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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

From the Swamp to SoFi: Gators in the Super Bowl

Five former Florida players populate the rosters of the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals

<p>Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson (2) celebrates his game-winning field goal against the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime Jan. 30. </p>

Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson (2) celebrates his game-winning field goal against the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime Jan. 30.

Across 26 of 32 teams, there are 47 former Gators in the NFL. 

The role each player holds varies. Some have nailed down starting jobs, while others fill slots on practice squads. Nevertheless, the pipeline from Gainesville to the NFL is alive and well. 

The 2022 Super Bowl features a matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams have provided iconic moments to what has been one of the most electric NFL playoffs ever. All six games in the divisional and conference title rounds were won by only a single possession. 

The Rams claim a technical home-field advantage, as Super Bowl 56 is being played in state-of-the-art SoFi Stadium, home of the two Los Angeles NFL teams. 

The NFC champions defeated the division-rival Cardinals, reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers and gritty San Francisco 49ers to make it back to the big game. Los Angeles hopes to avenge a 2019 Super Bowl loss, which came at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. 

On the other side, the Bengals have embraced the underdog role all postseason. Quarterback Joe Burrow has led Cincinnati out of the league’s abyss and to the Super Bowl just two years after the Bengals picked him first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Now, Cincinnati is 60 minutes away from possibly lifting up its franchise’s first Lombardi trophy. 

Former Gators can be found on both sides of what has shaped up to be an enticing Super Bowl matchup. UF ties Louisiana State University with five past players heading to Los Angeles. Two Rams and three Bengals once suited up for Florida. Here is a look at how these players got to where they are today. 

Los Angeles Rams:

Note: Former Florida tight end Clifford Taylor IV never saw any game action during his two seasons as a walk-on from 2019-20, but graduated from UF with a degree in graphic design. He currently works for the Rams on their social media and design team. 

WR Van Jefferson

Hailing from Brentwood, Tennessee, Jefferson wasn’t always a Gator. 

The wide receiver spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career at Ole Miss. Jefferson transferred to Florida prior to the 2018 season and quickly became a staple of an offense helmed by quarterback Felipe Franks. During his two seasons in Gainesville, Jefferson started every game. He led the Gators in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2018 and 2019. 

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Jefferson’s swan song with Florida would turn out to be his biggest, snagging six catches for a career-high 129 yards in the Gators’ victory over Virginia in the 2019 Orange Bowl. At the 2020 Senior Bowl, he only tallied two receptions for 11 yards, but Jefferson made noise throughout the process and was named a Practice Player of the Week. While he was limited in his participation at the 2020 NFL combine due to a foot injury, scouts didn’t forget what they saw from Jefferson in Mobile, Alabama. 

The Rams selected Jefferson with the 57th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. He saw action in all 16 games, but never made a start in his rookie campaign. Competition was tough as Los Angeles boasted a crowded receiver room, filled with the likes of Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds. 

Yet, when 2021 rolled around, Jefferson had worked his way up the depth chart and into the starting lineup. On Nov. 13, Woods was declared out for the season after tearing his ACL. The opportunity for Jefferson to see a major uptick in targets was inevitable. That was until the Ram’s mid-season signing of former Cleveland Brown Odell Beckham Jr. 

Jefferson has still upped his production this season, and the upgrade at quarterback from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford might be a large reason why. The second-year wideout caught 50 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season, starting every game. Through three playoff matchups, Jefferson has five receptions for 79 yards, adding a 15-yard rush as well. 

WR Brandon Powell

If one word can describe Powell’s four years at Florida, it would be consistency. 

The wide receiver appeared in 49 games as a Gator, totaling 2,184 all-purpose yards and doing just about everything for Florida’s offense. Powell was the Gators’ swiss army knife following Percy Harvin and preceding Kadarius Toney. The Deerfield Beach, Florida, native hauled in 131 receptions during his collegiate career, the most since Harvin (133) from 2006-08. 

Powell’s longest play as a Gator came in one of UF’s most iconic upsets in the last decade. Florida toppled No. 3 Ole Miss in 2015, 38-10, in front of over 90,000 fans in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. On a third down in the second quarter, Powell lined up in the slot to the left of quarterback Will Greir. He ran a shallow crossing route as Greir lasered a pass between two Ole Miss defenders, hitting Powell right in the chest. No. 4 hauled in the pass just shy of Florida’s 30-yard line and turned on the jets, scoring a 77-yard touchdown. 

That same speed is still seen throughout his NFL career. 

Seven rounds came and went during the 2018 NFL Draft and Powell never heard his name called. He would go on to sign a deal with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent, and then make the 53-man roster. Powell appeared in just six games for the Lions and in his lone start he caught six passes for 103 yards. Detroit would go on to cut Powell that following offseason. He has since made stops in Atlanta, Buffalo and Miami. 

