TaxSlayer Bowl homecoming for players from North Florida

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field, formerly known as the Gator Bowl (and still referred to as such by those of us with deep roots in the area) will host the Kentucky Wildcats and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Saturday. For a few players, the game is a homecoming of sorts.

Kentucky cornerback Chris Westry grew up in Orange Park playing football for Oakleaf High School before heading to Lexington. He told News4Jax that, as a player, he “couldn’t ask for anything more” than to play in his first bowl game in front of a home crowd.

“It’s good experience and a humbling experience as well,” Westry said. “I’m so familiar with the area, I can be, like, a tour guide.”

PHOTOS: Kentucky Wildcats arrival, practice at UNF | Georgia Tech practice at Fernandina Beach HS
WATCH: Kentucky Wildcats practice at UNF, Chris Westry interview

Kentucky’s season got off to a rocky start losing three of their first five games. The team turned their season around following critical statements from sports media, finishing their season winning five of their last seven games.

“They were eye openers,” Westry said. “(They) made us realize that we’re better than this. We played the best football we could possibly play after those statements were made.”

The Yellow Jackets started their 2016 season with a hot hand winning their first three games before dropping three in a row. They turned their season around after their three-game slump, winning five of their last six games, including beating in-state rival, the Georgia Bulldogs.

Georgia Tech defensive back Step Durham said, for him, it was the off-the-field changes that helped the Yellow Jackets win on the field. 

“The stuff from behind the football has changed," Durham said. "Watching more film. Getting more prepared to play. Being able to put the film preparation on the field.”

Durham, from Jacksonville, said Saturday's game is a special one. 

“It feels great being back -- being able to play in front of my family,” Durham said. “I think it’ll be a great experience.”

Durham said he had opportunities at Florida colleges, but chose to go to Georgia Tech because of the school's reputation for its commitment to academics. 

“I considered all the Florida schools, but I chose Georgia tech because of the prestige. Also, just being at a great school with a great education,” Durham said. 

Yellow Jackets running back Marcus Allen, from Hilliard, said he's excited for the chance to play his last bowl game in front of a home crowd. 

“I feel like the air is better being back home,” Allen said. "It’s just really exciting to be able to play in front of my friends and family.”

With the TaxSlayer Bowl serving as Allen's last game wearing a Yellow Jackets uniform, he told News4Jax that “It’s an important game for me to be able to finish out my college career in front of a home crowd.” 

The TaxSlayer Bowl kicks off Saturday at 11 a.m. at EverBank Field. The pre-game show, halftime show and post-game interviews will be live streamed on News4Jax.com.