A look at Florida Gators football nine days into spring practice in the Dan Mullen era

By Adam Silverstein
March 24, 2018
A look at Florida Gators football nine days into spring practice in the Dan Mullen era

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath/UAA

Dan Mullen has been head coach of Florida Gators football for a few months now, but with the beginning of his tenure focused on recruiting, putting together an offseason program and meeting boosters and fans, there has been little proof of what new-look Florida will play like on the gridiron.

Nine days and one-third of the wayinto 2018 spring practice, with three full sessions open to the public and portions of the other two open to the media, we now have a much better idea.

With the basketball season wrapping up, OnlyGators.com has been a bit derelict covering the football program over these five practices, but we aim to rectify that with this wrap-up with nine more to go until the 2018 Orange & Blue Debut.

Familiar faces in Gainesville

Mullen and some of his assistant coaches are not the only ones around the program that bring with them some familiarity of a successful era gone by. Since taking the reins in Gainesville, Florida, a decade after winning his second national title with the Gators, Mullen has made it a point to invite former Florida players back into the fold in hopes of teaching the current players what it means to be a champion.

Former star wide receiver Percy Harvin has been seen frequently on campus and is a fixture at practice. Junior safety Chauncey Gardner related that former Gators would stop by “now and then” last year but he now sees them “every day” with Harvin in particular providing a unique perspective from the players about his experience in college and the NFL. Former defensive back Vernell Brown has rejoined the team as director of player development. Former DBs Major Wright and Keanu Neal, former quarterback Danny Wuerffel, and former WR Frankie Hammond Jr. spoke with the team this week and watched them practice.

“I want to let each of you know that we have an open door policy when it comes to you being around our program,” Mullen said in an open letter to former Florida players. “You are welcome in the building, at practice and in our offices any time. As a former player, you understand the program is bigger than one individual — be it a coach or a player. The Gator Nation is powerful, but just as dynamic is the strength of the players that have built this program and know what the Gator Standard is.”

The quarterback competition

After being voted a member of the leadership committee, sophomore QB Feleipe Franks opened spring practice as the de facto No. 1 signal caller, though Mullen has made it clear that there is an open competition for every position. Early enrollee Emory Jones joins redshirt sophomore Kyle Trask, who is leading second-team snaps, and redshirt freshman Jake Allen as Franks’ competition. Sophomore Kadarius Toney has formally been moved to slot wide receiver but will likely participate in Wildcat packages as he did a year ago. He did not practice this Saturday after suffering a shoulder injury.

“In talking to them, I like their attitude, their demeanor,” Mullen said of the quarterbacks “All the little things to me — making reads — we’ll get all that coached up. Technique, fundamentals, they’ll figure some of that stuff out as we go. To me, it’s the energy. It’s the leadership that’s up there. Their attitude, their presence, their demeanor, I thought they did a pretty good job of that.”

247Sports‘ Thomas Goldkamp called Franks “far and away the best” in the first practice as he was “sharp in both drills and 11-on-11 and pass skeleton work.” Trask has clearly owned the No. 2 role, looking strong in most practices, though he did struggle in the second meeting last Saturday. Jones is primarily splitting time with Allen on the third team, but it’s been clear that Florida plans to use him at least on some designed runs.

Mullen has expressed how impressed he is with the “arm talent” of Franks and Trask but noted Tuesday that “accuracy … is the most important thing. I’d rather take a very accurate quarterback over a guy that throws it 70-80 yards,” he said. Franks has given Mullen plenty of reasons to believe in his potential early on, but Trask has been no slouch over the first handful of practices, either, particularly for someone who has not played in a college game.

Joining Franks on the leadership committee are Gardner, senior defensive end Cece Jefferson, senior left tackle Martez Ivey, redshirt senior tight end C’yontai Lewis, redshirt senior R.J. Raymond, junior linebacker David Reese and junior WR Josh Hammond.

They’re baaaaaack

Senior running back Jordan Scarlett leads a short list of players returning to active action with the Gators after being suspended the entire 2017 season due to their role in misdemeanor credit card fraud. Scarlett was reinstated in January and given a clean slate by Mullen, though he has work to do in order to unseat some backs who impressed last year.

“He’s flying around helping people in the weight room,” Raymond said, according to UF. “Obviously, he is learning from his mistakes, but he’s looking past it and how to become a better person. He’s a better person now. It’s great having him back. Everybody loves to be around him. He’s a great, awesome, funny guy.”

