Photo by Rich von Biberstein / Getty Images

When Dan Mullen arrived in Gainesville in November of 2017, he was faced with a locker room full of kids who had no idea what it meant to be a Gator. There were guys that didn’t know if they could be redeemed from past transgressions. There were young men who were eager to learn how to make their childhood fantasies a reality, but just didn’t know how to get there on their own. Sadly, there were even some who had just lost the joy and passion for the game that they had played their entire lives.

Over the course of their collegiate careers, they had seen some rather unfulfilling–and unsustainable–highs, and indeed, plenty of the deepest lows. They were a team without a leader and their own fans were beginning to turn on them.

That’s what Dan Mullen inherited when he accepted the head coach position at Florida. A roster full of talent that had not yet been realized. A group of athletes that were in desperate need of physical and mental rehabilitation were finally about to get all they had ever hoped for and more.

See also: Freshman QB Jalon Jones opts to transfer after spring camp

The state of the program, when Mullen arrived, was one of inconsistency. Two SEC East championships sandwiched between a couple of four win seasons was evidence enough without adding the lack of physical conditioning of the team.

The first order of business for Mullen and his staff was to get the team in shape both physically and mentally. Nick Savage played a vital role in both aspects. By the time spring camp rolled around, the team was already buying in because of their physical transformations alone.

Mullen set the bar high. Higher than anyone in the locker room had previously thought was possible. He demanded excellence, but he also earned the team’s respect. Mullen could often be found running along side his team, early in the morning. He could squeeze just a little bit more effort out of a player by needling them with one of his sarcastic little quips.

Without even realizing when it had occurred, the team found themselves actually having fun.

The fan base got their first glimpse of the turnaround during the Orange and Blue Debut, when nothing was taken too seriously. The players were executing without fear of making a mistake, and former Gators were involved in the backyard atmosphere, scoring touchdowns in the most comical ways.

This was all by design and it served to repair the mentality of the team, as well as the relationship between them and the fans.

So what’s different? After all, there are still plenty of questions surrounding this year’s team, many of which were being asked about Mullen’s first team as well.

The difference in the state of the program is that the foundation has been laid. The team is strong, fast, and physical, with a healthy psyche. There is confidence–and dare I say–even swagger. All of the things that made Florida football, Florida football, are back.

Mullen and his staff entered this spring with a familiar cast who now exhuberate the comfort and confidence that was earned by going through a full season in the program.

Feleipe Franks looks like an entirely different quarterback, not just from his redshirt freshman season, but from last year as well. He has some of the most talented wide receivers and tight ends that Florida has seen in a decade or more to support him, and the running backs are truly special.

While the offensive line is a source of extreme anxiety for many, it isn’t as hopeless as it may appear. Last year’s line had a lot of experience but had never played to their potential. Coach John Hevesy had them looking like an elite group by the season’s end.

Likewise, this year’s line may lack experience but they are quickly developing chemistry, and have shown phenomenal growth in a very short period of time. Expect that progression to continue under Hevesy’s instruction. By the time the meat of the season is upon us, this group could also be a team strength.

Todd Grantham is tasked with answering the question of how to replace the production of the defensive front. He is finding that answer in guys like Jonathan Greenard, Jeremiah Moon, and Andrew Chatfield. Paired with the return of Marco Wilson from a season ending injury last year, along with CJ Henderson, Trey Dean, and Amari Burney in the secondary, this defense could be even more potent than last year’s.

Even though the Gators enter the fall with some of the same questions that we had about them last season, there is a greater sense of confidence and expectation from the team, the fans, and the media, alike. All of this points to a solid foundation being built and a much improved and healthy state of the program.

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