Hoover, AL –Every year the SEC Media Days marks the unofficial beginning of college football season. Fans flock to the event and hang on every word with the fervor of a ravenous beast dining on a fresh kill. The passion of SEC football fans cannot be quenched and from the moment that the final second ticks off the clock in the national title game until the first toe meets the beautifully dimpled pigskin to kickoff the next season, these fans are counting the days, hours, and seconds between seasons.
Dan Mullen chose three fine representatives to accompany him on the Gators’ day one billing. Senior running back Lamical Perine, senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga, and redshirt junior Feleipe Franks each made the trip to Hoover, Alabama, ready to share a glimpse of what the off season has been like and what the expectations are for the 2019 Florida Gators.
Mullen described Perine as a “dynamic player as a running back and obviously great skill set and receiving, all-around player.” As a junior, Perine was a very productive part of Mullen’s offense, producing 826 yards and seven touchdowns on 134 carries.
During his time on stage, Perine addressed the Florida fanbase and their sometimes fickle ways.
“Honestly, Florida might have the most bipolar fans. When we’re winning games, everyone is happy. When we’re losing, everyone is getting bashed. From the coaches, to the equipment guys, even kickers.” Perine said.
In fairness, most fanbases celebrate victories and lament defeat. However, if we’re honest, many of the Gators’ elect have taken this to an extreme in the past few years. Alas, the internet brings out the worst in many of us.
Jabari Zuniga has been terrorizing offensive backfields since arriving on campus and decided to return for his senior season, primarily, to finish his degree. Mullen joked that Zuniga’s mother keeps him up every day, making sure he’s on track to graduate.
In regards to last season, Zuniga felt that at least one of the Gators’ losses could have just as easily been a win.
“I really feel like we should’ve won the game last year,” Zuniga said of the Georgia game. “We just made too many mistakes. At the end of the day, when you’re playing football at the level we’re playing, you can’t make mistakes like that. Because teams as talented as that will capitalize off that. So you’ve got to be on your A-game.”
Zuniga went on to compliment the skill and talent of Georgia’s offensive line, saying, “I feel like they’re one of the [better] offensive lines I’ve played in my career. So hats off to those guys. But, at the same time though, it’s going to be a fight next year.”
Feleipe Franks has had an enigmatic relationship, at times, with fans and media throughout his career. However, the once embattled Florida quarterback was all smiles on Monday afternoon.
Franks recently signed with the Boston Red Sox and clocked a pitch at ninety-five miles per hour during their camp. Mullen, a fan of the Red Sox, quipped that Franks was still working on his accuracy and he didn’t know if he would want to step into the batter’s box if Franks is throwing heaters like that.
Despite the prospect of playing baseball, Franks is committed to Florida and his football career. In fact, out of the twenty-five ranked quarterbacks in his class, Franks is one of only eight who is still with the team he originally signed with.
The redshirt junior is coming off of a breakout year that saw him throw for 2,457 yards, twenty-four touchdowns, and just six interceptions. He has developed the confidence and leadership skills necessary to lead this Florida team towards their goal of winning an SEC Championship.
When asked about what was different about Franks, Lamical Perine said, “He matured. He became a leader of this team that people look to. He’s not a guy who has to sit in the back and look to Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby to make calls for him. He’s the guy. He’s our quarterback. Everybody is behind him and he’s got a lot of people’s back as well.”
During his time on stage, Franks was asked about the importance of last season for him in his career. He responded, “I think super important, just for my confidence. Coach Mullen hasn’t stopped believing in me. Coach Johnson did a great job of just coaching me every day, all the quarterbacks. And then, all the quarterbacks just did a great job of just pushing me every day. I haven’t gone into one game week like, ‘OK, you’re secure in the job.’ You have to compete for everything you have. I think last year was just a stamping point for me, a confidence booster that I want to build off of this season.”
Franks later addressed the questions surrounding the offensive line, stating, “Just continuous work. Everyone says offensive line this, that, and the other, but at the same time, I don’t see anybody here in the indoor [facility] when they are working their butts off. You can have young guys who are really good players but nobody knows. They just assume that because you’re young, you have a lot to learn, which is true, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a really good player. Yes, we have a young offensive line, but we also have veteran offensive linemen who have played a lot of snaps and can help the younger guys get acclimated quicker and be ready to play the season. I think we have a really good offensive line, guys who work super hard. I think we’ll just be fine at that position, like every other position. They push each other every day.”
When head coach Dan Mullen was asked about what Franks improved in his game last season, he replied, “I think, as the year went on, he understood what his abilities were and he decided to use all of his talents. I think a light came on that, ‘I’m 6’6″, 245 pounds and pretty athletic. If they’re going to completely empty the middle of the field and I can run into the end zone from twenty yards untouched, I can do that.’ And I think when he bought into using all of his skill set to play, and not trying to limit himself or not trying to worry really about what everybody else thought, he was going to be a better player, and he did that.”
Mullen added that he told Franks, “If you think — if you know of all of these other opinions that are out there of how to play the quarterback position, if there’s someone better than Brian Johnson, let me know. I’ll hire them to be our quarterback coach. But I think he’s a pretty darn good quarterback coach. I have some pretty good experience developing quarterbacks as well. But, Feleipe, if you think everybody on Twitter is much better at that, to coach, just let us know. We’ll look at them as being the quarterback coach.”
One of the topics that Commisioner Sankey addressed in the opening statement was that of mental health. Coach Mullen fielded a query regarding his approach to that subject and if it was something he and the staff focused on.
“I think it’s huge,” Mullen said. “We spend a lot of time with our team on developing every aspect of their life, of maintaing not just their physical health, their mental health, their emotional health, and allowing them to continue to grow and develop in every way possible and expose them to as much as possible so they can learn.”
One of the biggest achievements in Dan Mullen’s career is turning Mississippi State into a force to be reckoned with in the SEC. After nine seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach, Mullen had built a program from the ground up. With coaching turnover being such a regular aspect of the modern game, Mullen spoke to the importance of patience and continuity when building a program.
“I think — I do think there’s a lot to building programs.” He continued, “I was very fortunate. I spent nine years at Mississippi State University. And in that time, I was allowed to go build a program and build a program that could potentially win consistently. I know it’s tough in today’s world because everybody wants instant gratification, but I was able to build a program that could win consistently there. And same thing, I want to accomplish at the University of Florida, is coming to build a program that not just wins, but also competing for championships on a consistent basis. And to do that, sometimes that takes time, and I guess it’s good to see that people are looking in and saying, ‘hey, if we feel comfortable with the direction our program’s headed, we’re going to be patient with this, and give this coach an opportunity to go build it to go have success over the long haul.”
“I was very fortunate. I spent nine years at Mississippi State University. And in that time, I was allowed to go build a program and build a program that could potentially win consistently.” -Dan Mullen
Now that Florida’s portion of SEC Media Days is in the books, their attention turns to the upcoming Friday Night Lights, an annual recruiting event that sees many of the nation’s top recruits visiting Gainesville, and the beginning of fall camp.
The Gators will be kicking off the 150th college football season in front of the entire nation on August 24th, when they take on the hated Miami Hurricanes.