ATHENS — Sony Michel grew up in Florida, oblivious to that celebrated college football game played to great fanfare in Jacksonville each year.
“I was a Miami fan growing up,” Michel said. “So I never really paid attention to the whole Georgia vs. Florida rivalry.”
A native of Plantation, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, Michel will have a prominent role in the rivalry Saturday. The speedy sophomore will start at tailback for Georgia against his home-state Gators.
He is one of 16 players on Georgia’s team from Florida, including a half dozen with key front-line roles.
Receivers/kick returners Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie are from Tallahassee and Miami, respectively. Offensive tackle John Theus and his brother, long snapper Nathan Theus, are from Jacksonville. Offensive guard Isaiah Wynn is from St. Petersburg. Kicker Marshall Morgan is from Fort Lauderdale.
Morgan summed up the attitude of the Floridians on Georgia’s roster by posting a photo of himself and Nathan Theus on Instagram with this caption: “Ready for another business trip back to our home state.”
For the Floridians-turned-Bulldogs, Saturday’s game puts them on the opposite side from many of their friends back home. Davis, for example, remains close to his position coach at Tallahassee’s Lincoln High, former Florida receiver (and Fort Valley, Ga., native) Jacquez Green.
“He always tells me, ‘Have a good game. Just don’t beat Florida,’” Davis said.
Two Floridians are among Georgia’s four captains for the game: Michel and linebacker/special-teamer Ryne Rankin, who is from Orlando.
Davis said he’ll strive not to let the rivalry overwhelm him Saturday “because if you get caught up in the hype, it can affect your game negatively.” Yet, he knows well the unique dynamics of Georgia-Florida games.
“I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s just going to be a quiet game and nobody is going to say anything out there,” Davis said. “It’s definitely going to be one of those games where there’s going to be some pushing and shoving and trash-talking and all that.”
Wynn said he doesn’t need extra motivation from facing his home-state team.
“I’m going to give my all every play (every game),” he said. “That really doesn’t affect me, playing anybody from Florida.”
Of the Floridians on Georgia’s team, Michel may command the most attention Saturday. It’ll be his second start in place of Nick Chubb, out for the season with a knee injury.
Among the many colleges that recruited Michel: Florida.
“I had a couple of visits but was not really too interested in Florida,” Michel said. “It just wasn’t for me, the atmosphere. Once you step on campus, you kind of have that feeling of knowing if that place is the right place for you.”
Although also recruited by Miami, “I just felt Georgia had everything I needed,” Michel said.
Michel was joined in Georgia’s 2014 signing class by McKenzie, a high school teammate at American Heritage, a private school in south Florida. Morgan attended the same school, two years ahead of Michel and McKenzie.
Georgia isn’t the only team in this game with key players from the other state. Florida has eight players from Georgia, including starters Jarrad Davis (from Kingsland) at linebacker, Demarcus Robinson (Fort Valley) at wide receiver and Antonio Riles (Lawrenceville) at offensive guard. Gators kicker Austin Hardin is from Atlanta.
Both states are renowned recruiting goldmines.
“I take pride in that there are great football players that come from Florida. Florida is probably known for its speed,” Michel said. “But … coming to Georgia, I kind of realized how much players from Georgia excelled.”
Players on Georgia’s team who are from Florida:
Player / Position / Class / Hometown
Deandre Baker / CB / Fr. / Miami
Faton Bauta / QB / Jr. / West Palm Beach
Keyon Brown / DT / RFr. / Wauchula
Reggie Davis / WR / Jr. / Tallahassee
Isaiah McKenzie / WR / So. / Miami
Sony Michel / RB / So. / Plantation
Marshall Morgan / K / Sr. / Fort Lauderdale
Ryne Rankin / LB / Jr. / Orlando
Juwan Taylor / LB/ Fr. / Hollywood
John Theus / OT / Sr. / Jacksonville
Nathan Theus / SN / Sr. / Jacksonville
A.J. Turman / RB / RSo. / Orlando
Sam Vaughn / QB / RFr. / Fort Pierce
Reggie Wilkerson / CB / RSo. / Citra
Shaquery Wilson / WR / FR. / Coral Gables
Isaiah Wynn / OG / So. / St. Petersburg