Sunday was a tough day for everyone within the Gators program. Dan Mullen recruited most of these players out of high school or via the transfer portal, and he provided a fresh start for the few fifth- and sixth-year seniors that were around during the collapse of the Jim McElwain era.
Mullen and the upperclassmen accomplished a lot together. They went to three New Year’s Six bowl games. They won the SEC East. They won big games against LSU, Florida State, Michigan, Miami, Auburn and Georgia.
For four years, Mullen was the one who led the Monday morning team meeting. Mullen was the first to address the team after practices and games. He was the person who led the team off of the busses and into Gator Walk. Whenever the players had a problem or a concern, Mullen was the person they turned to. They made a bunch of memories together that they’ll never forget.
And just like that, it was over. Mullen exited the team meeting room for the final time and will never return.
While the players understand the business side of things, that was a tough blow to absorb from a personal standpoint.
“Obviously, it was emotional,” running back Dameon Pierce said. “Any time a coach leaves or any person on that staff leaves, it’s emotional because you build a relationship with that person. You’ve all grown closer over the years. You’ve learned lots of things from them that are still with you for the rest of your life.
“It was kind of shocking. We at least thought we could finish the season, and whatever happens in the offseason happens in the offseason. But for it to happen so suddenly, it was definitely a shock.”
Added defensive lineman Zachary Carter: “Yesterday was a tough day for obviously everybody in the program. Whenever you lose a head coach, that never feels good. We all understand that this is a business. Like I said last week with Coach [Todd] Grantham and Coach [John] Hevesy, it’s a business, and you have to understand that. Some guys are upset, a lot of guys are upset and things like that, but we just have to move on. We have to focus up, and we have a big game this week.”
The emotions weren’t just limited to the players, either. Interim head coach Greg Knox had worked with Mullen since 2009 at Mississippi State.
“It was an emotional time,” Knox said. “I’ve been with him 13 years, but this wasn’t the first time. I [served as interim coach] at Mississippi State when he left to come here; now I’m doing it again. We talked and I understand, he understands. It’s a business, and so, we just keep rolling.”
Whenever a head coach gets fired late in a season like this, there are many potential distractions in front of the players. Some of them might get caught up in whatever the latest internet rumors are regarding who their next coach is going to be. Others might be thinking about whether they should transfer, go pro or give the next coaching staff a chance.
With all of those thoughts swirling through their heads, it would be easy for them to lose focus this week and get steamrolled by Florida State.
Knox, though, doesn’t anticipate motivation or focus being an issue. He’s addressed the team about the importance of winning this rivalry game regardless of the circumstances and sending out the seniors on a positive note. With a win against Florida State and a bowl game win, the group of fourth-year players will end their careers undefeated against Florida State and with no losing seasons.
“It’s been kind of a crazy 24 hours, but [I] had a great talk with the team at the team meeting this morning, and I think yesterday, they all went home and kind of cleared their heads, came back this morning, great attitude, great start to the week,” Knox said. “So, we’re excited about playing an in-state rival. Big, big game. So, the message this morning was rivalry. ‘We’re playing a rivalry game, and it is big, all right?’
“We’ve got a group of seniors that we want to send off in the right way. They came here, they dedicated themselves to this program for five years, and we want to make sure they leave the right way. We’re playing at home, and we win at home. That’s the message.”
Knox believes that his position as special teams coordinator gives him an advantage as the interim head coach. Every position on the team except for the quarterbacks are involved with special teams to some capacity, so he’s already coached most of these players and led meetings with them before. He’s not just some new guy that most of the players aren’t familiar with.
“As the special teams coordinator, I get a chance to stand in front of the team more than anyone besides the head coach,” he said. “So, I’m there in front of them all the time. So, that was an easy transition to be able to stand in front of them as the head coach, as the interim head coach. So, I don’t think it was a big issue. I think they’re ready to go. I think they understand the importance of the game, and they understand why they came here, and they’re going to represent the name on the front of the jersey and the name on the back. I think today in practice we’ll see, as coaches, the effort and attitude that our team has.”
His past experience as the interim head coach at Mississippi State in 2017 could also prove beneficial. He stayed behind to run the Bulldogs while Mullen got things started in Gainesville, and he led them to a win over a Lamar Jackson-led Louisville team in the Taxslayer Bowl.
“It’s managing the players, managing the team, and I can’t do it by myself, so that’s why we have a staff,” Knox said. “I delegate things to make sure things get done. It’s just about having a staff and putting trust in everyone to do their job. I told the guys in the staff meeting this morning, ‘We’re all professionals. We know the business. So, just relax, do your job, do a great job at it, be detailed in what we’re doing and hold everybody accountable.’”
It’s been a long, emotionally draining season, but the Gators are eager to finish this season out as strongly as possible.
