Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
SEC PREVIEW Florida:
Rebuilding it quickly: Mullen’s Gators look to build off ’18 success
Head Coach Dan Mullen, of Florida, speaks during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Florida's fortunes in Year 2 under Dan Mullen look promising, and much of that optimism revolves around the return of 6-6 junior quarterback Feleipe Franks.
The Gators have a wealth of defensive players and a good array of offensive skill talent around Franks returning from last year's club, which finished strong with four consecutive victories.
Last season 10–3, 5-3 (Tied for 2nd in SEC East)
Coach Dan Mullen (10-3 in 2nd year at Florida, 79-49 in 11th year overall)
Returning starters 14: Offense 5, Defense 7, Specialty 2
Key players QB Feleipe Franks, RB Lamical Perine, LB David Reese, WR Ladarius Toney, P Tommy Townsend, DE Jabari Zuniga
Offensive coordinators John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham
SEC title scenario The continued maturation of Franks at quarterback and a smooth transition for four new OL starters is the key. The defense is expected to be just as good or better in its second season under much-traveled, hyperkinetic coordinator Todd Grantham. The Gators are likely to be the strongest challenger to defending East champion Georgia.
Aug. 24 Miami#
Sept. 7 UT-Martin
Sept. 14 at Kentucky*
Sept. 21 Tennessee*
Sept. 28 Towson State
Oct. 5 Auburn*
Oct. 12 at LSU*
Oct. 19 at South Carolina*
Nov. 2 Georgia*$
Nov. 9 Vanderbilt*
Nov. 16 at Missouri*
Nov. 30 Florida State
# Orlando, Fla.
- SEC game
$ Jacksonville, Fla.
Mullen, the Florida offensive coordinator during the BCS championship seasons of 2006 and 2008, orchestrated a strong bounce-back season in 2018 with a six-win improvement to 10-3 after the Gators bottomed out at 4-7 in Jim McElwain's ill-fated final season.
"When you look in Year 1, you get a 10-win season, you finished ranked sixth in the country in the final polls, it was really exciting," Mullen said. "It showed how fast our guys bought in to what we're trying to do and what we're trying to build."
But the Gators still had their ups and downs. They lost at home to Kentucky 27-16 in Week 2 to end their 31-year domination of the Wildcats, and they also absorbed a 38-17 home thrashing against Missouri in early November. But they rallied from that point with four consecutive victories, capped by a 41-14 road win at Florida State and a 41-15 smoking of No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
Florida fans are yearning for a return to the championship mentality fostered by native son Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Mullen knows the expectations stay stout in Gainesville.
"It's about competing for championships every single year," Mullen said. "We like to set that bar high. ... I don't let expectations bother me. I kind of like them. Instead of shying away from them, embrace those expectations ... and try to surpass them."
Franks, who passed for 2,457 yards and had 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, had the kind of season that emphasized the value of quarterback play in Mullen's Spread offense.
In the Gators' three losses -- against Kentucky, Georgia and Missouri -- Franks threw two interceptions versus three touchdown passes and completed 48.1 percent of his passes.
He also had huge games, including 300 yards total offense and three touchdowns with no interceptions in the road victory over the Seminoles.
"I think as the year went on he understood what his abilities were, and he decided to use all of his talents," Mullen said. "I think a light came on that I'm 6-6, 245 pounds and pretty athletic. If they're going to completely empty the middle of the field, and I can run into the end zone from 20 yards away untouched, I can do that."
Franks can throw the football as hard as anyone in college football. He was a surprise 31st round selection in the MLB Amateur Draft by Boston as a pitcher, and he signed a $40,000 contract with the Red Sox last week.
"I found out like the week before that they had interest," Franks said. "When it happened, I was kind of as surprised as everybody. But they gave me a great opportunity with a great organization. I'm grateful for it."
Franks engaged in a bullpen session for the Red Sox and hit 94 mph on the radar gun.
"If I had worked on it, I could go faster, but I didn't work on it too much," Franks said.
The Mullen offense required some adjustments for Franks last season.
"I try to continue to just be comfortable in the offense, doing what he asks me to do for the betterment of the team," Franks said. "I just try to be the best team player I can be."
Franks enters his junior season having made major strides since winning the starting job in 2017 when the Gators imploded under McElwain.
"Going through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, it's just built my character, built me as a human, as a man outside of football," he said. "It's helped my game tremendously, knowing how to just block noise out, good or bad, and just focus on the task at hand and doing my job every play and helping others around me be really good at what they do."
Senior running back Lamical Perine said he's seen Franks advance from earlier in his career where good or bad plays could affect his composure.
"Just seeing a guy who has grown up and just learned the playbook as well," Perine said. "He used to be a lot more emotional, but he's not that type of guy anymore. He's the leader of this team and a guy that people can look at when times get hard."
Mullen said Franks' ability to turn off "outside noise" helped propel him to better performances.
"When he was able to really look at his skill set, what he does well, he was able to improve, and I think that helped build his confidence and improved his performance on the field," Mullen said.
The Gators feel they're ready to challenge two-time defending SEC East champion Georgia.
"Us and Georgia are both matched well, so it's always a good game regardless," Perine said.
"They're a really good team and we're a really good team," Franks said. "When two really good teams play it's going to be a really good game. It's fun to play them."
The Gators have an interesting schedule with three open dates. They are the centerpiece game during a very light Week Zero lineup with their Aug. 24 opener against the University of Miami in Orlando, Fla. That game is part of the celebration of the 150th season of college football.
Florida also has an open date before its Nov. 2 game against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., and another bye week prior to its season finale on Nov. 30 against Florida State.
Sports on 07/16/2019
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