Florida Football Friday Final: Reviewing the Gators’ entire 2020 offseason before Ole Miss opener

By Adam Silverstein
September 25, 2020
Florida Football Friday Final: Reviewing the Gators’ entire 2020 offseason before Ole Miss opener
Football

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

It has been a long wait, but the 2020 college football officially begins for the No. 5 Florida Gators on Saturday. After a long offseason that took a toll on everyone, many may not have kept up with the Gators as well as they normally would have given the circumstances.

Among those who struggled to follow the team as closely this offseason is your’s truly due to a variety of personal and business-related reasons. As such, I have taken the time to review every but of information that head coach Dan Mullen, his coordinators, his assistants and Florida players have shared with the media over the last few months.

In order to prepare you for kickoff on Saturday at noon ET, we have broken down the most interesting and notable information the Gators have shared ahead of their first game of the season. With practice closed all summer and Mullen not even releasing a roster or depth chart until this Monday, good information has been scarce.

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at a Florida football primer ahead of the 2020 season.

Preparing for the season

» Mullen is a bit concerned about the team translating its work in practice and transitioning into game speed and game mode, but he’s hopeful that all the offseason preparation will come to fruition against Ole Miss even though the team will be traveling different than it ever has before. There will be different locker rooms, meeting rooms, room assignments, seating arrangements and travel arrangements both in Gainesville and Oxford, Mississippi.

» Tight ends coach Tim Brewster had heavy praise for Mullen, saying he decided to join Florida out of his great admiration for Mullen, his work ethic, the way he coaches and his overall aptitude for football. “I haven’t been around a guy that truly, absolutely loves the game that Dan does,” said Brewster, who put Mullen in the same class at Marty Schottenheimer and Mike Shanahan. “Dan is a special guy in our profession,” Brewster added, saying he thinks Mullen could call every play on offense and defense while also running the kicking game on special teams.

» Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said the quarterbacks were able to start practice this season way ahead of where they normally do mostly due to the development at the position. He has a lot of confidence in the quarterback room, which is particularly important this year considering the potential for players to suddenly not be available. Johnson believes that gives the Gators a big advantage from a depth standpoint at the position. With some starting wide receivers sitting out the first few practices, a lot of the more inexperienced wideouts received valuable reps and were forced to elevate their level of play.

» Johnson was promoted this offseason and said he’s excited to ensure the offense competes at a high level every week. He will continue coaching the quarterbacks, but his day-to-day responsibilities did not change that much. He’s always been heavily involved in determining how to call the game. “From a logistical standpoint, I don’t know how much it will change,” he said. Johnson is the first Black offensive coordinator in program history. “It’s something to be proud of for sure,” he said.

» Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham believes the consistency within the coaching staff was a huge help for Florida this offseason because the expectation level was a known quantity and everyone was aware how the installation process would work.

» Practice did not changed much amid COVID-19 than keeping distance as much as possible because everyone is outside. Footballs are wiped down constantly. Face coverings and gloves are worn as often as possible. Meeting locations have changed. The locker room was split so there’s never more than 40% of the team at once; same with training rooms and other areas. The team eats outdoors where it can spread out and serves the food differently. “Practice is more different because of the restriction of the timeframe more than the other aspect of it,” Mullen said. Mullen has a sense of maturity throughout the entire team. He feels like guys are taking care of business and doing what is asked of them not just to play but play at a high level and continuously improve. “Guys have really handled this adversity at a pretty high level … of being responsible for themselves,” Mullen said of the offseason program.

» Despite obstacles, there was no reduction in the size of the playbook either overall or during installation. Florida will use the same proportion of plays per game as it normally does. There are plans in place in case coaches — including Mullen — need to be absent amid COVID-19. Despite all the changes to the team’s weekly schedules and the limitations they have faced, Mullen is confident in how the team looks and has prepared. He believes the plan put in place has been very successful despite being unnatural. The reduction is tackling practices has been the biggest issue because players need to get that under them.

» Though it will be awkward and an adjustment to play without fans, Mullen thinks the games will still be incredibly competitive, though they may feel a bit like scrimmages. As for the players, Mullen appreciates how much respect and love the guys have shown in taking the proper precautions, supporting each other and ensuring everyone was healthy and ready to play the season . “That makes it a much easier environment not opt out for reasons of health concerns,” he added. Mullen believes that whichever team handles adversity best will be the most successful this season, and he thinks Florida is in that camp.

