With spring in the rearview, the Gators are looking for leadership over the nearly six months of offseason training ahead.
Dan Mullen gave his players this week fully off to refresh before a grueling summer, but once they return, the daily grind resumes.
Since coaches are not allowed any on-field contact with the players per NCAA rules, Mullen and Florida’s staff have a specific group of leaders in mind to carry the team throughout summer.
For Mullen, it is not about a group of guys leading the team as a whole. He does not expect a defensive lineman to be a leader for a running back or a receiver to lead a linebacker, and so on. Instead, he wants one or two players from every position to take charge and be that steady presence for their group.
On defense, he pointed out Zachary Carter, Ventrell Miller and Kaiir Elam as the players he needed to step up.
Carter made the decision to return for a fifth year in hope of increasing his draft stock while completing his degree. Mullen was impressed with the maturity he showed this spring.
“He’s tried to do a really good job of leadership, and that’s a big deal,” Mullen said. “When you become an older veteran guy, more of the leadership falls on your shoulders, so that’s kind of one of the big things we’re looking for out of him.”
The Gators will also get a boost in leadership on the defensive line from veteran transfers Antonio Valentino and Daquan Newkirk. But as someone who has been in the program for half a decade now, Carter is putting the weight on his shoulders to be that guy.
“I’ve been in the same position as them before,” he said. “I’ve been here, this is going into my fifth year. I’ve sat and watched a lot of older guys in front of me and learned a lot from those guys. Just taking a lot from them, so I want to do the same for a lot of these younger guys.”
Another fifth-year senior, Miller was in a similar position to Carter after last season. And he has a similar approach to stepping up for his fellow linebackers.
“The leadership, the things that he does that nobody else sees outside of this building,” said linebackers coach Christian Robinson. “Those are the things that are left for him, and I think he’s gonna perform really well, and lead this defense. You can hear him, even if he’s not in on a play, you hear him talking. And he’s got unfinished business.”
Elam earned high praise from new cornerbacks coach Jules Montinar.
He said that Elam now knows the defense inside and out heading into his junior year, but he still comes to meetings eager to learn every day, notepad in hand. Meanwhile, some of the lesser experienced players who are still getting a grasp on things are not making that extra effort.
Florida will look to Elam and safety Trey Dean this summer to get the rest of Florida’s young secondary on the same page.
“The kid’s very coachable,” Montinar said. “I love his attitude. He comes to work every day. Since Day 1, his attitude’s been awesome in the room. Has great leadership qualities. He comes in. He writes notes. He asks questions.”
As for the offense, there is an expectation for Emory Jones to be that singular leader for everyone.
Mullen said it is especially important for him to build trust and respect with the receivers considering it is a unit that lost so much from last season.
And while the offensive line has leaders of its own in guys like Stewart Reese, Ethan White and Richard Gouraige, that connection with the quarterback is as important as any on the team.
Jones had a pretty good example of a leader to learn from in Kyle Trask over the last couple of years.
“Emory watched how he did it, so now it’s his turn for him to go show those guys how to do it,” Mullen said. “And then Anthony [Richardson] learns and then shows them how to do it. It’s kinda that effect that goes all the way through the groups.”
While Jones is settling into his new role well, he still has veteran teammates to give him the added confidence he needs.
“He’s definitely speaking up more,” said redshirt senior running back Malik Davis. “Stepping up into that leadership role, coming up and taking control, which is something that needed to be done. As an older guy, I tell him all the time to take control, speak up, be loud. Just so everyone can get a feel for him and understand that he’s out here now. This is what’s going on.”
As for the running backs, Mullen did not pinpoint a leader. He didn’t feel like he needed to with as much experience as there is in the room.
They know how to handle their business and what they need to accomplish this summer. Still, senior Dameon Pierce wants to take on that responsibility without being told.
“Being one of the older guys in the room, I’m taking on that leadership role,” he said. “Like, for a guy like [Demarkcus] Bowman in his first year here: How can I help him get more comfortable? How can I help him learn the playbook? How can I get him more involved and more knowledgeable? I have to make sure that he’s ok. If he ain’t set, that’s a reflection on me. That means that’s poor leadership on my end.”
More leaders are sure to emerge throughout the summer and into the season, but Florida has a great core group of players to lean on during this critical developmental stage.