What a difference a year can make. This time last year, we had far more questions than answers. What was a Dan Mullen led Florida going to look like? Who would be the starting quarterback? Would they be just another name in the revolving door of players in that position group since Tebow’s graduation? Could the offense actually score?
The truth is, being a Florida fan over the past decade was akin to living out a real life version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only with the added cruelty being promised that things would be different each year. Every year began with tempered expectations and ended with bitter disappointment or half-hearted celebration of an achievement we knew we didn’t deserve.
So it’s no wonder that some fans responded to the hiring of Dan Mullen with caution and even skepticism. However, even the most hesitant fans took notice, rather quickly, that something was different this time. Dan Mullen immediately went to work, changing the culture at Florida.
Instilling the desire to work harder than anyone else in the nation was the first task. No longer would it be acceptable to simply show up. Strength and conditioning coach, Nick Savage put these young men through the most intense workouts of their lives and Coach Mullen was running right beside each of them. This is one of many reasons that the players are willing to run through a brick wall for him. Seeing your coach enduring the same conditioning he demands of you really lets you see who he is and how he views you in respect to his position.
The physical results Savage’s program were obvious. It wasn’t until the season began however, that we would see the true payoff. In years leading up to the 2018 season, Florida was plagued with injury; losing thirty-one scholarship players in 2017 alone. As one would imagine, that takes a toll and the Gators limped their way to their second four win season in five seasons. In 2018, those injuries were kept to a bare minimum.
Beyond the strength and conditioning, Mullen brought the trademark swagger back to Gainesville. One of the things that was missing during Florida’s decade long slump was the fun and confident attitude exhibited by players and fans alike. Mullen made it known right from the start that he expected the Swamp to be sold out and rocking each and every Saturday.
The fans responded and the team treated them to an upset win over the fifth ranked LSU Tigers. It was that game that most closely resembled the Gators of the Spurrier and Meyer era’s. It was that game where the Swamp displayed it’s true potential.
Although the past year wasn’t without its problems, the team and ,indeed, the program showed tremendous progress. It is because of that progress and the momentum behind it that there is cause for excitement and even expectation for the coming year.
Feleipe Franks, once deemed a lost cause, returns as the incumbent starter and has taken great strides in improving not just his physical game but his leadership as well. The team and the coaches have confidence in him and more importantly, he has confidence in himself.
Close behind him is Emory Jones, who has looked much more comfortable in spring practices this season. He will likely see a lot of action in the coming year. In fact, this is probably the best that the quarterback room has looked since Tebow, Newton, and Brantley wore the orange and blue.
The running backs have exhibited great vision and explosiveness in team drills early on and Malik Davis looks every bit as good as he did before his season ending injury last year. Lamical Perine is the unquestioned leader of this group but regardless of who is toting the rock, defenses beware.
The receiving corps is actually better heading into the summer session and boasts size, speed, experience, and precision. Possibly the most exciting and surprising of the group is the emergence of Kadarius Toney as a deep threat.
On the defensive side of the ball, there is even more depth and experience than last season’s unit. Expect Todd Grantham to get even more production in year two of his system.
Despite losing Jachai Polite and CeCe Jefferson, the defensive line has shown some potential on the edge. Guys like Jabari Zuniga, Tedarrell Slaton, and transfer Jonathan Greenard have all flashed and have the opportunity to excel in Grantham’s aggressive scheme.
The secondary suffered the most last season, due to injury and shallow depth, but they have filled the gaps with blue chip talent and should be a strength this season with the return of Marco Wilson.
Some of the most interesting battles this spring have come from 11-on-11 drills between the receivers and defensive backs. As the addage goes, iron sharpens iron and these groups will have each other very sharp and ready for anything this fall.
The biggest question mark of the spring session has to be the offensive line. With four starters graduating or entering the draft, Florida will need to get immediate results from a very young group. On the plus side, the Gators have the best depth along the offensive line that they have had in years. The downside is, they will have a prime time test versus Miami in week zero.
Offensive line coach, John Hevesy has embraced the task at hand, however and says that he’s having a lot of fun with the younger guys. With their lack of experience comes fewer bad habits to retrain.
With so many weapons at their disposal, the Gators have not been shy about this season’s goals. Call it a further indication of Mullen’s culture change. Call it swagger. Call it whatever you’d like but the Gators are in it for championships.