» Mullen thinks it’s crazy that jersey numbers now have to be visible during warmups because he does not have the Gators wear jerseys during that portion of their pre-game routine. “I think it’s ridiculous to be perfectly honest with you. The Dan Mullen Rule. I think it’s horrendously ridiculous,” he said it. Though Mullen would not confirm the questions, he indicated that he believes Georgia is the team that made an issue out of it.

Offense

» Redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask is entrenched as the starter and has put together a solid offseason with a newfound confidence thanks to his performance in 2019. Mullen said he knows he can make big plays, win big games and lead the team. Mullen did not find Trask playing with crispness in an early-September scrimmage, but he’s shown throughout practice that his decision making has improved markedly. Trask is playing at a graduate-level and has become more of a leader and will continue to get more comfortable as the season progresses. He’s been spending extra time in game planning meetings and can always be found around the office. Trask is also providing his input on the weekly game plan and individual plays. He will have more control and freedom at the line of scrimmage in 2020 as he’s improved on nearly every facet of the game. Mullen said Trask doing things faster than ever before and becoming a field general. Trask said he lost 13 pounds in the offseason after feeling heavy late last season. He now feels quicker on his feet and more confident now than he was at any point in 2019.

» Redshirt sophomore QB Emory Jones has continued to show improved comfort and knowledge of the offense. Mullen has confidence in him to be a playmaker and “bring a little something different to the table with certain plays and certain packages.” Johnson said Jones “has got a ton of juice in his arm,” is very accurate with the ball and just needs to put everything together on game days. Whether he has a bigger role in 2020 will be determined by game preparation and opponents. Freshman QB Anthony Richardson has been picking things up quickly. He’s learned a lot in a short period of time. “I’m really excited for his future,” Mullen said. Johnson said Richardson is a fast learner who has picked up a lot despite missing spring practice.

» There is no bigger fan of junior tight end Kyle Pitts than Brewster, who said he is blessed and fortunate to coach Pitts and called him “right there” with Antonio Gates in terms of development as a young player. “This guy’s a tough guy. This guy’s a hard-nosed, physical tough guy. … This guy is a complete guy,” Brewster said. Pitts is poised, a true team leader and as good a kid as he is a player, according to Brewster, who said Pitts has a great feel for the game – can stick his foot in the ground and go, run great routes and teach other players. “Football makes sense to Kyle Pitts,” Brewster said. In the film room, they have been studying Travis Kelce, George Kittle and all the best NFL players. Pitts has shown a willingness and drive to become the best tight end in the country; he had a “great” training camp, per Mullen, and has been incredibly consistent in practice. With his work ethic, he should get there. Pitts said he never considered opting out despite his high profile. Mullen also praised him for being more physical at the point of attack entering Year 3, saying he will be the main focal point for the offense. “He made a spectacular catch leaping over somebody. It was ridiculous.”

» Redshirt junior running back Malik Davis feels like he’s back to 100% health and running comfortably he doesn’t feel like he’s lost a step since he was injured in 2018 and felt 2019 was a rebuilding year. Davis has gained 10 pounds from the offseason conditioning program and said he’s ready to refresh everyone’s memories about his breakout season of 2017, which is now far removed. Though a starting running back has not been named (it will be Davis or junior Dameon Pierce), everyone has been getting a ton of reps in practice. Pierce said Lamical Perine left a huge void that the entire roster is trying to fill, not just running the ball but in the passing game, too. Pierce said Davis is back to where he used to be and sees him flash every day.

» Redshirt sophomore RB Lorenzo Lingard being new to the program has him catching up on the rest of the players at his position. He didn’t have spring practice, and this is his first time learning the offense while other backs he’s competing against have gone through it 6-7 times. Mullen loves Lingard’s attitude and work ethic. He works hard whether it’s on offense or special teams, shows that he loves to play the game and gives great, consistent effort.

» Senior athlete Kadarius Toney has made significant strides as a wide receiver, according to Mullen. “He’s a great playmaker with the ball in his hands, but he’s taken such a huge step forward in becoming a wide receiver now — not just kind of a get-it-to guy,” he said. “… That’s what you want from those guys. It’s one thing to be a utility athlete get-it-to guy, but when you can become disciplined and a great technician at your position, that takes you to a whole other level.”

» Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Justin Shorter, who was granted immediate eligibility earlier this month, should be an “impact player” for the Gators right away this season, according to Mullen, who praised his attitude, work ethic, physicality, size, speed, overall talent and ability to make explosive plays. Beyond that, Mullen likes his veteran mindset and ability to be a physical blocker at the point of attack. “Blocking is just as important as catching a 50-yard touchdown pass. When you understand that, you have an opportunity to become an impact player. He’ll be an impact player for us this year,” Mullen said. Shorter has already made some big strides under passing game coordinator Billy Gonzales.

