Dooley: Gators enter important offseason

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Florida Gators running back Jordan Scarlett (25) celebrates a touchdown as the Orange takes on the Blue Florida Gator squads in the annual Orange and Blue spring football at Ben Hill Griffin stadium in Gainesville Florida on Saturday April 14, 2018. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesvil­le Sun]

Dan Mullen must be tired of talking.

He has spread the word like he spread his offense. If he was paid by words a minute, he’d be making way more than his hefty salary. If anyone even whispers that they might be interested in Florida football, Mullen is sidling up next to them with his pitch.

But it’s far from over. He still has a speaking tour, glad-handing and his 10th SEC Media Days to come. You know, talking season.

And eventually, he’ll coach a football game at the University of Florida.

But Saturday, he talked some more. As his team went through one of the most electric Gator Walks in the short history of Gator Walks, Mullen stopped at the end to climb a stage and grab another microphone.

It was a spring game, but it felt summer hot and he was sweating in his light brown suit. But he had to speak, had to tell the fans who were bouncing off each other with game-day like enthusiasm how much he appreciated them answering his call.

“That Gator Walk, our players were saying, ‘Coach, that’s different,’ ” Mullen said. “That’s what we expect. That’s what we want to get back to.”

Mullen is still 0-0 as a head coach at UF, but 1-0 as a promoter. Saturday’s 35-30 loss went to super-booster Bill Heavener, who can be consoled by the buildings named after him on campus. Gary Condron, whose name is on the indoor practice facility, got the win despite wearing a bulky contraption on his left arm after rotator cuff surgery (possibly from signing checks to UF) and going for it on fourth down from his own 26-yard line.

But the winning and the losing wasn’t what Saturday was all about.

It was about the Gator Nation being whole again.

Mullen’s message is ringing in the ears of everyone who was turned off by Urban Meyer’s odd departure, Will Muschamp’s sideline antics and Jim McElwain’s odd news conferences.

The new coach has made one thing perfectly clear — he needs you.

He wants you to feel like a part of everything this team does.

And thanks you for coming.

“We asked them to come and they did,” Mullen said. “We’re all in this together.”

The final announced attendance was 53,015 and it was purposely not a padded figure. (They saved that for the scoring.)

It wasn’t a record crowd, but you could feel before and during the game it was an orange-and-blue fan base that is ravenous for relevancy and is just happy to be invited to the table.

There was nothing that happened in this spring game that told you this is going to be a top-10 team in the fall. And the quarterbacks are still a work in progress.

“These guys are still learning the offense,” Mullen said. “They need to be better on Aug. 4 (when Florida starts fall practice) than they are right now. I’m seeing consistent improvement, but I need to see consistent performance.”

That’s not just a quarterback thing. This is as an important an offseason as there has been around here in awhile. Some of it is because of where these Gators need to be physically under strength coach Nick Savage.

“I can’t wait to see what Coach Savage thinks about us at the end of the summer,” said linebacker David Reese. “He said he can tell a team’s record by how they come out of the summer.”

But it’s more than that.

The University of Florida — the program and its fans — needs a clean summer. The only news from now until SEC Media Days needs to be award watch lists.

A summer without drama will show the true level of the “buying in” Mullen has talked about.

On Saturday, those players were just happy to know they still have a rabid fan base behind them and that football can still be a blast.

At the same time, there is the narrative that Florida is well behind some of its SEC brethren.

“We have a lot to prove,” said running back Jordan Scarlett.

Yep. And spring games never really prove anything.

But let’s face it.

After all this build-up to a game where the score doesn’t matter, the score, no matter how inflated, did matter.

And 9-6 wasn’t going to cut it.

So they backed off defensively after the first quarter and threw two touchdown passes to former Gators coming off the bench. The second one was supposed to be a double pass from Feleipe Franks to Doug Johnson, who flew in for the game from Washington, D.C., and then deep down the field to a sprinting Travis McGriff.

“I got confused,” said Franks, who hit McGriff in stride.

“Feleipe was padding his stats,” Mullen said.

Meh. Spring game stats are about as meaningful as the 34th game of an NBA season. So Franks ran 60 yards for a touchdown only because the defender who could have clobbered him after the first few yards pulled off because quarterbacks couldn’t be hit?

So what?

Mullen is trying to take baby steps with this program even when his competitive juices want giant leaps. Saturday was a nice big heel-to-toe stride.

The Gator Nation showed how badly it wants to be back.

Now it’s up to the team to follow.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Two words of appreciation to you, Pat: first, for nailing the current situation; second, for the quality of writing that would make Furman Bisher wink with approval. You are a sane reporter and commentator and a craftsman of the written word.

    As for the Gators, this team unquestionably will do much better than the 4-7 disaster of last season. As Dan Mullen recruits players who both fit his schemes and bring higher potential the results likely will follow in those championships our new coach is promising. Meantime, Mullen’s competitive spunk and drive should make this first year at least a memorable one.

  2. I agree that in my other column comments, the game was just the Spring. BUT its very clear Dan Mullen knows what he’s doing and is on the job. We are “organized”, very very important to when building a football team.

  3. Not only do we need a clean summer, we need our QBs to be leaders in working on improving the offense. Being in the film room and working together with their receivers. The defense needs such leadership as well. Coaches can only do so much, players need to do their part.

    • You said it! Leadership from the players will be the difference! The coaches have only limited contact and drills are “voluntary” so it is up to the players to motivate and hold each other accountable!

  4. The only truly “relevant” Spring game I can ever remember was Steve Spurrier’s 1st. And that was because previous nobody Shane Matthews threw 3 TDs and looked like a savior after the funk of the Kyle Morris “era”.

    Hopefully we are in for an epically dull off-season with zero police reports or controversy. Let’s try it again in August.

  5. I think we learned more about players than team Saturday. Because the team was split, as well as the nature of the game, hard to tell much about the O linemen. But the positives I took is our receivers caught a lot of passes, including some tough ones. Toney looks good. Our RB’s are for real. Could not tell much about D because of the split and dummy down of the D. Kickers looked good overall. Felipe Franks impressed me with his run. He looked fast. I like how Trask moved his feet to buy time to throw the ball downfield or out of bounds. I liked the positivity. Coach Mullen is a genius . He knew we would not get a true picture of the team, whether ones went against twos or the team was split. He knew the players were still learning under a new staff and system and the learning curve was still in place. He kept expectations down and decided to make a picnic like atmosphere that was fun, get the former players involved and having fun and probably made the crown laugh with the trick plays to the old guys. He made a fun experience for the recruits. He separated himself from nut jobs like Harbaugh and Meyer, who make everything overly dramatic. I think he made recruits see UF in a different light.