Standard-bearer: Mullen’s mission to rebuild Gators

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High on the list of Florida's football restoration project is for coach Dan Mullen, left, to improve and develop his quarterbacks to a high level. His top three candidates this year are returning starter Feleipe Franks (13), backup Kyle Trask (11) and true freshman Emory Jones (5). [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

Whether you’re too young to remember or have simply forgotten over time, there is a Gator standard, and it is a high one.

Coach Dan Mullen talks about it all the time. Now, he’s here to remind everyone exactly what it is.

It’s playing for, and winning, championships. Not being content just reaching Atlanta.

It’s playing winning football in all three phases. Not relying on one (defense) to keep the Gators in games.

It’s scoring points and playing with confidence, with a swagger. Not playing cautious to avoid losing.

It’s having a top-five recruiting class every year. Not scrambling at the end to sneak into the Top 20.

It’s embracing tradition and high expectations.

It’s being one of college football’s elite programs.

It’s winning national championships, something the Gators did twice when Mullen was here before as the offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer.

“We want to get it back that way of being the premier team in the country,” Mullen said. “We just have to get everyone here caught up.”

The Florida standard, the Gator brand, has taken quite a beating over the last eight seasons. A lot of damage has been done. Now, the restoration begins.

The question is, how long is this going to take?

Will this be a slow process or a quick turnaround?

Ask the players, and they’ll tell you it’s the latter. The Gators expected to be back now. This season.

“Most definitely,” senior defensive end/outside linebacker Cece Jefferson said. “This team is extremely capable of winning right now. It you can do it right now, why wait? That’s something we talk about every day.”

Junior linebacker David Reese said the feeling among the players is they will be returning to the SEC Championship Game in December, where the Gators advanced as the SEC East champion in 2015 and 2016.

“Definitely,” he said. “We’ve got the talent. That’s the expectation.”

Those are high expectations — which is all part of the Gator standard.

Some, maybe most, might say the expectations the players are putting on themselves are not realistic, that they’re way too high.

The Gators are coming off a miserable 4-7 season that saw Jim McElwain forced out, and there are still nagging question marks at quarterback and on the offensive line. There also are concerns about depth at linebacker and cornerback.

And, this is a team that will start the season unranked in both major polls.

All that aside, though, there have been mostly positive vibes pulsing through the program since Mullen and his staff arrived.

Mullen seems to have brought a lot of positive energy back into the program, and a little bit of that swagger that was here when he left for Mississippi State after the Gators won the national title in 2008.

There has been a lot of tough love going around — especially in Nick Savage’s strength and conditioning program — but the players seem to have embraced it with the thought it will help them rebound this season under the new staff.

“It’s easy to buy in when you go 4-7,” senior offensive tackle Martez Ivey said. “(The new staff) came along and it’s their way or the highway. You’re either in or you’re out. That’s just how the program is run and if you don’t want to be here, you can leave. You either work or you don’t work out.”

The Gators have been putting in the work since January. Now, they expect to start winning again this fall — and living up to the Gator standard Mullen is always talking about.

Mullen isn’t doing anything to temper any of the enthusiasm heading into the season. He expects this team to be successful, too.

“Trust me, I want to win with this year’s team,” he said. “I expect to compete for a championship with this year’s team. But also I want to build a program over the long-term that’s a consistent winner and consistently competing for championships.

“That consistency really defines the program. And when you’re consistent, you’re going to have an opportunity to go win that championship. Not just compete for it, you’re going to have the opportunity to win that championship.”

All this positive talk about competing for championships and restoring the Gator standard has generated a lot of excitement around the program and throughout Gator Nation.

But it’s just talk at this point. Starting Sept. 1, the Gators have to start proving it on the field.

It’s a message Mullen has been hammering home to his players since the very first day of preseason camp.

“Everyone talks about they should — I should lose weight, I should get up and run, I should study an extra 10 minutes, I should eat healthier,” he said. “There are a lot of shoulds out there. When it becomes a must, you’re going to succeed.

“And I talk about it. We should be a great team this year. We should. But when everybody within our locker room changes it to we must be a great team and has a desperate attitude and mindset towards it, that’s when we’ll become a great team.

“We have talented football players. We have a really good coaching staff. We should be a great team. But the mindset can’t be we should, it’s we must.”

40 COMMENTS

  1. More and more it’s evident, and decisively so, that Dan Mullen has it figured out, this stuff about excellence and championships. It’s such a pleasing change from the bland blather we’ve heard for some years. I believe he will deliver a championship team for Flotida much sooner than later. This year? Well, maybe. But why not?

    • Why not shoot for it? Why not make that the goal? What other goal would make sense to coaches and players who want to be the best? Like you, I love that they are shooting for the stars. So much better than listening to the Ladyshark Lover whining that fan expectations were to high.