» Other tight ends: Brewster is excited about his entire tight end room, including redshirt junior Kemore Gamble, sophomore Keon Zipperer and freshman Jonathan Odom. He believes Odom is “going to be a heck of a player” but notes that all of the guys are tough and athletic. Mullen believes Gamble and Zipperer are both still learning and need to pick up the intricacies of the position, including route running.

» Offensive line: Overall, Mullen believes the unit is coming along nicely. It was a young group last year that got a lot of experience and returns in 2020 as veterans. It’s noticeable how much better they work together this year compared to last. “What that leads to when we got to play against other people, we gotta see, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job right now.” Running game coordinator John Hevesy is excited to see what his line will accomplish this year considering not only their experience but their size and and position flexibility that has developed during the offseason program. Trask said the offensive line is one of the closest-knit groups on the team, and he’s incredibly confident in them entering the season.

Defense

» Redshirt senior left tackle Stone Forsythe has been impressed with redshirt sophomore transfer linebacker Brenton Cox. Jr. he believes Cox can be the Gators’ next Jachai Polite because he’s a speed rusher who can change it up with a ton of different pass rushing moves. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Cox has improved his fundamentals and is developing into a top-tier player. Grantham loves his work ethic and demeanor. Cox will wear the No. 1 jersey, which he earned by working his tail off on the field, in the classroom, building relationships with his teammates and going all-in with his investment to the program and school. “The player makes the jersey and not vice versa. But I have high expectations for him,” Mullen said. “… I think he’s worked hard, done a great job for us, done a great job in the classroom since he’s been here. … Really worked hard in the offseason program.”

» Mullen on sophomore LB Mohamoud Diabate: “He’s a really athletic guy, and he’s a great pass rusher. It’s his flexibility. We want guys who can play multiple positions, so he’s a guy that we are moving around to different spots on the field to try and create mismatches against the offense. When guys have that position flexibility and the ability to do multiple things, the key is making sure they do those things very well.” Redshirt senior LB Jeremiah Moon believes Diabate is looking great both coming off the edge and standing up. “He’s improved so much. He’s stepping up,” Moon said.

» Redshirt sophomore LB David Reese is healthy and playing well, mixing through multiple spots now that he’s 100% cleared to play. “Obviously missing that time and then being injured, we didn’t have spring, so it’s been quite a long time since he’s been on the field for us and able to play football. But he’s catching back up and doing a good job,” Mullen said.

» Redshirt junior LBs Ventrell Miller and James Houston IV received a lot of praise from position coach Christian Robinson for their work this offseason. He thinks both have taken significant steps forward and are prepared to be big-time contributors in 2020. Miller has stepped up the most from a leadership perspective and would be considered the captain of the group. Miller has also lost a significant amount of weight and is showcasing his athleticism. Robinson also expects Diabate to move around frequently and said he is pleased with the overall depth at the position.

» Robinson loves the energy and effort being put forth by freshman LB Derek Wingo, who constantly hit him up late at night with questions and is completely invested in both the program and becoming a better player. He believes Wingo, one day, will be a program leader along the lines of Miller.

» Sophomore Kaiir Elam will start at cornerback after showing a lot of growth and maturity in the offseason. Mullen said Elam has done a great job taking on an increased role and that the playing time he saw as a freshman will benefit him greatly this season. Elam has not let the offseason awards and praise go to his head. He’s not satisfied with what he’s already accomplished and is one of the hardest-working guys on the field. “He’s a much better player now than he was last year,” Mullen said. Elam believes he’s elevated his game, learning to be more coachable and figuring out that outside influences do not matter as much as what’s happening inside the program.

» Junior Trey Dean is penciled in as a safety and outside cornerback this season. Position coach Ron English sees that he is getting more comfortable overall with improved technique, tackling and physicality. Dean’s discipline has also improved, and managing his ego has been key to his development. “He’s finally matured in the sense that he’s really not arrogant like he was before. I think we all know that, when you’re arrogant, you miss stuff and you don’t go as quickly as you could when you’re more humble,” English said. Dean grew mentally this offseason because he’s listening, which he did not always do. His maturity and more humble nature is coming through. “I’m really proud of him and really pleased,” English said. Dean’s coach also joked that he got really bulked up and more cut in the offseason. “He’s jacked up. He looks pretty good.”

