GAINESVILLE — Just five months ago, Florida fans were still suffering through perhaps the program’s worst season since 1979. A year that began with high hopes was quickly derailed by critical injuries and suspensions and plagued, as Florida’s program has been for most the decade, by woeful quarterback play.
Things went south immediately for the Gators in 2017, with a much-anticipated opener against Michigan in Dallas turning into an embarrassing rout, and the year really never improved from there. Following Florida’s humiliating 42-7 defeat to rival Georgia in Jacksonville, Jim McElwain was dismissed. Not much changed after McElwain packed his bags, however, as the Gators quit on the field in a lopsided loss at Missouri and were clobbered by a mediocre-at-best edition of Florida State in The Swamp to mercifully end the year, marking their fifth consecutive loss to their in-state rival to the west.
Enter Dan Mullen, who Gator-chomped his way off the University Athletic Association plane en route to his introductory press conference and has been a bundle of energy and breath of fresh air since.
Mullen has hit the road running, assembling a terrific, proven staff, signing an excellent transitional recruiting class and working with Nick Savage, his strength and conditioning guru, to infuse the program with a much-needed dose of attitude and toughness that was absent from the McElwain era. Most important, starting with the strength program and continuing into spring practice, a Florida football culture that under McElwain became insular, soft and toxic is being revamped and flipped into one that is tough and transparent.
The program isn’t without questions, and significant ones at that. Who will play quarterback, and more vitally, will they be competent enough in the passing game to keep defenses from keying on a powerful and talented run game? Will the defense, long the program’s signature unit, be back after its worst-statistical season since 2007? Given McElwain’s recruiting shortcomings, is this even a talented enough roster for Mullen to win games with in year one, even if the program becomes far healthier off-the-field?
Time will tell.
But desperate for a winner and a product that is fun again, former Gators players are returning to campus and Gators fans are buying in. Season tickets sales are up and Saturday, Florida will play the most-anticipated spring football game since the dawn of the Urban Meyer era, with Dan Mullen’s stated goal to break Florida’s spring football game attendance record of 65,000.
“We want a lot more than that,” Mullen told assembled media this week. “We’ll be going hard (Saturday). We’ll be giving relentless effort. The question is who else in the Gator Nation is going to be giving relentless effort on Saturday? That’s their challenge.”
Here are five things to watch for in Florida’s spring game Saturday.
The Quarterback battle, of course
Feleipe Franks is the leader in the clubhouse over a cast of characters that includes Kyle Trask, a lightly-recruited but accurate-armed redshirt sophomore from Texas who hasn’t played a collegiate down, redshirt freshman Jake Allen from storied high school program St. Thomas Aquinas, and highly-coveted early enrollee Emory Jones, who delivered Mullen his first “W” as Florida’s HBC when he picked the Gators over Willie Taggart and Florida State.
The thinking here remains that Jones will play a vital role in Florida’s power run game next fall, but won’t be the full-time quarterback, with Mullen instead opting to play a pass-run rotation system similar to the one he utilized with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in 2006.
That’s easier said than done, however. Chris Leak was an All-SEC caliber quarterback to begin with, whereas Franks was the second-worst starting quarterback in the Power 5 last year from an efficiency standpoint (only Texas A & M’s freshman, Kellen Mond, was worse, and he beat Franks in Gainesville). Improving Franks — or finding someone who can run Mullen’s offense better — is step one in the program rebuild.
Franks was, to no one’s surprise, inconsistent in spring practice, and Mullen confirmed this week there’s been “no separation” between Franks and Trask as the team approaches Saturday. But a strong performance from any of the quarterbacks in the spring game would build confidence as the Gators head to fall camp.
Suspended the entire 2017 season as a member of the Credit Card Nine, Scarlett has served his time and approached the spring with a renewed passion for football and a level of humility and regret that has been embraced by the locker room.
He also remains perhaps the most naturally gifted runner at Florida since Earnest Graham, a tremendous blend of power, speed and vision, perfectly made for Mullen’s zone-heavy running back looks.
How much he improves in other areas of football, particularly as a blocker, could define his role in the fall, and the spring game is our first look at that progress.
Further, it’s one thing to wow teammates with your humility and level of commitment in the spring. It’s quite another to carry it over into fall camp and be the leader on offense this football team so desperately needs. Trust is earned in teaspoon doses, not granted in flowing cups, and Scarlett can’t take days off to keep winning it back.
The Front Seven
The Gators continue to have questions at linebacker, where MLB David Reese is a leader who plays hard but is physically limited from a speed standpoint, and Vosean Joseph continues to battle consistency issues, especially in coverage. Ventrell Miller, a highly-touted recruit who was part of the Credit Card Nine, has impressed this spring, and could win a starting job on the depth chart heading into the fall with a big game Saturday.
Florida’s linebackers will be worth watching Saturday, as they are integral to the success of Todd Grantham’s Steelers 3-4. Position changes for five-star recruits Cece Jefferson and Antonneous Clayton are also worth eyeing, as both could benefit from the moves outside.
Jefferson, the heart and soul of the football team who came back for his senior season, is especially worth watching, having slimmed down and focused on quickness in the training room as he readies to play the position Grantham has used to make All-SEC and All-American players out of Jarvis Jones and Montez Sweat.
The recruits in the stands
Mullen’s arrival has energized Florida from a recruiting standpoint, as a program that struggled to consistently land blue-chip players under McElwain is now a player for a host of the nation’s top recruits in 2018-2019.
Among the recruits who have visited in the spring and left impressed are 5-star running back Trey Sanders, 4-star running backs John Emery Jr. and Noah Cain, 3-star and fast-rising QB and new Gator commit Jalon Jones, 4-star defensive end Noah Potter, and many others.
The Gators expect a host of big-time visitors Saturday, including 5-star cornerback Derek Stingley, 4-star safety Nick Cross, 4-star linebacker Jaleel McRae, 4-star wide receiver Mycah Pittman, 4-star running back Derrian Brown, 4-star end Derrick Hunter, among others.
There’s an energy about the program that has been absent since the early days of the Muschamp era, and with a big crowd expected Saturday, the Gators have a chance to cash-in where it matters most- on the recruiting trail.
The energy in The Swamp
It’s been awhile since Florida football was truly fun. There have been moments this decade: a dominant win at Florida State in 2012 that capped an 11-1 campaign; a three-game win streak over Georgia that saw Florida win by an average score of 30-11; a heart stopping win at LSU to clinch the SEC East in 2016.
But too often, Florida football has been mired in the mud and mediocrity, playing meaningless football games in November or suffering through chilly afternoons on the steel bleachers at the Birmingham Bowl.
Whether it’s been bad quarterback play, a lack of balance in recruiting, a failure to engage quickly enough in the facilities arms race that defines the sport, a lack of genuine stars, or simply the coaches on the sidelines, it too often hasn’t been fun to be a Florida Gator.
Saturday feels like a new day, a chance in the April sunshine to get it right again, and to smile and feel optimism on the way out of The Swamp, for perhaps the first Saturday in a long time.