“This is a big rivalry, Florida-Florida State,” Pierce said. “We know a lot of guys on that team. It is very personal to a lot of guys. That’s something we don’t take lightly. We just want to be as well prepared as we can.
“We’re dedicating this game to what Coach Mullen left off, which was no matter who’s here, we’re going to take care of the Gator Standard and try to find a way to win.”
Other staff changes
Because Mullen called the plays, his firing had a trickle-down effect on UF’s coaching staff.
Quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee will call the plays for the remainder of the season, while former quality control coach Dean Kennedy has been promoted to an on-field role with the offense, Knox announced.
Linebackers coach Christian Robinson will call the defensive plays for the third consecutive week.
State of the running back position
Pierce has enjoyed an incredible season despite the team’s lack of success. He leads the running backs with 6.1 yards per carry and 18 receptions for 217 yards. His 14 total touchdowns are the fourth-most in the SEC.
Pro Football Focus graded Pierce as the top running back in the country this season.
“I’m just a hard-playing guy,” Pierce said. “It’s nice to see that effort paying off. It’s a team effort ultimately. At the end of the day, what’s mine is theirs. My O-Line, I give them a shoutout. It’s all love for them boys. Without them, I’m nothing. I really don’t play for personal accolades, man. I just play because I love the game of football, and I play hard. Whatever comes with it comes with it. I’m enjoying myself; that’s all that matters to me.”
Despite all of those statistics and accolades, he’s only averaging 8.5 touches per game. The most carries he’s received in a game this year is nine.
That lack of usage seems to defy all logic and has infuriated some of the fans.
So, why doesn’t Pierce get the ball more?
“We’ve got a talented room,” Knox said. “A very, very talented room. You look at our room, I think people say, ‘We’ve got two five-star guys in the room, and they haven’t touched the ball yet, very little, if any at all.’ But we’ve got a talented room, and guys are very productive in that room. And so, as we look at those guys, they’re used in different ways.
“And the one thing I like about them the most is they’re very unselfish, very, very unselfish, and they complement each other. They could care less who’s playing, how many carries each other gets. They’re excited when each other has success. So, it’s a good room I have, a very talented room. I think that those guys, again, complement each other well, and they’re a big part of our offense and how we use them.”
Speaking of those two five-star guys, Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard have combined for just 15 carries this season. Bowman has been somewhat surprisingly absent from special teams as well despite being one of the best athletes on the team.
Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright have all played well, but you can never have too many playmakers.
Why can’t Bowman and Lingard find playing time?
“They’re learning,” Knox said. “Demarkcus is young. He’s just now getting adjusted to everything and really starting to focus on offense. Lorenzo’s been here a while, and he has three guys in front of him that are really talented also. I think Demarkcus’ deal is that, as he continues to learn the game, he can be a really talented player. He can be a really, really good player, but he’s got to really dedicate himself to studying the game. Lorenzo, on the other hand, he’s got three guys in front of him. So, his time is coming.”
Knox is looking for all of them to play better against Florida State after a disappointing performance against Missouri.
“I told my guys this morning [that] I thought we played our worst game in the running back room,” he said. “I thought it was our worst game of the year. So, I think we in the running back room can get better and do things better. I think if we play better that makes everyone else better. I told them this morning I don’t think we played our best game. I thought we played our worst game of the year. I know they’re itching to get back out there today.”
Special teams struggles
This has been a horrendous year for the Gators all the way around, and nowhere has that been more evident than on special teams.
In their most recent outing against Missouri, punter Jeremy Crawshaw shanked a punt out of bounds after just 11 yards. That mistake led to a Tigers field goal.
A couple of possessions later, receiver Ja’Markis Weston got hit in the back of the head by a Missouri punt. Fortunately for the Gators, it bounced out of bounds, so they retained possession and actually gained about 15 yards because of it. Still, that was a major mistake.
A personal foul penalty on Mordecai McDaniel and a holding call on Weston hurt the Gators with field position after punts.
Earlier this season, Chris Howard missed an extra point and Weston allowed a kickoff to bounce off of him and out of bounds at the 1 against Alabama. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown was the difference in the Kentucky game.
Crawshaw shanked one for only 22 yards against Vanderbilt. Jace Christmann missed two field goal attempts against Georgia. Samford’s Montrell Washington returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against them, and the Bulldogs later recovered an onside kick.
“Not a typical year special teams-wise,” Knox said. “At times, I’ve been very, very disappointed in that, but I look, and I see the small mistakes again, the one misstep here, the one missed block here, whatever it may be. I see the little things, and, again, it’s our attention to detail and do the little things exactly right. I think if we do those things right Saturday, we’ll be very, very productive in that game.”