Gators notebook: Mullen on SEC East race, defense's play; Vandy's Lea evaluates UF offense

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida coach Dan Mullen watches his Gators take on Kentucky last Saturday at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky.

With a 1-2 record in conference, No. 18 Florida sits fourth in the SEC East race. 

The Gators are behind Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, which is 1-1 in league play. Despite the division standings, UF coach Dan Mullen hasn’t had any big-picture conversations with his team this week. 

The focus has been on Vanderbilt. 

“I think they’re disappointed because we lost the game on Saturday and they’re excited to go back out and compete,” Mullen said Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference. “If you’re worried about too many other things you’re going to lose sight of the reality of the game, which is how do I get better from one day to the next, one week to the next, one game to the next. And if you’re focused on anything but that, you got no chance.”

Florida quarterback Emory Jones and receiver Jacob Copeland both said they haven’t been deterred by the outside noise and criticism in the wake of the UK loss. Mullen has been pleased with the way his players have tuned it out and responded in practice this week. 

“Our guys, especially older guys, they understand it’s about six inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the rear end when it comes to the fan base and everybody outside the program,” Mullen said. “I think the guys inside the program, you look at the realities. You look at what we do well, what we did poorly, how we gotta improve. 

“I know it sounds like coach talk, but whether you win or lose the game, that’s what you’re evaluating. And you look at it in those terms for the players, that’s what takes maturity and that’s where your growth comes from as a team. So I think our guys have handled everything pretty well. We had a good practice (Tuesday).”

Mullen on defensive strides

Florida’s defense had its best performance of the season against the Wildcats. 

The Gators held Kentucky under 100 passing yards (87) and 225 total yards (224), as well as 1-for-9 on third-down conversions. UK had no big plays after Wan’Dale Robinson’s 41-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. 

“I think we did a really good job of containing explosive plays during the course of the game. They hit one big screen pass that we had a couple missed tackles on, which was disappointing. But overall, I thought we ran well to the ball,” Mullen said of his defense. “We got after the ball, wrapped up ball carriers and didn’t give up a whole lot of yards. And defensively, held them to 14 points. 

“So there’s a lot that we can build off of there. I think part of that is you’re seeing younger guys come along right now. We were down both our starting corners, we were down our captain middle linebacker, but you’re starting to see some of the younger guys mature and get more comfortable on the field.” 

Florida also forced a turnover in Lexington with Tre’Vez Johnson’s interception. Johnson was asked Tuesday what the defense has done to improve the most from game one to now. 

“Just the attitude every day. We gotta come with the attitude to be better than you were yesterday,” Johnson said. “So I think we just come out every week with the attitude to improve, make less mistakes and be in the spot to make plays.”

Lea evaluates UF offense

First-year Vanderbilt Clark Lea shared his thoughts on Florida’s offense during the SEC teleconference Wednesday. 

Lea has been impressed with the Gators offensive line and dual-threat quarterback Jones and Anthony Richardson. 

“I think they’re physical upfront. They run the quarterback, which makes you defend all 11 positions on the field. They have really creative design and really a creative personality offensively,” Lea said. “Coach Mullen does a great job with that offensive staff. They’re going to stretch you out. They’re going to force you to defend the quarterback. They’re going to have a physical run game. I think their O-line has played really well. 

“I think the combination of those things makes for a tall task. We have to keep focusing on us and our improvements and make sure our eyes are in the right place, that we have proper alignment and technique post-snap and try to close the space down on the perimeter physically. That will be the starting point, but it’s a unique offense. They do a great job in design and we’ll have our hands full.”

Especially trying to defend UF’s rushing attack that ranks No. 3 in the country at 292.2 yards per game. It’s cause for concern for Lea, whose 'Dores are 112th nationally at stopping the run. 

“We’ve struggled. We haven’t played well on defense constantly,” Lea said. “I think we’ve stepped up in big moments where we’ve made stops in short-yardage situations, goal line situations and had to play on short fields at times because we haven’t played complementary football in all three phases. It’s a point of concern particularly going against a team that is so adept at running the football. 

“If you’re hesitant against Florida, if you’re slow to fit, if you’re standing five yards off, pounding the ground, they’re going to be able to get a push and they’re going to be able to open up spaces and that’s where explosive plays exist. We have a challenge ahead of us. I’m excited for it. Our players are excited for it. We’re clear that it starts up front for us and we have to be ready to play our best football at the first two levels to have a chance to limit this run game and be in a position to win.”

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