Florida football: 5 critical goals for the offseason
Dan Mullen arrived in Gainesville 13 months ago insisting that the current crop of players lay the foundation for the future, restoring what he repeatedly referred to as “the Gator Standard” of excellence, in the weight room, community, classroom, at practice and on gameday.
A season later, it’s difficult to argue with the start, as Florida finished the year with 10 wins, ranked No. 6 in the Coaches Poll with a New Year’s 6 bowl win a year removed from winning only 4 football games.
But what’s next?
Certainly, Florida enters the offseason with a head full of steam after a wildly successful final month of the season. Not only did the Gators cap their year with a 41-15 dismantling of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, they appear poised to sign the program’s first top-10 recruiting class since 2014 and will return a host of junior stars, led by dominant defensive end Jabari Zuniga and the marvelous Lamical Perine.
But with momentum comes great expectations, especially in a place like Gainesville, where the fans are so demanding even the typically ravenous fans found throughout the SEC blush a bit in surprise.
Progress isn’t always linear, especially in lengthy rebuilds, which was precisely what the Florida job looked like after the Gators lost to Kentucky in September and were outclassed by Missouri (again!) in early November. There are always ebbs and flows in laying a strong infrastructure for future excellence.
The challenge for Mullen and the Florida coaching staff, then, is how to build on a 10-win season and meet the suddenly heightened expectations of a fan base that only a couple months ago had strapped in for a long-haul rebuild. Can Florida parlay the return of several key starters and the program’s best recruiting class in half-a-decade into a team that can win the SEC East and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff as soon as next season?
Firmly putting Florida back in the College Football Playoff discussion in Year 2 seems a lofty goal for a program with depth issues and lacking a roster loaded with top to bottom blue-chip talent compared to rival Georgia.
That said, every coach in America would tell you they’d rather have great expectations than none of them, and Mullen understood the expectations when he took the job. In fact, his embrace of those lofty ambitions is part of why the hire had all the makings of a happy marriage.
As for Florida’s blue-chip talent deficit, Mullen has always been confident about his abilities in that regard. As one SEC staffer told me after Florida’s Peach Bowl win, “There’s maybe no staff in America outside of Clemson that believes more firmly in their own ability to evaluate and develop players than Dan, and I mean that.”
So how can the Gators build on their success in 2018?
Here are five things Florida should focus on during the offseason, one Dan Mullen has promised will be “the hardest offseason anyone’s been through.”’
1. Rebuild the offensive line
This is Florida’s biggest priority and concern.
Florida’s offensive improvement was predicated on the run game, where Florida finished 19th nationally in yards per rush (5.3) and 20th nationally in S &P+ rushing offense. Both numbers are the best for a Florida offense since Tim Tebow’s senior season in 2009, and the simple reality is Mullen’s spread is only lethal when his teams can run the football effectively.
Senior running back Lamical Perine gives Florida one of the SEC’s best returning running backs, but the Gators must replace four starters on the line, including both tackles in senior captain Martez Ivey and projected first-round draft pick Jawaan Taylor.
Mullen has recruited well in this area, and Florida has plenty of talent and depth at the position, but it is young and largely inexperienced. Offensive line coach John Hevesy is one of the nation’s best developers of young, raw talent. But results won’t come immediately, and Florida will likely need to adjust protections and incorporate a few schematic changes offensively early in the year while the line finds its feet. If that sounds daunting, it should, especially as the Gators open the season against an elite defensive front in Miami and will face Tennessee’s talented front and smart scheme only weeks later.
How effective Florida’s offense is next September may largely be determined by how much progress the offensive line makes this spring and summer.
2. Get Kadarius Toney comfortable enough with the scheme so he can get 10 touches a game
Kadarius Toney had a strong sophomore season. He added weight, muscle and stayed healthy enough to provide the Gators with explosive plays at critical junctures, like this brilliant one against South Carolina.
Toney tough kid. USCe game was nice. pic.twitter.com/Lt64QFJvyn
— Rich (@rich559) January 10, 2019
Toney finished the season with 46 touches — about 4 a game — and averaged over a first down a touch, the first UF player to do that with a minimum of 40 touches since Percy Harvin.
Harvin was good for 10 touches a game, Mullen told me, because “he had a strong understanding of what we wanted to do offensively.” Mullen didn’t say Toney doesn’t — and in fairness, Toney was in Year 1 of a new offense — but the key to making Toney a bigger part of the offense in 2019 would seem to be just making sure Toney can run more routes and understand the complexities of Florida’s run concepts.
Toney is a capable, hard-working young man who made immense progress as a sophomore. His continued development in this regard is essential to Florida’s offseason.
3. The best UF QB room since Tim Tebow and Cam Newton watched film with Mullen
We wrote in this space after Florida’s Peach Bowl win that Feleipe Franks may only just be tapping into what his potential is under Mullen. His continued development this offseason, especially in the spring when he’ll be challenged with more control of the offense at the line of scrimmage, is critical to Florida contending in the SEC East.
Meanwhile, Emory Jones will look to build on a solid freshman campaign where he showed a great deal of growth as a passer in practice. He’s a poised young man who is an emerging leader, but with Franks a settled starter, his attitude and approach to the spring will speak volumes about his future at Florida, which appears bright. Another summer in the weight room with Nick Savage can’t hurt either.
All told, with 4-star Jalen Jones also coming on board, Florida will have its best QB room from a talent standpoint in a decade, when two Heisman winners watched film with Mullen.
4. Who steps up at linebacker?
The early departure of Vosean Joseph to the NFL was Florida’s most surprising personnel loss and probably its most impactful from a football standpoint.
Recruiting issues at linebacker left the Gators thin at the position for two seasons, a problem Mullen and Todd Grantham addressed this offseason by signing the best group of linebackers in America. One, if not two of those young linebackers will play immediately, with 4-star Mohamoud Diabate the most likely purely based on film.
The offseason, however, will be about who steps up to play immediately. James Houston showed flashes of his prodigious talent this season in limited time. Jeremiah Moon was one of the highest-rated linebackers in the country out of high school — can he finally live up to his potential? Will David Reese (the other one) take a step forward after a promising string of bowl practices?
The Gators need answers at outside linebacker and they need them this spring.
5. Find leaders outside of Lamical Perine
Martez Ivey, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Cece Jefferson were undoubtedly the vocal leaders on Florida’s 2018 football team. All are gone in 2019.
That’s a substantial leadership vacuum.
After the Peach Bowl win, I asked departing Florida tight end C’yontai Lewis who the young guys would follow in 2019, and he singled out Perine, who “most of us would follow anywhere.”
That’s one leader. C.J. Henderson, who figures to be a preseason All-American at corner, is another. And don’t underestimate Franks, who might be polarizing in the fan base, but is beloved in the Florida locker room.
Still, Florida needs to identify its leadership core early to replicate and build on 2018’s success. Who are the guys that hold everyone accountable in offseason workouts? Who holds the players-only meeting before two-a-days to make sure everyone is locked in? Who watches the night watchmen?
Florida cultivated leaders immediately in Year 1 under Mullen. Those leaders are now gone. Finding replacements is a huge task this offseason.