The 2020 season was a breakthrough campaign in many ways for Dan Mullen’s Gators. They led the nation in passing, scored nearly 40 points per game and produced two of the top-10 vote getters for the Heisman Trophy. As a team, they smashed Georgia and won the SEC East for the first time since 2016. They played Alabama tougher than anybody else.
And now, they’ve got to start all over. At least, that’s what the perception is from the outside. Quarterback Kyle Trask, receiver Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Pitts are now millionaires in the NFL, and the defense remains a huge concern after a historically bad season.
UF will almost certainly be a distant second to Georgia in the East in the media’s preseason predictions that will be released later in the week. Preseason magazine guru Phil Steele doesn’t even have the Gators listed among his preseason top-25.
But, inside the program, nobody wants to talk about a rebuilding year. The expectation at Florida isn’t just to be pretty good every few years but to constantly improve and contend for championships.
“A lot of big things for this year,” Mullen said at SEC Media Days on Monday. “We’ve been to three straight New Year’s Six bowl games. Hopefully, we can get that one step further into a New Year’s Six playoff game this year. I’d love the opportunity to get back to Atlanta to compete for another SEC Championship this year like we did last year. It was really exciting.”
Added redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller: “I feel like we’re the undisputed champions in the East. Like I said, we’re looking forward to coming out and winning the whole thing. We come out every year ready to go and ready to rock and roll.”
This season will provide a strong litmus test as to just how far the program has come in Mullen’s nearly four years in charge. Alabama replaces 10 or so NFL Draft selections and half of its coaching staff every offseason, and yet, they’re favored to win their seventh national title under Nick Saban this fall.
Clemson and Ohio State are in similar positions as perennial contenders. The goal is for the Gators to join the group as one of the elite programs in college football. That’s why the expectations are still as high as ever within UF’s facilities despite the heavy personnel losses.
In fact, getting a chance to finish what they came so painfully close to accomplishing in 2020 has been a huge source of motivation for them this offseason. It’s the reason why redshirt senior defensive lineman Zachary Carter chose to come back to Florida instead of entering the NFL Draft.
“I just felt like we really have some unfinished business, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Carter said. “I remember after the SEC Championship Game, I probably stayed on the field for about five minutes after watching the confetti come down and all of that. I’ll never forget that moment. At that moment, I was like, ‘We’ll be back.’
“I kind of made a promise to myself [that] I’m going to give everything I’ve got this year, and I’m going to try to help my team the best I can, help lead my team in some type of way.”
If the Gators are to take care of that “unfinished business,” they’re going to have to do it with a roster that primarily consists of players that Mullen recruited.
And that’s what makes the fan base a little leery. The Gators typically finish in the 9-13 range in the recruiting rankings. Mullen tries to make up for that by unearthing some lower-ranked gems, landing elite transfers and developing players as well as anybody else around the country.
Can that roster management style build a consistent contender, or is an occasional special season like 2020 the ceiling for the program under Mullen?
Mullen believes the pieces are there for sustained contention even though the recruiting rankings suggest otherwise.
“I guess the short answer of that is nobody asked my opinion on ratings,” he said. “So, maybe I’d rate everybody differently on who we go after and who we want.”
He also believes recruiting will improve over the next few years with the completion of the Heavener Football Training Center in 2022.
But all of that is still a little bit down the road. In the immediate future, Mullen and his staff will need to identify some more playmakers on offense, get solid play from quarterback Emory Jones, drastically improve the offensive line and avoid another disastrous year on defense.
Mullen likes the attitude and leadership the defense has shown this offseason, and he thinks they’re positioned to simply plug and play guys at the skills positions on offense. While players like Jacob Copeland, Xzavier Henderson, Justin Shorter and Keon Zipperer may be new to the starting lineup, they’re all highly skilled athletes who have contributed in big games before. Nothing is new to them other than maybe their number of snaps.
“We lost a lot of production at receiver and the tight end position, but we still have a lot coming back,” Mullen said. “We rotate those guys a lot. We try to do a great job at creating depth at those positions.
“Media Days last year, I know you would have said, ‘You just lost four receivers in the NFL Draft. How do you come back with production in the passing game?’ We’re able to come back because of our system playing a lot of different guys. They’ve had experience. The next guys are going to have the opportunity to get the ball in their hands and make things happen.”
The fireworks of Trask, Toney and Pitts may be gone, but the show must go on.
These Gators are out to prove that they’re here to stay.
“We see things that are said about the Gators and whatnot, but like I said, this off-season, guys’ heads have been down, and we’ve just been focusing on accomplishing one goal at the end of the year,” Carter said. “I think it’s good going into a season with a chip on your shoulder because it gives you something to fall back on.
“I’ve seen guys working harder than ever this year. So, I think it’s a good thing that we have that chip on our shoulder this year. We want people to be surprised this year.”