Mullen: Gators working on consistency, improvment

Matt Lowe

July 15, 2019 at 4:53 pm.

Dan Mullen speaks at SEC Media Days on Monday. Photo Credit: Matt Lowe

Dan Mullen speaks at SEC Media Days on Monday. Photo Credit: Matt Lowe

HOOVER — Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators have a lot to look forward to in 2019.

Just one year after the Gators closed last season by winning four consecutive games — which was capped by a 41-15 rout of Michigan in the Peach Bowl — to conclude a 10-3 season, Mullen has the Florida program ascending upward.

But there’s no time to get complacent. And that’s why Mullen continues to instill in his players that to reach the championship level, his team needs to become more consistent. And that’s what he wants his players to continue to strive to do.

“I want us to perform at a consistent level,” Mullen said. “Whether it’s in practice or in a game, we need to develop a high level of consistency.”

UF returns five starters on offense from a team that averaged 35 points per game, which ranked 22nd nationally, in 2018.

Quarterback Feleipe Franks, tailback Lamical Perine and wideouts Tyrie Cleveland, Van Jefferson and Josh Hammond make up a dynamite skill group. But the Gators return only one starting lineman (center Nick Buchanan), so the new-look front wall may take some time to gel.

“I feel confident in that group,” Franks said. “They’ve been really working hard. They are a group that’s the first one in and the last to leave. I think they had a really good spring.”

Per usual, Mullen’s offense will focus on exploiting matchups. The Gators have speed to burn on the perimeter, but a rebuilt offensive line may create some unexpected challenges as far as moving the ball. That’s why it will be imperative for Mullen and his fellow coaches to exploit mismatches when they are available.

“I think one thing if you look at football, it’s very much a match-up game,” Mullen said. “It’s something that we started to really work on about 15 years ago when they created the offenses how to create advantageous matchups out there on the field. How to take — how to work to get one of our better players or our best players on one of your weaker players.

“So I think that was always a big focus that we have. If you look at the football at the next level in the NFL, that’s a huge focus in the NFL of how to create different matchups on the field. Because of that, I think defenses have done a great job over the years of trying to adjust to that. Okay. If you’re creating this matchup over here offensively, how do we defend and not allow you to create a huge advantageous matchup on you. It’s just part of the chess game back and forth.”

Defensively, the Gators return eight starters from a unit that allowed 20 points per outing a season ago, good for 20th in the country. The mainstays are defensive end Jabari Zuniga, middle linebacker David Reese II and standout corner CJ Henderson. If there’s one area the unit will need to improve on, it’s run defense. The Gators gave up 162.5 yards per game on the ground last season, which ranked 65th nationally.

UF’s special teams should be outstanding. It returns its starting kicker and punter and has plenty of speedy options (receivers Freddie Swain and Kadarius Toney or cornerback CJ Henderson) in the return game.

Franks is one of the league’s top returning QBs. He took a huge step forward under the tutelage of Mullen and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson in their first year in Gainesville. Franks, all 6-foot-6, 245 pounds of him, passed for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns— with six interceptions — a year ago. He also proved his prowess as a runner by adding 350 yards and seven scores on the ground.

“I think as the year went on, he understood what his abilities were and he decided to use all of his talents,” Mullen said. “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 20 yards away untouched, I can do that.”

Mullen and the Gators open with Miami to begin the season. But there has been plenty of buzz about potentially moving the Georgia/Florida game to each schools home campus. Some consider it a longshot, but anything is possible — especially in today’s evolving college football landscape.

“I think you can make an argument either way,” Mullen said. “I think being in a neutral site, obviously it makes it a very special game, a very unique game that you get to go coach in. There’s not many of those in college football if you look at the traditional neutral site games. And I might be off on it.

“I know there’s Florida/Georgia. There’s Texas/Oklahoma. And there’s Army/Navy. I don’t know if there’s any more than that. If I am, I don’t want to offend a rivalry out there. That’s something special to say that you got to play in this very special unique game. But you can also see and make the argument the other way of how big a game it is. You’re taking one of your biggest rivalry games every year and you’re moving it off campus where you can’t host that in your home stadium for your fans, all of your season ticket holders for recruiting.

“I think you can make arguments on both sides of why it should stay in Jacksonville, why it should leave Jacksonville, and be a home and home. Then it’s interesting, I think it will be an interesting discussion the next couple years of when the contract runs up of what the future is going to be for that game.”

One interesting question that arose to Mullen was about the transfer portal and whether or not there should be a timetable on when players can enter it. With so many kids coming and going nowadays, it’s a challenge for every coach as it pertains to managing their roster.

“Well, being new, I think there’s — it offers a great deal of challenges right now for everybody,” Mullen responded. “And, you know, I think one of the hard one is finding the balance of, you know, the signing limitations that the NCAA has. And I understand it. I have worked on NCAA committees and understand why they have those and the reasoning for them. But also, if you’re going to have the transfer portal on this many guys enter the transfer portal in one year, I think you always have to look and say, okay, well, we’ve changed the rule over here, so we have to be willing to change the rule over here to make it fit to allow coaches to be able to best manage the roster and allow programs to manage the roster.

“I think it will be something — I think it will probably be some rough waters still for the next couple of years for everybody, everybody involved, the players that are transferring, the programs, you know, that have guys transferring in and out of, and obviously, the NCAA, in different leagues at the administrative level of what the trends are and how to go work with it. Right? I think — I read somewhere there’s more kids in the transfer portal than scholarships available. That doesn’t make a lot of sense for those kids. Kids are going to be left without and kids are going to be put in a bad situation potentially. It would work out for some and not for others. That’s always a rough deal.

“I would be interested to see how it goes over the next couple of years with transfers. And for these kids; hey, you know, I’ve had a guy on a transfer portal come to me and say, ‘coach, it’s good, right, I’m going to be immediately eligible where I can go play there next year?’

“I don’t think so. That school is going to have to file a waiver for you for the NCAA.”

‘Well, can you say yes?’

“The NCAA says “yes,” I don’t control who is eligible or not in the NCAA.”

“So I think there’s a lot of a learning curve that goes on and will continue to be a lot of learning curve for both players, coaches and administrations within the transfer portal for the next couple of years until everybody adapts to it. There’s going to be a new norm in college football. It’s going to be very different than it’s been. I think as everybody learns to adapt to it and what the best way is to adapt it, we’ll see over the next few years.”

Florida opens the season versus Miami in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 24. It will be aiming to improve its win streak to five straight (dating back to last season) against the Hurricanes, who will be rolling out new head coach Manny Diaz in Week One.