NEW ORLEANS — It’s part of the dichotomy of Mike Gillislee. Often he walks into interviews wearing T-shirts with a self-promoting message.
“Damn, I’m Good’’ is one. “Faster than a (blankety-blank)” is another.
When that veneer is stripped off, though, a humble but confident personality comes through.
“You were expecting one of my T-shirts?’’ he asked Sunday, huddled under a plain hoodie, when he came in to discuss Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl pairing of his Florida Gators and the Louisville Cardinals.
“I’m ready, I think,’’ he said simply.
If he is, Florida’s in good shape because most observers believe Gillislee, a fourth-year running back, is the most important member of the Gators’ offense. For Florida to move, Gillislee has to gain yards — as he has during most of the Gators’ 11-1 season.
In a workmanlike year, his first as a starter, Gillislee has 1,104 yards (a 4.7-yard average) and 10 touchdowns on 235 attempts. Not bad for a guy who has reached only one of the preseason goals he set for himself, which were 1,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Pretty good, anyone would think, for someone who had 930 total yards the previous three years, most coming long after games had been decided.
“All right, they were a little high,” he said. “Those were all goals — my own goals. I’m pretty sure nobody would expect me to set my goals low.”
But the one he did reach was cracking the 1,000-yard barrier. He always envisioned his photo hanging in the meeting room with the other Gators who reached 1,000 on the ground.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Gainesville one day and seeing my picture on the wall with those other guys,’’ he said with a slight smile of self-satisfaction.
It’s not a small matter. Gillislee’s 2012 accomplishments have been a welcome — and relatively new — factor in Florida football. The Gators had not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason had 1,267 in 2004, meaning they didn’t have one during Urban Meyer’s six-year tenure in Gainesville, when Florida won two BCS championships.
A year ago, the Gators finished eighth in the SEC with 1,859 rushing yards — and that was with speedster Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey getting most of the carries. A backup, and often seemingly an afterthought, Gillislee admitted the limited playing time was frustrating.
When first-year offensive coordinator Brent Pease went to a power-running philosophy, the rushing output of the Gators — and Gillislee — increased dramatically. Now, the Cardinals consider containing the 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior crucial.
In the end, it all worked out.
“I’m a believer,’’ Gillislee said. “After all that time, I got an opportunity. I stayed healthy. Things worked out.’’
“Gillislee is playing lights-out,’’ said Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who was an assistant at Florida when Gillislee was a freshman. “We’re very concerned about that running game. Look, they’re now running an offense that suits him. That’s why he has over a thousand yards.
“He can put his foot in the ground and get vertical on you right now. ... You look at the big plays he’s had in the open field, he can do a lot of things. He can catch the football. He can cut back. When he does, you better be concerned about that.’’
If Louisville, a two-touchdown underdog, has an opportunity to spring an upset, it has to contain Gillislee, defensive end Marcus Smith said.
“If we want to stop Florida’s offense, we will have to stop him,’’ he said. “I think he is the best player on Florida’s offense. If we do not play our assignments, he can beat us. The challenge for our defensive line will not be letting him go over the top on us. If we let him get to the outside, he will beat us with speed.’’
For the record, Gillislee agrees with those who think he is key to Florida’s offense — sort of.
“Football is a team game,’’ he said. “It’s not based on one guy. As long as we get a ‘W,’ that’s the important thing. But I do think I’m kind of important to what we do.’’
For now, Gillislee is taking things step by step. He wants a great game in the Sugar Bowl, he wants to play next year in the NFL and he wants to return to Gainesville — probably wearing another of those self-promoting T-shirts — to see his photo hanging on the meeting-room wall.
“I’m really looking forward to that,’’ he said.