» Seniors Donovan Stiner and Shawn Davis will start at safety. English has been surprised at their improved physicality and wants to make sure they manage it during games and do not get penalized. Davis also bulked up significantly in the offseason. Stiner said players have taken on coaching rules during times when coaches are not allowed to be working with them. He praised Dean’s improved maturity, thinks freshman WR Xzavier Henderson is standing out as a first-year playmaker and is pleased at the idea of 10 SEC games in 2020. “I can only imagine it’s going to be physically taxing. … It’s an opportunity every week to prove we’re better than someone. I’m excited to compete on that level every week,” he said.

» Freshman Tre’Vez Johnson will begin his career as the backup at Star. English believes this is the toughest position since it’s technique-driven and has a major learning curve. However, Johnson is a gifted athlete with elite speed who has never been clocked over 4.45 seconds. Explosive and tough, Johnson was recruited for this position due to his cover ability and physicality. Mullen said Johnson has shown great effort and physicality in scrimmages. “Let’s put it like this. Way back in the day at Michigan, we always put our best player there,” said English. “… The position is not one to be taken lightly. There’s multiple techniques to the position. It’s one of those things where you cannot allow yourself to get frustrated as you’re learning.” English said Johnson struggled over his first few practices but has since drastically improved. “That’s probably why we call it the Star – because you’re going to have a chance to be a star if you play well, but it’s a tough position.”

» Pitts said redshirt senior DB C.J. McWilliams is severely underrated. He thinks people are going to be shocked how many plays he makes from the jump this season now that he’s starting at the Star position. McWilliams had a rough game against Georgia that turned off a lot of fans, but Pitts believes he has bounced back in a major way and is going to shock a lot of people. Grantham said McWilliams has busted his tail, worked hard and has done a nice job in the offseason: “He’s really earned it. He’s done a good job making himself into a guy we can count on.”

» Redshirt junior Marco Wilson will start the season at cornerback, though he expects to play some Star as well. He has been impressed by the new freshmen defensive backs that have joined the program. Wilson said his personal goal is to touch the ball every game, make sure his coverage is on point and get more interceptions than he did last year. “I just want to win,” he said. Wilson also added that going against Trask and Florida’s talented offense has been a blessing because it prepares the defense for the rest of the SEC. He’s excited about playing 10 SEC games because it actually tests the players and will prepare him for the next level.

» Junior athlete Amari Burney will likely play all over the defense this season, though he will be a starter at middle linebacker. Robinson is thrilled with his versatility and workman-like mindset. He said Burney had as good an offseason as anyone, and he will be a key to the entire defense who could probably play any position other than up on the line. Grantham said Burney will be moved around constantly depending on the type of offense they are facing. He will basically have the same role as 2019, though he’s improved his technique as an inside ‘backer.

» Other defensive backs: Freshman Rashad Torrence II will begin his career as a backup safety, and English has seen him flash during practice. The coach said Florida nailed its evaluation on Torrence, calling him a smart, mature and conscientious guy who will definitely make plays. He believes the same about freshman Mordecai McDaniel, who is not listed on the initial depth chart.  “He’s a big guy. He’s going to be a big man, but he’s fast and athletic and explosive – even more so than I thought he would be. Even with the track times and all the things he did in that arena. And he’ll hit ya. He’ll hit ya.”

» Redshirt sophomore Dante Lang has moved from tight end to defensive end. The decision was made due to a combination of depth needs and where Lang may be able to get the most playing time. Mullen believes this is a good long-term move for Lang, especially considering his size (6-foot-5, 287 pounds). Lang does have good hands and asked Mullen to remain on the hands team despite his move to defense.

Special teams

» Mullen believes junior kicker Evan McPherson is the best player at his position nationally — “the top kicker in college football” — and said he has “unbelievable confidence” in his ability. McPherson stays focused through successes and struggles all while never letting the moment get too big. Mullen said McPherson has made a 67-yard field goal in practice, so he does not have a specific yardage where he would not use him in games at this time; all decisions will be situational. McPherson said he spent the summer working on striking the ball more consistently and ensuring his setup was the same distance on a more regular basis. Procedurally, he’s working with a totally new group this season for the field goal operation.

» Freshman punter Jeremy Crawshaw has a lot of talent but has not had much experience punting in live action. Redshirt senior Jacob Finn won the competition between the two out of training camp and is listed as the starter at Ole Miss. McPherson said the battle was “positive” the entire offseason with Finn and Crawshaw even competing individually outside of practice.

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