Florida's spring practice will be about young players
After missing all of spring football in 2020, Florida is starting practices a month earlier than usual this year.
The Gators take the field for the first time Thursday and will hold their final scrimmage on March 20, with no spring game for the second year in a row due to COVID-19.
UF coach Dan Mullen said it's a missed opportunity for the fans, but also his younger players.
“It will be the first time some of these guys take snaps in front of a big crowd,” Mullen said. “Usually the spring game crowd is bigger than any crowd we would have played against last season. So to go play on that stage I think is a big plus.”
Nonetheless, being able to even play this month will provide some much-needed development for the underclassmen on Florida’s roster. Most of them have never taken part in a spring practice, including rising junior cornerback Kaiir Elam.
“That’s a pretty big deal,” Mullen said. “We missed it last year. A lot of the ’19, ’20 and ’21 recruiting classes have not really had a spring practice. That’s one of the most important developmental times.
“So this is going to be a critical couple of weeks for us with spring practice and development for these guys to get prepared for the future. We’re excited to kick it off. We’re excited to get going.”
A couple factors went into Florida’s decision to begin practicing earlier this spring. Assistants weren’t on the road recruiting in January, so they had a chance to cut-up reviews from last season sooner. Second, and more importantly, Mullen and his staff wanted to get a jump start on coaching up players based on their practice film.
“I think guys learn a lot better when they watch themselves,” Mullen said. “So by having the spring ball earlier, we’ll be able to start watching the spring cut-ups earlier with players that maybe haven’t played a lot, haven’t had that experience and they get to watch themselves running our offense and our defense.
“And we’re going to make some changes offensively and defensively schematically around this year’s players with some of the things that we talk about. We want to get that stuff on film so they can see that and we can coach and teach off of it. So that’s some of the reasons why we’re doing it.”
Redshirt junior Emory Jones takes over for Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask and will be more of a dual-threat quarterback, and the Gators have to replace Mackey Award winner Kyle Pitts and senior receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes.
The unit also lost offensive coordinator Brian Johnson to the NFL, but Mullen has called his own plays before and has longtime assistants Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy, Greg Knox and Tim Brewster still on staff — along with new quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee.
“We’ve kind of done it the same way for a long time,” Mullen said of his offensive operation. “How we do things doesn’t really change. Garrick is picking things up. … Last season, I think by being here as a senior analyst for us, even though he spent the majority of the time on defense in practice, he’s familiar with how we run the program and how it all works. I think that makes it a very easy adjustment.”
UF also welcomes two new secondary coaches in Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar. Florida’s passing defense ranked 100th nationally last season, but four starters from that unit are gone. McGriff and Montinar have 13 underclassmen defensive backs to work with outside of Elam, junior cornerback Jaydon Hill and senior safety Trey Dean III.
The Gators led the SEC in sacks last season with their front seven, but Mullen said pre-snap communication must improve after they “struggled” to get lined up against hurry-up offenses.
“We’ve got to be better on the field,” he said. “I think we were a little casual at times getting lined up, and all the sudden we’re not getting lined up fast enough. … By the time they're looking around, the ball’s being snapped.
“So I think that’s some stuff that we talked about in how we need to address that, how we need to fix that and how we need to make sure we have the right guys making all the right calls so that it happens much faster on the field.”