In November 2021, Powell signed on to the Rams’ practice squad. Hoping to find a spark in the return game, Powell began to see playing time week 13 against Jacksonville and onward. On Dec. 26, Powell returned a punt 62 yards against the Minnesota Vikings, front flipping into the endzone for a touchdown. 

The score earned Powell week 16 NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Through the playoffs he is averaging 17.8 yards per kick return and 15.8 yards per punt return. 

Cincinnati Bengals:

K Evan McPherson 

Former Florida head coach Dan Mullen will forever have a complicated legacy. One thing that he undisputedly got right was bringing McPherson with him when he was hired by the Gators. 

The No. 1 kicker coming out of high school, McPherson originally committed to Mississippi State before following his coach to Gainesville. In the years that followed he was one of the best kickers in the SEC. The Fort Payne, Alabama, native hit 17 field goals in all three seasons he started for Florida. 

With 302 points, McPherson is fourth in all-time scoring at UF. He trails kicker Jeff Chandler (368), quarterback Tim Tebow (342) and kicker Caleb Sturgis (340). After a wildly successful career as a Gator, he decided to forgo his senior season to enter the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Cincinnati used the 149th pick (fifth round) on McPherson, he was the first and only kicker selected. The rookie began to turn heads early, hitting all five of his field goal attempts in the preseason. In the Bengals first regular season game against Minnesota, McPherson hit a game-winning field goal in overtime, resulting in AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. 

On Nov. 21, McPherson tied an NFL record with three makes from over 50 yards in a single game. He would go on to finish his rookie season making 28 of 33 attempts, including a league leading nine from 50 yards and longer. 

Throughout the playoffs McPherson, who has been given the nickname “Money Mac”, hasn’t missed, hitting all 12 of his attempts. The feat places his name in the record book twice more with the most field goals by a rookie in postseason history and most field goals in postseason history without a miss. 

McPherson has become known for the walk-off. His right foot advanced Cincinnati past the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and eventually into the Super Bowl, knocking out the Kansas City Chiefs in the overtime of the AFC Championship Game. 

CB Vernon Hargreaves III

Consensus First Team All-American. 

The accolade encompasses Hargreaves' time at Florida. He was the last player to earn the distinction until tight end Kyle Pitts ended the Gators’ skid in 2020. The cornerback started 35 games over three elite seasons. 

Hargreaves was a five-star, the top corner and the No. 3 overall prospect in the 2013 recruiting class according to 247 Sports. He is rated as the fifth-best recruit in Florida football history. Hargreaves finds himself in the company of Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins and Keiwan Ratliff as the best corners to ever play at UF. 

Following the highs of his collegiate career, Hargreaves’ time in the NFL has been a disappointment.  

The 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Hargreaves stayed in-state with his hometown Buccaneers. During his rookie season he started all 16 games, recording 76 combined tackles, nine pass breakups and an interception. Hargreaves’ following campaigns would be riddled with injuries. A hamstring injury ended his 2017 season after nine games, while a shoulder injury landed Hargreaves on injury reserve week one of 2018. 

Healthy once again to begin 2019, Hargreaves started nine games for Tampa Bay before being waived Nov. 12. A day later he was claimed off waivers by the Houston Texans. Outside of a two-month span where he was a free agent, cut and then re-signed by the Texans, Hargreaves was a starter in Houston for 23 games. 

The Texans released Hargreaves on Nov. 3, 2021, and the Bengals claimed him the following day. With Cincinnati he has appeared in four games, starting once, and is buried on the depth chart. 

Hargreaves was active for the wild card game against the Las Vegas raiders, but has been inactive since. It is not likely he will dress for the Super Bowl. 

OL Fred Johnson 

Standing 6-feet-7-inches and weighing in at 326 pounds, Johnson is an imposing force. 

The offensive lineman was a three-star recruit out of Royal Palms High School and chose to attend Florida over Miami, Marshall, Nebraska and Virginia Tech. Johnson appeared in eight games as a freshman, starting two. His role would continue to develop as his time in Gainesville wore on. 

Johnson started eight games in 2016, beginning the season at right tackle before eventually sliding inside to right guard. The West Palm Beach, Florida, native would find a home at the latter position, starting 23 games over his final two seasons. 

The 2018 Florida offensive line was a special group, allowing the third-fewest sacks among SEC teams that season. Despite his involvement in the unit's success, Johnson would go undrafted in 2019. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and would go on to make their 53-man roster. 

Johnson’s time in Pittsburgh was short lived, he was waived on Oct. 11, 2019, and then claimed three days later by the Bengals. A backup role was embraced and it's one he still holds. This season Johnson has logged 90 snaps, allowing only one sack and committing no penalties. The former Gator currently has an 81.0 PFF grade, but hasn’t seen any action during Cincinnati's playoff run. 

Contact Joseph Henry at jhenry@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.

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