1. Ten years after he left, Dan Mullen has returned to Gainesville has a conquering hero, of sorts. What was the feeling around his first spring practice in Gainesville?
It’s pretty amazing to track how Gator fans’ views of Mullen have changed over the years. In 2005-06, people didn’t like him because the offense as helmed by Chris Leak struggled to take off. Then when the offense did excel in 2007-08, I think fans were more quick to credit Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin than Mullen. When he took the Mississippi State job, a lot of folks didn’t foresee problems because Urban Meyer was still around. Sometimes you really don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
I think a lot of Gators rooted for him in Starkville, but there was never was never a huge movement asking for him to return. Chris Petersen was the hot name in the cycle that brought Muschamp for instance, while Chip Kelly was the fascination this last time around.
Now that Mullen is back an in charge, a lot of fans feel like he’s a breath of fresh air. A lot is just that things got toxic towards the end with Jim McElwain, who cultivated such an extreme us-against-the-world mentality with the team that fans were part of “the world”. A couple players got notoriety for sniping with fans on social media. It was bad.
Mullen has done all the standard coach stuff. He acts happy to be at booster dinners, did a tour of Greek organizations to try to boost spring game attendance, and thanks fans for their support. This is all baseline stuff, but after seven years of McElwain and Muschamp largely not doing any of it, it’s actually been very effective at getting the fans unified behind him.
People are optimistic about everything, especially the new strength and conditioning regime. It’s a football cliche that a new strength coach will push players to new limits, but it’s not a cliche for an AD to cite a poor S&C regime when firing the head coach as Scott Stricklin did last fall. For what it’s worth, several players looked significantly different already by the spring game and the injury rate, at least over four whole months of work, has come way down. Things seem more organized, and the coaches are trying to make fans happy. It’s definitely a sunny honeymoon period, at least until they lose an SEC game 17-13.
2. Offense has been the big sticking point for Florida well...ever since Mullen left, really. So is there hope that he can hit the ground running in that department?
Mullen has a couple of big things in his favor. One, the team is absolutely stacked at running back. Jordan Scarlett is basically an NFL back in college, and Lamical Perine is a hard-running second option. Malik Davis, when he returns from injury, is elusive and fast. Adarius Lemons is really fast. The two freshmen they signed show promise too.
The offensive line has a ton of experience as well. Granted, they’ve not been great in past years, and the seemingly entrenched starter at center T.J. McCoy was pushed in the spring by a little-used reserve who hadn’t been given a shot in the middle before. However, they all have played a lot of snaps, and it’ll probably be all upperclassmen among the guys who play regularly save a redshirt sophomore transfer from Texas.
Outside of quarterback, the status of two wide receiver transfers are the biggest wildcard. Van Jefferson is trying to get to play right away like Shea Patterson did, and all beat writers agree he’s the best wideout on the team. Ohio State transfer Trevon Grimes is trying to get to play without sitting out due to an ill family member in south Florida, and he too has a combination of size and speed that UF has largely lacked at receiver since the Meyer days. If both of them get waivers to play in 2018, the offense could be quite dangerous.
3. Will the quarterback position come down to Kyle Trask and Feleipe Franks, or will newcomers over the summer get involved?
Leaving spring, Franks and Trask were noticeably ahead of the other two contenders (one of whom has since transferred). Trask throws the best ball, but he’s merely serviceable when it comes to running. He also hasn’t played a snap at UF and platooned with a better runner in high school, so he’s short on experience and has never been The Guy at the position.
Franks is more mobile, but it seems like he might be a widowmaker of a quarterback. He’s got the height and arm strength you’d want to see and is not a statue, but the mental part isn’t there yet and may never be. Mullen has said he’s most interested in accuracy from his quarterback, but we all know how much he likes to have the signal caller carry the ball. Which trait he truly prefers may be evidenced in whether he goes with Trask or Franks.
