Florida looks to end three-game skid, faces Samford after staff shake-ups

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Following three consecutive losses and two staff changes, the struggling Gators get a break from SEC play with their first home game in five weeks. 

That 42-0 shutout over Vanderbilt on Oct. 9 is the last time Florida won a game. UF needs a win Saturday over Samford to get back to .500 on the season. 

“I think our guys are a little excited to get back here and go play in The Swamp,” said coach Dan Mullen, who fired assistants Todd Grantham and John Hevesy after the South Carolina loss. “Our guys understand, and we made it clear why we were doing what we were doing. And so I think they were like, ‘Hey, coach, we believe in the program, we trust the program.’ They love being Gators. Right now if this is what’s going to be best for the program, let’s all buy in and get ourselves a win on Saturday.”

How to watch: Florida Gators football vs. Samford Bulldogs on live stream

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Florida (4-5, 2-5 SEC) is favored by 31.5 points against the Bulldogs (4-5, 3-4 SOCON). The Gators pitched a 38-0 shutout when they last played an FCS opponent in 2019 (Towson). 

Mullen has promoted linebackers coach Christian Robinson to interim defensive coordinator, giving the 31-year-old his first opportunity to call plays. Robinson spent nine years with Grantham as a player (2010-12), graduate assistant (2013, 2017) and position coach (2018-21), so he knows his system better than anyone. 

Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate (11), cornerback Jadarrius Perkins (27) and safety Rashad Torrence II (22) understand their unit has to step up the rest of the season if the Gators are to end their struggles.

“We’ve got Coach Rob leading us. Everybody’s comfortable,” said linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, who will be a senior in 2022. “I feel like this is a great opportunity for us these last three games to really go out there and show our max and roll it into next year. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re going to win these next three, hopefully, win a bowl game and just keep rolling from there until I leave. You feel me?”

Grantham worked with Florida’s outside linebackers, but the Buck position is now being coached by longtime NFL assistant and former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni. Mullen was a graduate assistant for Pasqualoni in 1998 — when UF beat the Orangemen in the Orange Bowl — and hired him as special assistant to the head coach after his two-year stint as the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator (2018-19). 

Pasqualoni, 72, has been elevated to an on-field coaching role for the remainder of this season. 

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“It’s been a pleasure to be around coach P. I know he has so much football experience, man. He’s been doing this a long time,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “And any time he comes to talk to me I always soak up whatever he’s telling me, his knowledge of the game, because I know he knows what he’s talking about. 

“I know a guy like that, especially being in the outside linebacker room, I feel like he’s only going to continue to help those guys grow and give them the knowledge that they need. So I’m excited for him, and I think he’s going to help us a lot.”

The Gators rushed for a season-low 82 yards at South Carolina and gave up two sacks for the third game in a row, prompting Mullen to make a change. 

With Hevesy gone, graduate assistant Michael Sollenne will coach Florida’s offensive line to close out the year. Sollenne has been with the program since 2020, and his primary responsibilities include assisting with offensive line development.

“It’s been different,” right guard Stewart Reese said of working with Sollenne. “I wouldn’t say that it’s been a bad thing. Of course, we hate that Coach Hevesy had to be let go, but Coach Mike has stepped up and taken on the role as offensive line coach, and he’s doing a really good job. So, we’ve just got to keep pushing forward. You’ll have time to deal with whatever feelings you have after the season’s over.”

For now, there’s still three games left to play and the Gators must win at least two more to go bowling. They haven’t failed to qualify for postseason play since 2017, which coincided with Mullen’s hiring. 

As he tries to right the ship, no one seems to be abandoning it yet.  

“He made the decisions that he felt like were necessary to spark the defense, spark the offense. I feel like so far in practice, we definitely have different sparks and more juice,” Diabate said. “I ain’t seen nobody skip practice. I ain’t seen nobody hit the portal. Everybody’s still, we’re all here ready to work. I don’t see anybody wavering. I see everybody strong and ready to finish the season strong.

 “Regardless of if we’re 4-5 or 0-9, we still gotta go out there and play hard. Because at the end of the day we represent Florida and we represent the last name you got on your back. So that’s what we have to do these last three or four games. It shouldn’t even be a question.”

Dameon Pierce’s motivation for the rest of this season boils down to his passion for the game. 

“I’m a guy who loves football,” the senior tailback said, “so any chance I get to put these pads on I’m going to try and make the most of it. And I just get joy from putting these pads on, having that Gator logo on my chest and just going to play my heart out every down. And I’m sure most of my teammates feel the same way.”

Diabate believes Mullen hasn’t lost the locker room based on the response to his coaching changes, which apparently provided a spark in practice this week. It remains to be seen whether that makes a difference on game day, but Mullen doesn’t think his players have checked out. 

“That certainly is not the case in any way, shape or form. There’s a lot of disappointment, not like some don’t cares,” Mullen said. “I think everybody’s not happy with where we’re at. If you’re not happy with where you’re at, you gotta make a change. With change comes discomfort, right? That’s the hard thing. 

“It’s much easier to keep everything the same. But, you know, I think we're gonna see. To sit there and say that everything’s been fixed within the program, I can’t say that. What I can say is I want to just see what this does and how we go perform and play on Saturday. We need to play at a much higher level.”

Saturday

Who: Samford (4-5) vs. Florida (4-5)

When: 12 p.m.

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

Online: SEC Network+/ESPN+

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

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