GAINESVILLE —Florida cornerback CJ Henderson texted Dan Mullen this offseason with the kind of request his head coach hates to handle.
Henderson wanted to wear No. 1.
Mullen didn’t even respond.
Receiver Kadarius Toney sent the same request, too, and Mullen finally gave in. He decided both juniors had earned the right to rekindle the tradition by wearing one of the most storied numbers in program history.
“It was very exciting,” Toney said, “just to know who was in the number and continue the tradition that the Gators have long – well, basically have been waiting for to continue.”
The waiting has spanned years. No UF player has worn No. 1 since Vernon Hargreaves in 2015 because no player deserved it.
Although the Gators have continued to crank out skilled defensive backs, none of them have been first-round picks or first-team All-Americans since Hargreaves, the Wharton High alumnus and Bucs’ No. 11 overall selection in 2016.
The drought has been even worse at receiver, where no Gator has been a first-team all-SEC selection since another player who wore No. 1 (Percy Harvin) did so in 2008.
As much as Mullen hates doling out jersey numbers — which he calls “one of the most time-consuming, annoying jobs of the head coach” — he was willing to spend time on the chore to honor a pair of his best players.
“I love to reward guys doing things kind of the right way,” Mullen said.
Henderson easily met that standard.
Although his numbers (two interceptions, seven passes defended) weren’t gaudy last season, they were diminished by the fact that opposing quarterbacks didn’t want to throw it his way. That’s why the 6-foot-1, 191-pound Miami native is earning buzz as a potential first-round pick in next spring’s draft.
The fact that coaches and teammates consider him one of the hardest workers on the team adds to his reputation and helped convince Mullen to dust off No. 1 for a defensive back.
“He works at it,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s got a lot of passion for the game, and he can make plays.”
So can the Gators’ other No. 1.
Toney averaged 12.3 yards per touch in the do-it-all role Harvin embodied in the Gators’ last glory days. He had a 51-yard kickoff return against Georgia, ripped off a 34-yard rush in the Peach Bowl win over Michigan, tallied 72 receiving yards against Missouri and threw the go-ahead touchdown pass in the Mullen Bowl at Mississippi State.
“He just goes out there and makes things happen,” Feleipe Franks said.
They haven’t always been good things, which is why he was limited to 47 offensive touches as a sophomore. The unpredictability and elusiveness that make him a threat to score on any play can also be liabilities if he’s not in the right place or doing the right thing.
Toney has made off-the-field headlines, too. Two marijuana-related incidents in May 2017. A loaded AR-15 found in the backseat of his car during a traffic stop last July. A suspension for last season’s opener against Charleston Southern.
But Mullen said Toney has done “everything we have asked him to do” while performing at a high level. That’s been enough to invite more Harvin comparisons by wearing the former superstar’s number.
“You can’t really complain about that…” Toney said. “To be in shoes like that, that’s big.”
Toney and Henderson aren’t worried about filling those shoes or replacing any other accessories that come with a uniform swap. Even though the bling on Henderson’s No. 5 necklace no longer applies, he plans to keep it as a tribute to his beloved childhood dog, Cinco.
And although both players wanted the prestige that comes with the number, they both know that it doesn’t really matter on game day.
“You can get any number and turn it into something,” Toney said. “It’s what you do with it.”
So what do Toney and Henderson want to do with it?
Turn the No. 1 on their backs into No. 1 in the polls.