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.
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.”