Gators with championship expectations

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Florida wide receiver Van Jefferson (12) celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown in a game last season at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Jefferson says he returned for his senior season for a shot at a title with the Gators. [Lauren Bacho/Gainesville Sun]

There is a central theme in the Tweets sent out by some top Florida juniors earlier this month announcing they were returning for their senior season rather than declaring for the NFL draft.

Unfinished business.

These juniors — including running back La’ Mical Perine, wide receiver Van Jefferson, linebacker David Reese, wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland and defensive end Jabari Zuniga — are coming back to try and win a national championship in year two under coach Dan Mullen.

“I believe this team has a chance to go to the national championship game and I want to be part of something like that,” Jefferson said.

“We feel we have a legitimate shot to win it all,” Perine said.

Mullen arrived at Florida a little more than a year ago, declaring that his plan was to restore the Gator standard and return UF to a championship program.

At the time, with the Gators coming off a 4-7 season, most assumed it would likely be a lengthy process, taking several years and some excellent recruiting classes.

But after what the Gators did in Mullen’s first season — going 10-3, dismantling Michigan in a New Year’s Six bowl, and finishing in the Top 10 in the nation (No. 6 in one poll, tied for No. 7 in the other) — the process, or at least the expectation, has been accelerated.

The Gators, and these juniors in particular, feel like they’re on the brink of becoming a championship program.

“I think we’re close,” Jefferson said. “Last year was my first year here. I felt I didn’t get everything that Coach Mullen has to offer this program. I want to be a part of that for one more year and see where this team goes.”

Said Reese: “With the right leadership (from the seniors), we can go all the way this year.”

The Gators are confident and clearly have momentum after closing out the 2018 season the way they did. Over the final three-and-a-half games (South Carolina, Idaho, Florida State and Michigan), Florida played at a championship level. Over that span, the Gators outscored the opposition 166-49.

Florida wasn’t that far off from being a championship contender in Mullen’s first season.

“Man, two games,” Reese said. “The little things. Couple of games away, a couple of different snaps away, from being a contender. The margin of error is real small.

“If we find a way to beat Georgia (this season) and get to the SEC Championship Game, we’ll give ourselves a chance to play in the national championship game. I feel like there’s an opportunity with this team. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Under Mullen and the new staff, the players have shown they’re willing to put in the work. Numerous players have said the turnaround season in 2018 started about a year ago in the weight room, under strength and conditioning coordinator Nick Savage and his staff.

Savage and the Gators are back at it now, laying the groundwork for the 2019 season.

“This offseason is going to get us to where we need to be,” Jefferson said. “Coach Savage is putting us through these crazy workouts. All these workouts we’re doing right now are going to pay off. Once we hit spring ball and fall camp, we’ll be ready to go.”

In a little more than a year, the Gators have gone from 4-7 to 10-3, from a rebuilding team to one that thinks it can contend for a national championship.

There’s clearly been a culture change. And it’s occurred quickly.

“We have a coach that knows how to win and he knows the Gator standard, and he wants to win championships,” Perine said. “It’s a lot to say you want to win a championship. You have to have that hard work and mentality to win one as well.

“Coach Mullen knows the mentality, and he’s bringing that Gator standard back.”

Jefferson, the Ole Miss transfer, said he’s not surprised how quickly Mullen has turned things around. He saw what kind of program builder Mullen was at Mississippi State.

“I knew he was going to come in and make us work and make us be the best we can be,” Jefferson said.

“I knew coming in he was going to change the culture, change the team, change the whole mindset of everybody throughout the program. You see what happened this season.”

 

29 COMMENTS

  1. It’s so wonderful to see the swagger, the confidence, and the FUN back in the football program. If anything, we are only a year away now, at most, to being a serious contender for the play-offs. It’s just a matter of recruiting and coaching.

  2. It’s exciting to now see this confident senior leadership coming from these players. At this time last year, the players were, of course, speaking highly of the new strength and conditioning program and the new coaching staff, but the reality was that it was still an unproven, “wait and see” that lay ahead, awaiting the results. Well the results ARE in, and these guys can now speak from personal experience that allows them to now LEAD with full confidence, a confidence the younger guys and the new recruits can see as the “real deal” and one they can buy into. Let’s finish this already strong recruiting class and get ready to go back to work for next season with these high expectations. Go Gators.

    • Shoot for the moon, Dan. It CAN happen. Now, ever the conservative, I’ll be tickled pink — well, not really pink, more like olive drab in my case — but I’ll still take more relentless effort and continued progression if not a championship season. These kids have broken the code tho, and I’m reminded of two things: Chris Leak when he signed on and called it too, all those years ago now, and Mveal’s constant comments about LEADERSHIP from within the team. That’s the ticket to Atlanta and beyond!

      Savage will have had better than a year and a half with most of this team by the time the season starts, and plenty of time with the incoming personnel to get their heads on straight, and CDM and staff can do the rest of it on the field. This is the first time in a long while that this staff has felt totally synchronized. Go Gators!

  3. It’s great hearing the excitement from everyone. I to can’t wait for the season to start with some high expectations. We have the foundation set for years to come and it has everything to do with three things we were missing for years. Great coaching, a good leader and great play at QB, and a strength and conditioning regiment that’s on display during game days with their relentless effort. It’s hard to not love what this staff has done to the program and like some had said the more time they have together the better we’re going to be. Go Gators!

