Often, a head coach arriving at a program is faced with two paths: try and compete now with the previous regime’s depth, or establish the culture from the onset with the new faces.
Dan Mullen had a similar dilemma when he arrived in Gainesville. The Gators were coming off a 4-7 season and returned the majority of starters; there was little indication a turnaround was inevitable or even likely.
Yet Mullen has tread the fine line between focusing on the present while developing the future in 2018 — although the results might have been startlingly different if it were any other season.
The Gators opened the season playing every eligible freshman against Charleston Southern; in the past, the decision to use a freshman’s eligibility in an easily winnable game would have been considered a risky play. But for those unfamiliar with NCAA legislation, the organization announced a rule change in June that allowed Division I college football players to still redshirt if they haven’t played more than four games.
Coaches instantly looked to use the rule to their advantage, and Mullen opened up Monday about the unintended benefit the decree has had on the game this season.
“If we’re going to play someone, I want them to play at every position. So, if we’re going to redshirt him, let’s redshirt him,” Mullen said. “ think the new rule helps in a lot of ways where a guy like Emory (Jones) could go in and maybe get experience that way. I don’t think that was the overall intent of that rule. I think it’s a benefit of that rule.
“Obviously, the intent of that rule is injuries and all of a sudden you’ve got to burn a year for a guy that you were trying to redshirt because of injuries. It helps that a little bit.”
Fortunately for Florida, the Gators themselves have been generally healthier this season compared to Jim McElwain’s tenure, with much credit going to the renewed strength and conditioning program installed by Mullen and strength coordinator Nick Savage. Aside from defensive back, the Gators haven’t been forced to play freshmen at every position as Mullen said. But for the few freshmen who have seen considerable playing time this season — namely defensive back Trey Dean — the trial by fire has accelerated their development.
“There are a couple ways you look at it. Like Trey Dean? He’s not a freshman anymore. Not at this point,” Mullen said, while adding it can be difficult to balance challenging a freshman with overwhelming one. “Tim Tebow as a freshman, maybe he’s the easiest explanation for you; here are his strengths. When we put him in we’re going to put in plays that highlight his strengths and his strengths only. Go to his freshman year. If we’re up big, he may go in and run the whole offense. Or if you’re down big. It just doesn’t matter that much. But in a close game, we’re going to put things in that really highlight to their strength. That allows them to do things well on the field that builds up their confidence, even though they don’t have a big menu of things.”
With top corner Marco Wilson lost for the season, and CJ Henderson dealing with a nagging lower back issue, the Gators will likely see Dean’s menu increase as the season winds down. Although starting a true freshman in the secondary wasn’t the plan coming into his first season at the helm, Mullen can breathe a sigh of relief that the revamped redshirt rule has allowed Dean and several other freshmen to get some much-needed experience before the group found itself depleted heading into the decisive stretch of the season.
“If you look at a guy who gets thrown in and has to play all the time? That’s a different deal. You’re a freshman for the first couple games, but at that point you’ve played enough snaps that you’re a veteran guy,” Mullen said. “With every team and every situation, and injuries and how whole seasons always gone, you try (to play freshmen) early on. The rule helps give you a little flexibility because you do try as early on, ‘If we’re going to play him, let’s find a way to play him on special teams, on this and that’, ‘(If) you get over a hundred reps in the season type-of-deal. If we’re not, let’s try to protect him. That rule does help allow you to protect guys.”
Who: Missouri (4-4, 0-4) vs. No. 13 Florida (6-2, 4-2)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850