After winning with McElwain players, Mullen gets to build Gators with his recruits

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports

Florida coach Dan Mullen faces many unknowns heading into his fourth season, much like last year. 

The biggest in 2020 was COVID-19, which still looms as a threat. But with protocols in place and players now vaccinated, the Gators are able to stay at a team hotel this fall for training camp and their 2021 season isn’t in doubt. 

“I think we're just a lot more educated on how we adjust within what we're doing to keep everybody as safe as possible,” Mullen said. “Last year, I mean, I wasn't ever used to wearing a mask my entire life. How you pay attention to all these different protocols. I think there's a lot more familiarity with it right now.” 

Florida football coach Dan Mullen tells the media Thursday he expects the Gators to be better at the end of the season than in the beginning.

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Mullen has more familiarity with his roster as well, which now consists almost entirely of recruits signed by him. He and his staff made the most of the talent they inherited from former coach Jim McElwain, winning 21 games in 2018 and 2019. 

Last year’s team featured more Mullen signees in the starting lineup, such as Brenton Cox Jr. and Kaiir Elam, but 14 of the 22 starters were McElwain recruits. Only four of those 14 are back: front-seven defenders Zach Carter, Ventrell Miller and Jeremiah Moon and right tackle Jean Delance. 

Florida Gators' new-look offense

As Mullen looks to replace six starters on offense, including his quarterback, he now turns to players who’ve been recruited specifically for his system. 

“Oh, it's a big difference,” said running back Dameon Pierce, one of five returning offensive starters who signed with Mullen in 2018. “When he first came, he didn't know who those guys were, what their strengths and weaknesses were. But now that he has a team of guys that he's been around a couple of years, it really opens the playbook up more. 

Florida quarterback Emory Jones lets one fly during Saturday's scrimmage at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

“It lets him get creative from an offensive perspective. You know, project plays, different two-back sets, it just opens the playbook up a whole lot more. He trusts us, and we’re trying to make some plays this year for him.” 

That starts with quarterback Emory Jones, another 2018 signee who takes over for Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask. Florida’s passing offense, which ranked first nationally last season, is expected to regress without Trask and first-round picks Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, but Mullen is prepared to adjust his attack around his bevy of backs and the dual-threat ability of Jones and backup QB Anthony Richardson. 

“One of the things that is extremely important for us is to play to the skill sets of our players, and you're going to do things differently. Do things differently at the quarterback position, do things differently at every position where you have new faces,” Mullen said. “I think Emory has learned a great deal in the maturity of how to handle himself, how to prepare, how to be ready for your moment. I expect great things out of him this year.”

Gators, Todd Grantham, look to improve defense

Mullen also expects improved play from his defense, which ranked 83rd in the country after finishing No. 9 in 2019. He listed several reasons Thursday for the defensive drop-off, reiterating that it wasn’t one glaring problem. 

Mullen feels many of the issues were addressed in spring practice, which the Gators missed last year. 

“There were several different things that reared their head at different times during the course of the year,” Mullen said. “There's times last year we played great defense. And then there’s times we didn’t. Inconsistency is one of them. And then, why were there inconsistencies? But I think we’ve addressed a lot of different situations that we feel a lot more comfortable moving forward with.

“Whether it's from our flexibility within our packages, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of our players, playing more together as a team, keeping guys out of bad situations, and finding ways to play at a consistent level within. Leadership coming from our coaches and from our players and that mesh, all of those things combined, I think we're in a better place.” 

Mullen retained defensive coordinator Todd Gratham, who’s been with him for five years dating back to Mississippi State, but made a pair of coaching changes in the secondary. UF is counting on new assistants Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar, along with new starters at STAR and safety, to produce better results after ranking 100th nationally in pass defense last season. 

“As far as the personnel, I feel like whoever we put out, we’re going to get the job done,” said cornerback Jaydon Hill, who’s projected to start opposite Elam. “I can’t really say who exactly it will be, but I’m very confident in the STAR position, in the safety and corner positions. The whole secondary.”