Florida’s success in spring practice depends on real competition at positions

Dan Mullen is about to enter his 13th season as a head football coach. He has grown and evolved over the years as anyone who wants to excel at a profession must.

If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about him, however, it’s a demonstrated preference for experience and seniority. At almost every position on the field, the older players tend to start and play ahead of the younger ones.

Mullen of late has gotten good about rotating youth into the lineup at opportune times to minimize the number of experience cliffs caused by graduation and draft declarations. He also isn’t completely strict about following seniority to the exclusion of all else, as can be seen by some of the oldest players on the roster like Rick Wells and T.J. Moore solely serving as reserves so far. On the flip side of the equation, Ethan White got to play as a true freshman late in 2019 despite older interior linemen being around.

Not having spring practice last year short circuited the feedback loop that organizes the hierarchy on the team. It was something Mullen addressed at his presser earlier this week. Not all of it added up entirely, as he blamed some of the defense’s struggles on not having the session for player evaluation. There were some real issues with returning players in different positions needing to get used to those new spots, but a lot of the struggles in 2020 came from experienced players not living up to the standards of play that they set for themselves in past seasons.

There will be no such situation this year. Spring practice is going to happen. All of the normal amount of player evaluation time will be there.

The big question is this: can having a real spring practice break the strength of the preference for seniority and experience?

There are some positions where a starter is returning who needs to be pushed hard by younger players. Offensive line immediately springs to mind, as the right side of the line was a weakness in pass protection. Some of it was due to Stewart Reese and Jean Delance not having much time in the offseason to learn to play next to each other, and Reese was dealing with injuries in 2020 too. Those factors cannot be overlooked.

However, neither was ever going to be a contender for the All-SEC team. If a player at Florida isn’t there by his fifth or, now, sixth year, it means someone younger needs to beat that player out. I have nothing against Reese or Delance as people; I’ve heard nothing but that they’re good teammates to everyone else on the squad. However if all the business about The Gator Standard is going to be anything more than empty words, those are two guys who need either to step up their play a couple of levels or get beaten out.

Obviously, they’ll keep their jobs even if they don’t improve if no one is able to beat them out. If that ends up the case, then there will be some deservedly hard questions for John Hevesy in regards to recruitment and development. That’ll be another full story for another time.

The defense will have quite a bit of this too. Defensive tackle is a spot where every Gator is hoping to see a real blossoming form the jewel of the 2020 recruiting class, Gervon Dexter. There are some other real intriguing players there like Jalen Lee and Lamar Goods as well. Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk will play when healthy because UF needs the bodies, and I think there’s reason to think they’ll be above-average guys in the middle. They don’t have the ceiling of a Dexter or Lee, so if they take snaps away from the younger guys simply because they’re older, that’ll be another red flag.

Secondary might be the place where this will be put to the test most. Kaiir Elam is the most entrenched starter back there. Trey Dean I think should be seen as a step down but still solidly a top-line player due to how he improved over the course of last year.

Beyond them, though, it should be free competition. Jaydon Hill has played the most snaps of anyone else, and I do think there was a case to play him ahead of Marco Wilson more than he did last year. However he did not cement himself as a future NFL first rounder or anything. He could still grow into that, but he hasn’t shown it yet. Rashad Torrence is in a similar spot at safety. He looked good but didn’t Sharpie himself into the starting role. Star is wide open by default; UF hasn’t had a true answer for who should start there since Chauncey Gardner-Johnson left.

Will Jahari Rogers, who looked good in limited play in the Cotton Bowl, have a real opportunity? What about prized 2021 signees Jason Marshall and Corey Collier? They were the two top-rated early enrollees in the class. Will they get an honest chance to compete?

I get why Mullen likes seniority. On a certain level, coaches like predictability. They want to know what they’re getting from a guy so they can scheme to his strengths and hide his weaknesses. Inexperience often breeds unpredictability, which could make for higher highs but also all but guarantees lower lows.

The excuse of no spring practice and a weird offseason in 2020 is gone. This spring practice session will be a real test to see if seniority winning out over higher player ceilings will continue for another year. For a program that’s in more of a crossroads than it seemed like it’d be in mid-November, a lot is riding on the answer to this question.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2