By Garry Smits, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — Florida football coach Dan Mullen made a trip to Jacksonville on Wednesday to speak to the area’s Gator Club.
If anyone missed it, just wait a few days: he’s coming back to the area March 29-30 to play in the annual Tim Tebow Celebrity Gala and Golf Classic at the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.
And Mullen said both events are about giving back.
“This [the series of spring booster appearances] is our opportunity to come thank all of Gator Nation,” he said at the Lexington Hotel. “We spend so much time asking them to come to Gainesville and support the team that this is our opportunity to come visit them in their hometown and thank them for their support.”
Next week Mullen joins his former boss at UF, Urban Meyer, plus celebrities such as Doug Flutie, Johnny Damon and Marcus Allen in Tebow’s annual tournament to raise money for the Tebow Foundation.
“It’s a great event and one of those things, when you look at it, that’s about what it means to be a Gator and from Jacksonville,” Mullen said. “Tim is a pretty big guy in this town and his biggest event of the year is held in Jacksonville, where he’s from. He went to Florida and if he went somewhere else, who knows where it would be located. It’s a lot of fun and open to the public so they can sit on [No.] 17 and harass all of us. We won’t be as good as the guys who played there last week [at The Players Championship], but then again Tiger [Woods] put two in the water. I won’t feel as bad.”
Mullen doesn’t mind any presence in Jacksonville. Recruiting has been fertile for the Gators on the First Coast (Tebow, Lito Shepherd, Cheston Blackshear, Ciatrick Fason, Dee Webb and Cece Jefferson head the list) and the most recent signing day class included offensive lineman Kinglsey Eguakun of Sandalwood High.
“Jacksonville recruiting is huge with all the great Gators that have come from here through the years,” he said. “It always has been and always will be. There is no stronger brand in Jacksonville than being a Florida Gator.”
The Gators completed their fourth practice of spring Tuesday and will hold the next practice that is open to the public Saturday. The Orange and Blue Spring Game will be April 13. Mullen said spring practice has been a bit different so far for two reasons: the air of confidence team-wide after going 10-3, beating Michigan in the Peach Bowl and finishing seventh in the final AP poll, and the players being more familiar with the coaching staff’s way of doing things.
“We get a lot more done because the guys understand what the expectations are when they go on the field,” he said. “It’s knowing from walk-throughs to stretching and drills the tempo we expect, as much as knowing the offense and the defense.”
That also goes for quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Emory Jones.
“We expect them to know a lot more … it’s not their first time going through it so you can take your time and teach a little more advanced stuff,” he said.
He said a young group of offensive linemen are making progress.
“A lot of young guys are getting opportunities,” he said. “When you get forced into a situation where you have to get a lot of reps and have to play, you see yourself improving a lot quicker.”
With last year’s turnaround may come more pressure from the fan base, but Mullen said it’s no more than he and his staff expect from themselves and the team.
“The pressure doesn’t change for me, personally,” he said. “Last year may not have been a lot of pressure, but there was from my office. This year there might be more pressure, but not any more from my office. But I would imagine a lot more expectations from Gator Nation after the success of last year.”
Former Gator coach Steve Spurrier, whose Orlando Apollos (of the Alliance of American Football) stay at the same hotel as the Jacksonville Gator function, said the off-season has contained less uncertainty than last year.
“The Peach Bowl was a big win for the Gators and coach Mullen and his staff went into recruiting season with everything very positive,” he said. “The [Georgia] Bulldogs are recruiting pretty well also, but we had a nice class and as we all know, that’s a big key.”
Garry Smits is a sports writer with the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.