GAINESVILLE — As Dan Mullen zig-zagged the country recruiting this winter, and then trekked across the state of Florida for booster speaking engagements and rubber chicken dinners in the weeks after National Signing Day Part II, he looked every bit the part of the travel-weary, happy warrior.
After nearly a decade of accomplishment at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen is home, a man with his Dream Job eager to tell you all about it with a twinkle in his eye.
Mullen took the reins at Florida last November, and immediately embraced the challenge of restoring a reeling program that has spent most the decade lost in the wilderness to prominence.
It’s not going to be an easy task, what with Kirby Smart awakening the slumbering giant at rival Georgia and Florida State having hired one of the nation’s best recruiters of talent in Willie Taggart. Nothing will come easy for Mullen.
But job No. 1 was to change the negative culture, and Mullen has certainly managed to do that.
He has certainly energized what was a demoralized fan base, speaking fondly of his past glories at Florida and proudly of what he calls “the Gator Standard,” which outlines an expectation of greatness not explained as succinctly at Florida since Mullen’s mentor, Urban Meyer, won two national championships as the program’s steward.
The fact Mullen engages fans matters too, after three years of Jim McElwain’s odd-couple relationship with the Florida fan base, which ranged from a laissez-faire and awkward butt-out hug to a distant, “if y’all come, that’s cool, we’ll play if you don’t” coldness.
Mullen’s warmth and energy and embrace of Florida’s history, coupled with a transition recruiting class that was the best in school history have won him a great deal of affection already among a fan base that has long been searching for someone to believe in.
The fan base excitement and Mullen’s energy have generated a palpable buzz around the football program in Gainesville, making this perhaps the most anticipated spring in Florida football since 2013, when the Gators came off a Sugar Bowl appearance and appeared to be steamrolling in the right direction under Will Muschamp.
Job one for Mullen?
Fixing an offense that has been broken since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009.
It’s why Florida hired Jim McElwain and it’s why, no matter what Michigan says about Jim McElwain’s Gator offenses, McElwain was fired and Mullen brought in from Starkville.
“When Florida has been really good, it has looked from the outside like it was really fun,” Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said after parting ways with McElwain. “I want to be really fun. Our fans deserve it to be really fun.”
Mullen’s walking orders when Florida begins spring practice Friday couldn’t be clearer.
It’s time to Make Florida Football Fun Again.
Here are five players who can help Dan Mullen achieve that goal that you should watch this spring in Gainesville.
Cece Jefferson, DE/LB
In January, I wrote that Jefferson would be the face of Florida’s program next season, with a chance to put together a monstrous year on the outside of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 Pittsburgh Steelers scheme. Jefferson will play the role Montez Sweat played en route to leading the SEC in sacks in 2017 (10.5) and the role Georgia All-American Jarvis Jones played for Grantham during the coordinator’s time in Athens.
It’s a one-gap scheme, which should aid the other Gator linebackers with gap control and will afford a slim-downed Jefferson plenty of chances to get vertical and downhill. Jefferson was, according to former FSU and now Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, “unblockable” last November.
Staying healthy this spring and adjusting to his new role could make Florida’s defense fun.
Antonneous Clayton, DE/LB
One of the only 5-star recruits on Florida’s roster, Clayton never broke through under the old staff, collecting just 10 tackles and one solitary sack in his first two seasons on campus in the orange and blue.
But a new strength coach, a commitment to adding muscle and shedding fat and a position switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme have program insiders buzzing about Clayton as the Gators enter spring practice.
And that old adage about a same place, change of face, likely applies to Clayton, an immense talent who probably gains confidence just by seeing a new face in charge.
Clayton’s speed and array of pass-rushing moves as an edge rusher made him a standout performer at high school camps, and Randy Shannon and staff primarily used Clayton as a “jet” pass-rushing end early in his career. The change of defenses pushes Clayton outside, and with defenders likely to focus most their attention on Cece Jefferson, a good spring could set Clayton up as a beneficiary.
Kadarius Toney, WR
While there were some early whispers among the rank and file to give Toney, a high school quarterback and sensational athlete, a shot at quarterback in Mullen’s spread offense, Mullen quickly put those ideas to rest, noting how excited he was to play Toney at wide receiver and “find ways to get him the football.”
Toney will be the best pure athlete Mullen has coached since Percy Harvin, who was the yin to Tim Tebow’s yang in Mullen’s explosive offenses as offensive coordinator to Urban Meyer.
Toney has added muscle in the offseason, hoping to avoid the chronic injuries that limited his production as a freshman.
But the idea of giving Mullen time to work with a guy that averaged 9.4 yards a touch as a freshman in Doug Nussmeier’s vanilla scheme is a fun idea, and a storyline to keep an eye on this spring in Gainesville.
Jordan Scarlett, RB
Scarlett went from potential team captain and All-SEC candidate at SEC Media Days last summer to almost losing everything in mere weeks. Arrested and suspended for all of the failed 2017 season as a member of the Credit Card Nine, Scarlett has done everything right off the field since, beginning with a contrite, earnest apology to his teammates and University last December.
While he was away, Florida’s backfield grew more talented and crowded. Freshman running backs Malik Davis (out for the spring) and Adarius Lemons proved to be among the only bright spots for Florida’s offense in 2017, and they join hard-running junior Lamical Perine and talented recruits Dameon Pierce (4-star from Georgia) and Iverson Clement on the Florida depth chart.
Scarlett, who averaged 5 yards a rush on Florida’s SEC East winning team in 2016, believes he can emerge from a strong spring the starter again at tailback. But to do so, he’ll need to improve his chops as a pass-protector, where he’s consistently struggled, and show his body is in football shape after a one-year layoff where he had no access to Florida’s football facilities.
It’s a tall-order, but Scarlett was one of the most-highly coveted RB recruits in the country coming out of South Florida, and one of the only recruiting coups for Jim McElwain and his staff.
If Florida’s offense is to take a big leap next season, Scarlett could be a big reason why.
The Quarterbacks, of course
Will it be Feleipe Franks or Emory Jones?
History suggests Mullen won’t start the highly-regarded true freshman Jones, instead giving a quarterback who draws Jalen Hurts (the pre-national title game version, y’all) comparisons time to develop as a thrower.
This is great in theory, but it also means Mullen and staff will have to develop — and trust — Franks and revitalize the career of one of the biggest quarterback recruits in the 2016 class.
Franks doesn’t lack for confidence, saying he believes he can “thrive” in Mullen’s offense and telling the media he was excited for “a fresh start.” Whether that’s just wishful thinking or Florida truly can rebuild his confidence, and whether he can learn a new offense and is ultimately a good fit for Mullen’s spread scheme, which requires a viable quarterback rushing option to function, are the $25,000 questions.
What isn’t in question is Franks’ arm strength, and Jones’ natural talent and strength as a playmaker in a spread offense who can run the ball.
But while many have suggested this could allow Mullen to deploy the type of pass/run quarterback tandem that worked so well with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in 2006, there’s no evidence Franks, despite his arm-strength, is nearly as cerebral as Leak, who had Mullen’s offense memorized and was a tremendous reader of defenses at the line of scrimmage.
Lingering questions about Franks’ ability to not only learn a new offense, but make progress reading defenses, make this position battle the most intriguing one of the spring at Florida.