seen for years.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports