By Ray Beasock, GateHouse Florida
LAKELAND — Florida football coach Dan Mullen was quick to point out a fact during his stop Monday for the annual Polk County Gator Gathering.
He’s undefeated against Florida State.
That includes his four years as offensive coordinator for the Gators under Urban Meyer and, perhaps more importantly, last year’s 41-14 thumping of the Seminoles that ended a five-year losing streak against their in-state rivals.
“I think they’ll enjoy that … I did,” Mullen said. “It was great for me. It’s a great rivalry. I also think it’s a healthy rivalry. There’s been some streaks, but I see the fanbases and I know the pride they take in it and I’m glad that we have bragging rights for this year.”
Mullen addressed about 700 Gators fans, boosters and alumni Monday night at Polk Theatre.
The second-year UF head coach has fond memories of players from Polk County as well. He coached some of the Lakeland High School “Gatornaughts” that helped make Florida a national power in the late 2000s, including Maurkice and Mike Pouncey and Chris Rainey.
“When you talk about die-hard Gator country, and all the great players that have come from here in the past, I think that helps,” Mullen said. “You have so many students and so much connection to the university. They associate with the players from their hometown. It’s a lot of fun for me.”
Drawing from his past success with Lakeland players, Mullen recruited another class of “Gatornaughts” this past signing season.
Lakeland’s Keon Zipperer, Deyavie Hammond and Lloyd Summerall all chose Florida over numerous other schools.
Mullen said there was one big characteristic to recruiting the trio, aside from their talent.
“You look at the success Lakeland has had,” Mullen said. “All the great players that have come on to play for Florida. These three guys coming in … I like winners. These guys won in high school. We expect them to bring that winning attitude.”
Mullen helped revive a Florida program that had been stuck in neutral for years with a 10-3 season and a decisive 41-15 victory over Michigan in the Peach Bowl. He knows expectations will be high, but he also challenged Florida fans to help meet the expectations he has of them.
“I had those expectations for myself last year,” he said. “Now, maybe the fans have caught up to what our expectations are. I don’t think there’s anybody that has more expectations for the Gators football program than I do. I’m glad they care, I’m glad it’s important to them, but I’m also going to put pressure on them and hold them to it. We’re performing so we need you to come and pack The Swamp. We need you to give us the home-field advantage. We need you to wear your Gators colors when you’re out in the community. I think that is the message back to them. I know you have high expectations of the performance of the team, but we have extremely high expectations of the program working together.”
Mullen also has high hopes for a returning Polk County player in linebacker Ventrell Miller from Kathleen High.
Miller, who was suspended for the 2017 season because of a fraud scheme, bounced back and became the Gators’ special teams player of the year. The highlight for Miller last year was an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown against Idaho, which showcased why he was recruited to the Gators in the first place.
“You look at the development of players,” Mullen said. “Last year was really his first year with the team, and he was our special teams player of the year. That’s what you want out of a young player, for him to learn that foundation. Now, you’re going to see him go into a starring role on the defense with guys leaving early for the NFL.”
Mullen was all smiles as he worked the room, signing footballs and posing for photos with VIP guests, but he wasn’t the only one smiling.
Polk County Gator Club president Roi Cornish also was pleased with the event.
“We always try to get better,” he said. “Having it at Polk Theatre this year, it’s opened up a whole new venue for us. We’re always trying to get better, but we also want to maintain the quality for coach and the fans and boosters.”