By Zach Dean, GateHouse Florida
DAYTONA BEACH — Florida football coach Dan Mullen was here recruiting Tuesday, but there were no players in sight.
Instead, there were about 400 former Gators packed tightly into the Daytona 500 Club, at Daytona International Speedway, listening as the second-year coach spoke for nearly two hours.
“We have eight home games this year,” Mullen said to the room. “We’re the University of Florida. If we play in the state, it’s a home game. Last year we had a home game in Tallahassee. This year we have one in Orlando.”
Daytona was just the latest stop this spring for Mullen, who is traveling to select locations to speak to different branches of the UF Alumni Association. Earlier this spring, Mullen was in Washington D.C. On Monday, he was in Lakeland.
Daytona Beach Gator Club President Catherine Coleman said bringing Mullen to Daytona has been a priority since she took over last summer.
“For our county, it was incredibly important to show how much we are supported by the university,” she said. “We have a very strong Gator following here — a lot of boosters, and a lot of alumni. Our numbers show that, too. We are one of the strongest (Florida) Alumni Associations.”
For the first time in a while, selling the Florida football program hasn’t been a problem.
Mullen led the Gators to the program’s best season in nearly a decade last fall, going 10-3 with wins over LSU, Mississippi State and Florida State, routing Michigan in the Peach Bowl, and finishing the season ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2012.
“People come to Florida to be the absolute best,” Mullen said. “Getting that standard back is special, and I love that everyone has the confidence to do that.”
One person who helped Mullen revive the program last year was former Mainland star Jachai Polite, who led the team with 11 sacks and six forced fumbles. The 6-foot-2 edge rusher declared for the NFL draft shortly after the season, and was projected to go in the first round by several outlets.
However, Polite struggled at the NFL combine in February, and again at Florida’s Pro Day last month, leading many to believe that his stock has now dropped.
Mullen pushed back on those reports Tuesday.
“All the reports we have on him is about where he is on the (draft) board,” he said. “Most people had him as a mid-third round draft pick — that was his draft grade that came back from the NFL. I give him a lot of credit, though. He came in and bought in from Day 1, and came out and performed at a really high level for us last year.”
Polite may be gone, but the Mainland-to-Florida pipeline is still strong, evidenced by the emergence of John Huggins this spring.
The second-year defensive back drew rave reviews from Mullen last week, and the coach doubled down on that stance Tuesday.
“He’s a guy that has the potential to make a big impact and a lot of big plays,” Mullen said of Huggins, who began his high school career at Pine Ridge before playing his senior season at Mainland. “He had a good role on special teams for us (last year), and now you’re seeing how he looks with a year under his belt.”
The Gators open the 2019 season Aug. 24 against Miami in a game that will be played at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. The highly anticipated showdown was originally scheduled for Aug. 31, when the majority of teams open the season, but the NCAA moved it up a week last month as it celebrates its 150th year of college football.
It will be the earliest start date for any major college football season since 2003. For Mullen, it can’t get here fast enough.
“To start the year off with a great rivalry game is exciting,” he said. “I like the big stage, but I really like the Gators being on the big stage.”