    • I don’t think so, Alum, not exactly anyway — the big difference is in sustained offensive production overall and a defense that plays pretty much light out most of the time. Two more QBs available now if Franks can’t get it over the top, running backs should be strong, and the defense should be boy o’ boy good. Only question mark I see is the O-line…..and if that gels sooner than later, it’s at least an 11-2 season and at best “look out Atlanta”. What am I missing? (seriously, not sarcastically)

  4. It’s great to hear from our senior leadership.
    While Franks is not a senior he is our QB and he now needs to take on the leadership cloak on offense. I think the team respects him for his toughness and his improvements over last year. Now show the team that you can lead us to an SEC Championship by making some progress on your checks, your reads and your deep and touch passes. You will have plenty of weapons surrounding you.

  5. I have been one of those not completely sold on Franks. But it really seemed like a light came on for him at the end of the season. He ran with a determination that was definitely different than earlier. If he continues to improve, we will be in the hunt come November, and that’s all we really can ask for. What a turnaround this has been. Go Gators!

    • I hope Franks watched the NFL playoffs – to see how scrambling quarterbacks keep their eyes down the field waiting for receivers to break open. I think he missed about 30 this year. I guess it is too late to change his mechanics – but all the great pro qbs have a quick release. But I do agree with everything Spark said.

  6. Had to start over with a new password. Been a while since I logged in to comment… With that said, all this sounds GREAT for the good guys! Especially after the lost decade. I seriously almost peed on my couch when the pick-6 against LSU happened. For next season, I hope the team doesn’t get to far ahead of itself thinking SEC and NC. It starts with whipping up on Miami, baby

  7. This column got me to thinking about the likelihood of the Gators winning a NC next season. Nobody seriously considered THAT a possibility back in 2006, yet it happened.

    The 2019 schedule is not as favorable as 2018’s, but we’ll have a MUCH better team on opening day. Unless there’s a rash of injuries to key players, or the new OL doesn’t come together by opening day, the Gators will only be underdogs at LSU and vs. UGA. Split those 2 games, avoid upsets in the other 10, and we’ll have a shot at a playoff spot one of two ways:

    The hard way – By losing to LSU and beating UGA the Gators will land in the SEC Championship Game vs. (most likely) Alabama. That’ll be a tough gig, with a likely rematch in the playoffs.

    The easy way – By beating LSU and losing close to UGA, the Gators at 11-1 will most likely snag one of the playoff spots, where they likely won’t face the SEC Champion until the NC game.

    Either way, the Gators will likely have to beat UGA, Alabama and Clemson to claim a NC. If they manage THAT feat they’ll have earned it!

    Go Gators!!!

  8. Paul Finebaum had a writer from Mississippi State on his show today. He talked about the difference between Mullen and their new coach. He feels that Mullen is one of the top coaches in the country. I think things will be tougher next year, no one will take this team lightly. I would be nice to win 11 next year

  9. Franks will be the difference if there is one. He threw 24 tds and only 6 ints. He ran for 7 tds. The chance of him throwing less ints is pretty low. In other words he has to make more plays not less mistakes. I think Mullen got rid of the mistakes now can he get him to make more plays. That’s tough. If we are going to compete for a title, Franks probably needs to be closer to 35 passing tds. A few more ints probably wouldn’t be a big deal unless they were in the same game or particularly painful(like returned inside the redzone). Turnovers don’t matter if you score enough points.

    • I don’t think it’s that tough to make more plays. Lets not forget he was learning a completely new offense last season and still accounted for 31 TDs after only having 9 the year before. Not being fully experienced with the offense kind’ve kept him locked in on the primary receiver and held the offense back a bit. After a full year and another offseason under his belt, he should know it like the back of his hand, which will allow him to know where everyone is on the field. He’ll have all of his skill position players returning, who will also be very experienced in the system. I think the 500+ yards of offense a game we saw over the last 3 weeks of the should become the norm next season, as long as the line comes together. He was clearly a different QB in the last 3 games, so you almost have to expect improvements. More experience in the system also brings out more of Mullen’s playbook. This offense should be firing on all cylinders next season, again as long as the line comes together.

  10. Barring any key injuries, next year’s season is entirely dependent upon player development at the line of scrimmage generally, and at offensive and defensive tackle more particularly.

    Every other position on the field is in excellent shape… including quarterback.

    With two lock-down corners, the more experienced roster overall, and a smart-er head coach (pun intended), we can and probably will beat Georgia.

  11. I believe your correct Nashville, Champ had 1 thing right, and that is that the SEC is a LOS league. Hev getting some of the young pups developed to take over on the O-line will be crucial. Also, is it possible that CDM was a bit underwhelmed with the development of our interior D-line guys like Slaton, Conliffe and Campbell and the parting of ways was a bit mutual? Just a thought as I know I was expecting a lot more from that group than we saw this past season , and it is hard to believe that its a lack of talent issue as they all sure look the part and were all pretty highly regarded ( especially Slaton , a 340lb 9.7 4 star prospect ).