Scarlett may wind up winning the starting job back, but that could be a role in title only as Mullen says he prefers to play multiple backs each game. That has proven to be accurate some seasons at Mississippi State, while others have relied on a primary back along with a running quarterback to shoulder the load in the ground game.

Instant impacts

Perhaps no one has impressed more at the onset of spring practice than redshirt junior WR Van Jefferson, a transfer from Ole Miss who hopes to receive NCAA clearance to suit up for Florida immediately this spring. Jefferson has made highlight plays in every practice and appears comfortable both in deep and crossing routes, though he excels in the former. According to two Florida beat writers that have covered every practice thus far, he’s consistently been the most impressive player on the field on either side of the ball.

Sophomore WR Trevon Grimes, a transfer from Ohio State, is also speaking a special NCAA waiver as he left Ohio State for UF due to family medical reasons. He has not been as impressive early, though his size presents an interesting option in the receiving corps. Grimes has improved over the most recent tow practices. Redshirt sophomore Marlon Dunlap Jr. sat out the 2017 season due to transfer rules but is ready to compete for snaps along the defensive line. Good thing, too, because UF needs some competitive big men following the departure of Taven Bryan.

Receivers getting handsy, technical

It did not take long for co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales to note for the media that his returning position group scored a grand total of four touchdowns a year ago. Suffice to say, he plans to ensure that number reaches the double digits — at least — in 2018. In terms of those cleared to play, sophomore Tyrie Cleveland, juniors Hammond and Freddie Swain, and redshirt senior Dre Massey are the key contributors. (Cleveland has not been practicing while nursing a hamstring injury that was believed to be suffered in the first practice.)

Gonzales is making sure the receivers are sharp, hardened and more sure-handed this season, not only through route and catching drills but one-on-one blocking. And yes, the return of the “Circle of Life” drill where players — usually across the ball from one another — go head-to-head in an effort to push each other back while surrounded by their teammates is helping his unit. Gonzales is primarily focused on separation, whether that be at the snap, in the middle of the route or at the end of one to get open for a deep pass.

“If you can’t get off the line of scrimmage, you have no chance to play,” Gonzales said this week. “You’ve got to be able to separate. There’s a lot of technique work, being able to separate in and out of breaks. We’re putting a high level of emphasis on being able to separate at the top ends of our routes.”

Injury issues

Sophomore RB Malik Davis (knee), whose electric playmaking ability impressed late in the season, will not be a full participant in spring practice but has been spotted competing in some drills during open sessions. He is in a better situation than redshirt sophomore guard Brett Heggie (knee) and redshirt junior center T.J. McCoy — both starters — who are not expected to be cleared until the fall.

Redshirt junior defensive lineman Keivonnis Davis missed the 2017 while suspended along with Scarlett, but he’s out for spring practice after being involved in a career-threatening scooter accident while serving his suspension. There’s a chance Davis has to miss the entire 2018 season while recovering, but Mullen is holding out hope that the reinstated lineman will be able to suit up this fall.

Kicking up a storm

Exit Eddy Pineiro, enter early enrollee Evan McPherson. Though McPherson will have competition for the gig as Florida’s placekicker — primarily from redshirt senior Jorge Powell — his difficult-to-beat leg and tremendous accuracy will be tough to beat out. Powell, due to his veteran status most likely, has been the primary kicker in the early going.

Exit Johnny Townsend, enter redshirt sophomore Tommy Townsend. Imagine not only having to replace one of college football’s best punters but doing so at his alma mater … with the same last name. The younger Townsend will also face some competition but is expected to easily win the starting job.

Who are the linebackers?

Aside from Reese, who solidified his place in the middle of the Gators’ defense last season, Florida is trying to fill out its linebacking depth chart with veterans who have disappointed in production and youngsters who have either missed time due to suspension or are new to the program. Cece Jefferson has been playing more in an outside linebacker role as opposed to him primarily lining up as a defensive end. If the coaches believe they are exceptionally strong at end, this could open up an opportunity to get better players on the field.

Little concern at cornerback

The Gators’ defensive back talent has once again been raided by the NFL with Duke Dawson departing a year early to try his hand at the pros. Sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson impressed last season as true freshmen and are penciled in as the No. 1 and No. 2 starters in some combination for 2018. Behind them? Well, that needs to be worked out with a dozen players competing for starting roles and primary backup responsibilities. Gardner looks to be settling into a nickel role, though he will likely be on the field constantly either at that position or back at safety.