    • It is clearly evident that DM is striving for excellence, Clyde. I agree with you. But…..This staff has got to do a better job, and I believe they will, with recruiting. Right now Kirby, Saban, Taggart. and Richt are bringing in at least top 15 recruiting classes, and Florida once again is in the middle of the pack in the SEC. Something like 40th Nationally. These kids are 17 now and they were only 7 in 1st grade the last time Gator football was in the championship discussion. They do NOT see Florida football as having any tradition. They remember letting FSU and Georgia beating us year after year. Sadly, they know nothing of the 90’s gator tradition.

  2. The possibility is there – probability be damned – LOL. We have just as good a chance as anyone in the country to win it all this year. We will have to wait and watch one game at a time. I am leery about the QB play, so I hope one of them can quell the concern. We need one of the QB’s to manage the team, and not to force the big play all of the time. With our defense and our group of RB’s, if this team is run correctly we stand a very good chance to go far. GO GATORS!!!

  3. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a championship season this year. This is not like when Urban Meyer came in with an established quarterback. Granted Leak did have some limitations and was not the perfect fit for the offense, he did have some intangibles in terms of experience. Franks doesn’t have that so it’s like starting from scratch at the Quarterback position. My other concern is the character situation.. It’s always there but McElwain seems to have outdone other coaches in recruiting a higher than usual number of “bad apples”. Realistically, we won’t be ready to compete for a National Championship until year 3 or 4. I will be happy with a 8-4 season that could be the stepping stone to challenging for the East next year. To think we could win it all is putting unnecessary pressure on 18-20 year old kids who have yet to prove themselves. Let winning on paper remain Tennessee’s tradition and let’s enjoy this kid get better as the season progresses. For me, my measuring stick will be comparing first 6 games against last 6 games. if we start 3-3 and end up 8-4 then it’s a successful season but if we start 6-0 and and end up 9-3 then that would be typical of a McElwain season: start strong, finish weak… I do expect the former to be most likely and Gator nation needs to be patient. We’re in this for the long run please! Go Gators!!

    • What is totally realistic is setting the goal and shooting for it. I love that thes players want to be the best. If they fall short, so be it, but no one ever dealifted 500 pounds by training to lift 200. Now, when thes guys are tired, discouraged, they think we want to be the best and keep pushing rather than — well, if we back our way into Atlanta and get destroyed that’s good enough and then quitting.

      • Yep, totally agree that the players should be setting their goals high and aiming for the ultimate prize. You only fail by not trying. My point was that as fans we should enjoy watching the team improve from game to game and for the players to not get caught up into undeserved hype. If our Gators and they somehow back their into Atlanta then they would have earned the hype, and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to get destroyed like a McElwain team that’s limping to the finish line. What I also don’t want to see is the writers and us the fans putting unnecessary pressure on these kids and then not cutting them slack if they fall short of our own expectations.

        • I am with you there! It’s go Gators all day every day and I am looking forward to watching the growth and improvement! The players are shooting to be the best, and my goal is to be the best fan.

          In all kinds of weather, baby!!!!

    • Larry – I’m in agreement with you. I do believe there is under-utilized (last year) talent on this team and I believe that the coaching and program direction is 1000 times better than we’ve had in 9 years. That said while it would be easy to start dreaming about national title hopes this year, I think we have to remember that the “culture” needed to be changed…and it apparently is changing…..but it takes time to change to the degree that this program needs it to. In other words, this team does not yet “know how to win” and it takes more than 8 months with a new coaching staff to instill that. I most definitely would want to be wrong here, but I suspect that it’ll take another year or two before this roster is 2 deep at every position with players who “know” how to win and can do it.

    • Steve. Mullen can continue to hand out scholarships to three-star recruits as long as they are like Reese, Polite, Zuinga, and Joseph on defense and Taylor, Heggie, Johnson, Toney, Davis, Lemons, and Trask on offense. But they do need more recruits like Jefferson, Grimes, Ivey, Henderson, Wilson, and other 4 and 5-star recruits in order to win future championships.

      • Zuniga, Toney, and Davis are good players. Reese, Polite, Joseph, Taylor and Johnson are slightly above average SEC players. Trask has done nothing. Not taken a snap. And wasn’t good enough to beat out Franks last season and likely not this one either. If you want to be 8-4 or worse every season and never beat FSU or Ga, then yes these are your guys. If you want 11-1, elite, playoff contention type teams you gotta get the best 4 stars and three or more 5 stars every season. Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia. What do these school have in common? Two things- recruiting excellence and playoff contention every season.

    • If the AD wants to continue playing football, and I believe the answer is yes…….3* athletes is what we get. It is just a fact that no SEC school has ever won the SEC championship without 5* athletes and those athletes do NOT come to Florida. Urban Liar was smart enough to figure out the game and not consistently get screwed by Booby and Jimbo with silent commits and negative recruiting. The only way we will win is play their game and negative recruit the crap out of this place.

