Had Dan Mullen and his offensive staff come along sooner, there’s no telling where tight end Moral Stephens might be today. Maybe already in the NFL.
As it is, the redshirt senior has quickly gone from little-used player to playmaker in Mullen’s offense. He caught the winning touchdown pass against Mississippi State two weeks ago and his second-quarter TD catch gave the Gators the halftime lead against LSU. He has emerged as a key player in the passing game. He’s also become a more effective blocker.
He’s a much different player than when Mullen first arrived in December.
“He was just underdeveloped,” Mullen said. “I looked at his numbers, his testing numbers in the weight room and I’m like, ‘What have you done for the last couple of years?’
“He benched about the same as I did, and I don’t lift as much anymore. So he started training, and you’re starting to see now. It’s a tragedy that we don’t have him for longer, where he can get a real offseason to let his body develop. He might have a future even beyond this year if he decides to work at it. I think he’s just scratching the surface for what his development could have been.”
Mullen said Stephens has all the tools to be an excellent, and complete, tight end.
“He’s got really good hands, really good ball skills and really athletic,” he said. “He just didn’t train to the level he needed to be successful and be physical enough to play tight end.”
Although Stephens is still listed third on the depth chart behind C’yontai Lewis and Kemore Gamble, the former high school wide receiver has been the Gators’ most productive tight end, catching six passes for 76 yards. He’s tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions with three.
He’s clearly benefited from the coaching change.
“Coach Mullen has put him in a great position to be successful, and it’s finally showing,” junior wide receiver Josh Hammond said. “The work he is putting in is paying off. Just happy for him just seeing he’s making the plays he wants to make.”
Safety was a big question mark heading into the season for the Gators. But those two spots are emerging as a potential team strength thanks to the recent productive play of true sophomores Donovan Stiner and Brad Stewart Jr.
Stewart had the pick-six to help secure the win over LSU, while Stiner made the game-ending stop in the past two games — the interception against the Tigers and the sack of Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.
“I think, first of all, Ron (English) has done a good job of developing those guys because you see them getting better each week and understanding our system and concepts and how to play, understanding leverages,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “They’re talented guys that are just young. It’s like anything, when you get young players if you can let them continue to embrace coaching, show them on tape the things you have to get better at and they continue to do that, the product shows up on Saturdays.”
Like Grantham, Mullen gives a lot of the credit to English, the safeties coach, who has been a head coach at Eastern Michigan and a defensive coordinator at Michigan and Louisville.
“Ron English is big time,” Mullen said. “We’re pretty fortunate to have a guy like him on staff. A guy who has been a head coach and coordinator at a lot of major schools. He’s an excellent football coach in preparing to get those guys for those situations, to be where you’re supposed to be and when you’re supposed to be in those situations and knowing the plays.”
O-line a work in progress
The Gators rushed for more than 200 yards and did not give up a sack in the win over LSU. But the offensive line still has a ways to go, Mullen said.
“They were solid. I still think inconsistency,” Mullen said. “You look at protection. You go to the interception, as Feleipe’s getting hit. There’s another pass where we had Tre Grimes open. He’s trying to throw a slant, and he couldn’t even get his foot in the ground to get the ball out.
“On some of those where we had guys potentially open, where we’re getting hit as we’re getting the ball out, which unfortunately could be explosive plays that weren’t. I have pretty high standards of what I expect for execution (on the offensive line).”