The doors are open

It remains to be seen what kind of support Florida will have at the Orange & Blue Debut — meeting Mullen’s requested attendance of 70,000 seems like a far-fetched possibility — but there’s no question that supporters have showed up to spring practices in droves. With nearly 1,000 fans combined attending the first two open practices, the Gators decided to open a third on Saturday that was similarly attended with approximately 500 fans on the sidelines of the indoor practice facility and outdoor fields.

The players were noticeably flying around excited to see the increased attention, and fans tell OnlyGators.com that they had an absolute blast. “What blew me away was how great our staff and players are,” one reader wrote us on Twitter. “They spoke in depth with everyone who came out to watch, and everything just feels like it’s (sic) took a 180.”

Other notes

» There is undoubtedly an increased emphasis on special teams, primarily in punt and kick blocking through the first couple of practices. The Gators possessed dominant special teams during their most successful years under Urban Meyer, and it has been something Florida has completely gotten away from in recent seasons, especially under the last regime. Mullen is making it clear to the Gators that their special teams will once again be one of the nation’s best units.

» Running backs coach Greg Knox, tight ends coach Larry Scott and safeties coach Ron English appear to be the most vocal and demanding of the assistants.

» Freshman athlete Amari Burney has primarily been working at safety. He has impressed at times but remains relatively green despite playing the position in high school.

» The defensive line has been relatively dominant, which is to be expected considering the offensive line is listening two starters and has been a weak spot on the team for years, particularly in 2017 when it was advertised as a supposed strength. Sophomore defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe has been lauded since last fall for his effort in practice and looks to once again be piquing the interest of coaches as a potential starter in 2018.

» Freshmen RBs Iverson Clement and Dameon Pierce have each contributed a couple highlights plays over the first nine days. Redshirt sophomore Rick Wells has yet to play in a game after taking a redshirt in 2016 and then full-season suspension in 2017 but may be a surprise impact player this season.

» Lewis has flashed in each of the last two seasons but remains an underutilized weapon for UF at tight end. He’s and the Gators are hoping that changes this season with the offense of Gonzales and co-coordinator John Hevesy heavily utilizing his position group in the past. “We do a lot of running around, a lot of moving. We get the ball a lot now,” Lewis said. “They run most plays off the tight end. We got reads and all type of stuff now, so I’m excited about it.”

» It’s clear that director of strength & conditioning Nick Savage is making an impact on the program. In addition to the various before-and-after images that have been floating around of players cutting body fat and adding muscle mass, the players themselves are raving about Savage’s techniques even if they can be excruciating at times. Most importantly, an energy has returned to the strength program as Savage continues to develop the players both physically and mentally. “I want them to be uncomfortable,” Savage said. “They need to learn how to be uncomfortable because — at some point in the game, in the offseason, whatever it may be — someone’s going to be uncomfortable. My job is to make sure they understand what being uncomfortable is about.”

» Mullen had players run gassers after Tuesday’s practice. The reason? “It’s about going to class,” Mullen explained. “I don’t control that; they control that. If you’re late for class, everybody that’s late for class we run a gasser for. So if they don’t want to run gassers, then just show up on time for class and we don’t run gassers. We’ll get extra work in.” Ouch. Mullen actually ran with the players because “I’m part of the team,” he explained, noting further that being late for class is just an example of how one’s personal decisions can impact the team as a whole. The drill was not over until every player completed the mandated amount; for those that dragged and appeared unable to complete the drill, teammates had to help them along until it was over.

» Mullen was not shy this week when discussing the talent Florida possesses on its roster. While it was clear he believes the Gators have some guys who can go, he did not hide the fact that UF’s roster is not as loaded as it was in Year 1 or Year 2 under Urban Meyer. Mullen focused on the players’ potential as a means of finding a way to praise the overall roster. “We’ve got to see how it pans out. There are guys here, I feel, with a ton of potential,” he explained. “They have the potential to become really good players. We’ve got to develop them and they’ve got to buy in and they’ve got to continue to grow. But we have [the potential].”

» Former Louisville LB Keith Kelsey visited the team this past week to speak with Florida’s defenders. Kelsey played under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and had a tremendous career with the Cardinals after being overlooked by Florida. He is a Gainesville native.


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