      • This is all a very good quality discussion but I find the comments about negative recruiting and silent commits to be thought provoking.

        I’m a big fan of Mullen and I find his comments about should vs much to be really good stuff. But I also know the real world requires a little bit of behavior some would call “less than charming”. Part of the game is not folding when that happens…I dont want to go too far but I look forward to causing a little pain instead of receiving it!

    • Winning will cure a lot of recruiting ills.

      Coach Dan Mullen knows that it takes blue chip players to consistently play at the highest level. But for the past 9 years, why would 5* players want to come to Gainesville? So, he has to start somewhere. Somehow he has got to get this roster to exceed expectations and win at least 8 games and beat FSU or Georgia. This will get the Gator Brand back on recruit’s radar.

  4. I am amazed when I watch national sports programing and most of the talking heads discuss how Florida does not have much talent and they do not expect much from the Gators this year. Paul Finebaum included, who really laughs when anyone mentions that the Gators might do well this year. Most are clueless to the talent that is on the Florida roster and how well they are being conditioned and coached up this year. And the Georgia sites (writers and bloggers both) are making jokes about the lack of talent on the Florida roster and do not even consider the Gators to be much of a challenge this year. Easy win for Georgia. Even worse than last year. Soon, their eyes will be opened to reality when Gators start to bite their behinds. Go Gators.

    • One advantage, if you can call it one, that I have living way out here in Texas is not the underestimation of the Gators, per se, but the ABSENCE of the media when it comes to the Gators. I will tell you that it was going on even during our last two national championships — yes, they had to at least acknowledge that we were playing — but I swear it was like, “Ohio State vs Other”. I say go ahead and disrespect us, don’t even acknowledge us if that’s the way you want it….you will be shocked when Dan Mullen start taking Florida to the SEC championship and beyond!

    • Tampa too many people are putting too much stock into that 4 win season and not really understanding what led to that type of season. They just assume it’s because we lack talent. I’m definitely looking forward to shocking a lot of people.

    • Agreed. Here in Knoxville, we’re hearing the same talk about Gator football. I’ve got a friend who calls our coach “Mediocre Mullen” and seems glad they ended up with Pruitt instead. I’ve got another friend who chides me by calling me “3 star”, as in, the Gator roster is chock full of 3 star players. I suspect both of these guys and many others here in K-Town won’t be so smug at the end of this year……hopefully on Sept 22 the Gators can take care of business in Neyland (I’ll be there!!!) and serve notice that 2018 might be the Year of the Gator!

  5. Sports fans are funny. Always so absolute in their opinions. Everyone else is wrong; knows nothing. It’s sports man, there aren’t any absolutes and the amount of intellectual horsepower needed to have a viable opinion ain’t that high. — My opinion, sports is about enjoying the highs and lows of being a real fan. You always get both. — And for those of you already crucifying Mullen on the recruiting, give the guy a frickin’ chance, and stop talking like there is some magic potion. There’s only ability, hard work, and commitment. Mullen seems to have plenty of each.

  6. I expect 9-3, but with a little luck, and limited injuries? This team could go 11-1 regular season and be in Atlanta with a chacertain to win the SEC…QB play and “O” line will tell the story! I expect our defense to be good!

  7. 11-1 is quite possible. Perhaps even likely if we stay healthy and develop some momentum/confidence. If we start, 3-0 then l can see us to being 7-0 going into the Georgia game. That will be the toughest game of the year. Other possible problem games; Kentucky, Ole Miss State. It’s all about staying healthy and building game by game. Doubt we can be better than the Doggies but we can be better than everyone else 11-1 wouldn’t be a miracle.

  8. i have said this time and time again…. UGA has ALWAYS recruited well, and (with the exception of last year) we have ALWAYS handled them or hung with them for 4 qtrs. UGA is not the problem. All we have to do is return to the greatness we can be, and UGA will fold. FACT: we have enough talent that EVERY TEAM on our schedule is beatable, including the doggies. We just have to get our players to believe it. I welcome comments.

  9. Dave Fisher, your dead on. People act like Mark Richt wasn’t a good recruiter and the dogs just now starting amassing all this talent, does anyone else remember the HBC saying ” why is it that GA always gets all the 5 stars, but we win the game every year ? ” ( or something to that effect ) the dogs have ALWAYS recruited well, the only difference is they have a better coach these days, but he still hasn’t proven anything yet! anybody can get lucky once, do it again and you have a trend. But enough about the pups, EVERY game on our schedule is winnable THIS year, do we have a Wuerffel or Grossman at QB this year? probably not, but we might have a Matthews or a Bell. All we need is above average qb and O-line play to get it done and I believe that this staff is capable of delivering that THIS year. CDM’s biggest challenge is and has been since day 1, getting the players to believe that they can do it. The man has been trying to tell everyone that its all about the winning culture and attitude. I BELIEVE IT !!!!!!