Early enrollee Emory Jones looks too good to just sit the bench though, especially since he’s an explosive runner. They’re bringing him along at a measured pace without looking to get him behind center on the first snap of the year, but he’ll almost certainly have packages that’ll get him in to do the mobile quarterback plays. It’s not going to be a Leak/Tebow situation exactly since Jones isn’t a battering ram, but I don’t know anyone who thinks he’ll only appear in garbage time.
Florida fans are about sick of transfer quarterbacks at this point after Luke Del Rio, Austin Appleby, and Malik Zaire all came in recent years and didn’t impress much. However, Ohio State backup QB Joe Burrow announced that he’s going to be a grad transfer this year, and UF might be where he ends up. He couldn’t win the job in Columbus in part because he’s less of a mobile guy than Dwayne Haskins is, but Trask and Franks aren’t super mobile either.
People have speculated for months that Burrow could end up a Gator because he’s played for Urban Meyer for years and Mullen is on Meyer’s coaching tree. It wouldn’t be seamless because Meyer’s and Mullen’s systems have diverged in their nine years apart, but the building blocks are the same. Mullen said at a recent booster event that he wasn’t anticipating bringing in a graduate transfer quarterback, but that was before Burrow went on the market. Given Franks’s struggles last year, Trask’s lack of experience, and Jones’s need for time to develop, there’s no real reason not to at least kick the tires on Burrow and see if he’s interested.
4. What is the status of CeCe Jefferson’s injury,? Will he be ready for the fall, and how much of a concern will it be if he misses time?
Jefferson had surgery for an undisclosed shoulder injury. A source for the Gainesville Sun termed it “significant surgery”. He will miss at least some of fall camp and maybe the beginning of the season if he has a setback.
It is not great for him to lose fall camp reps because he’s being slotted into the hybrid linebacker/rush-end position in Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 defense that didn’t exist the last three years. I’m still trying to learn Grantham’s stuff, but from what I gather, his scheme is not too far off of a 4-3 where one defensive end stands up. That might help Jefferson with some things, but Grantham uses a ton of blitzes whereas Randy Shannon almost never did. Jefferson will drop into coverage more than he did previously too.
The sole mitigating news here is that his position, which UF is back to calling “BUCK” like it did under Muschamp, is about the only one on the defense with real quality depth. The Gators can survive Jefferson’s absence, but this injury will put him behind in getting comfortable in the new role.
5. What are expectations like for the Gators this year? It feels like a rebuild for Mullen, with the requisite patience, but Florida fans are not exactly known for that quality.
The defense is going through a transition, but it’s not as big a shift as it could be. It wasn’t very good last year, but it played a lot of young and inexperienced guys. It won’t be up to Charlie Strong’s standards from a decade ago, but it should improve a quite a bit. No one seems to be worried about it much, at least as long as no starting DTs, corners, or non-BUCK linebackers go down.
The offense, though... it could go either way. Mullen’s offense with a pocket passer, whether Chris Leak at UF or Tyler Russell at MSU, just doesn’t work as well as with a mobile guy. Maybe Jones can progress quickly enough to earn the job, but Mullen’s never started a freshman before as either an OC or head coach.
The line’s mediocrity has held back the offense for years now, and Mullen’s system cannot overcome an iffy line like an Air Raid system might be able to. UF’s receivers outside of Jefferson and Grimes are a bunch of nice-to-have guys who, other than maybe Tyrie Cleveland and Kadarius Toney, don’t have top-dog potential. The two blue chip receiver signees from this year have a legit chance to get some major snaps.
As best as I can tell, fans are looking for roughly an 8-4 season this year. FSU and UGA have a big talent advantage over UF for now thanks to a recruiting dip that began with Muschamp’s 4-8 year, so those are likely losses. Six teams on the schedule have changed their offensive schemes though (Tennessee, Miss State, LSU, Mizzou, South Carolina, and FSU), and two more have major offensive personnel turnover (Kentucky and Colorado State). If the defense does improve and Florida’s offensive transition goes well while some of the other ones don’t, 8-4 becomes the floor with the schedule.
Those are big ifs, though. With good injury luck 10-2 is probably the ceiling, but 8-4 or 7-5 is probably reasonable and still a noticeable improvement over 4-7 a year ago.