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No. 11 Florida: Even with unknowns, Gators have 'better sense' of themselves now than 2020

Zach Abolverdi
Gainesville Sun
Florida head coach Dan Mullen leads his players out of the tunnel of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. ahead of last year's game against Arkansas. His Gators went on to face Alabama in the SEC championship game.

HOOVER, Ala. — With a pep in his step and custom Tinker Hatfield Jordan 3s on his feet, Dan Mullen and the Gators kicked off SEC media days on Monday. 

Coming off an SEC East crown, Florida has multiple question marks heading into the 2021 season after losing six starters on offense and defense, as well as kicker Evan McPherson. The Gators were voted to win the division last year and delivered, though rival Georgia is expected to be the media’s pick this week.

Mullen is more worried about picking a quarterback to replace Kyle Trask. 

“I don’t even know what type of team we’re gonna have this year and I’m there every day,” Mullen said. “I know Emory Jones is coming back and Anthony Richardson is competing for that job with him. You look at those guys and what they've been able to do with the experience they have … so I'm really excited about that. 

“We lost a lot of production at the receiver and tight end positions, but we still have a lot coming back. So I think you have experience there, veteran O-line, running backs obviously have a lot of experience. We’ll be a different team this year than we were last year, but I think our guys also understand that we can adapt around the strengths of our players and our system and they don't have to fit into the team we were last year.”

Veteran quarterback Kyle Trask has moved on to the NFL, leaving a big hole to fill in the starting lineup. Florida had one of the country's top offenses last season but is having to replace stars at quarterback, wide receiver (Kadarius Toney) and tight end (Kyle Pitts).

With no Florida offensive player in Hoover, redshirt seniors Zachary Carter and Ventrell Miller represented the team and spoke confidently about their defensive unit being able to bounce back from last season’s struggles. 

“This spring was great for our defense, man, honestly,” Carter said. “The guys all spring, we were juiced every day, energy. Guys playing hard, and the biggest thing is guys coming together. I think the biggest thing about a unit is being close off the field, and I think guys started to come together more.

“You could see the cohesiveness on the field. We knew we had some things to work on this year on defense, and I think spring was a great step forward. Defense looked pretty good this spring. So we're going into camp and looking to bounce right back where we started.”

Florida head coach Dan Mullen takes the stage Monday to address the media at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala. "We're looking forward to having a great year this year," he said.

The Gators gave up 35 points or more in half of their 12 games last year, including over 50 points in the final two losses. With more depth and a full offseason in 2021, Miller believes Florida’s defense can pitch some shutouts this season. 

“The defense is coming along,” Miller said. “Having a great spring and then coming out with summer conditioning and holding everybody accountable and holding the Gator standard up, that's where I think this starts.

“We're looking forward to having a great year this year. Definitely, the points are not going to be that high this year, so we plan on shutting people out this year. So that's the expectation for my defense this year.”

Despite the question marks facing Florida, Mullen said he “absolutely” has a better feel for his team than last year with no spring practices due to COVID-19. He and his staff may have known who their starters were going to be heading into 2020, but they didn’t have a full understanding of the team’s strengths and weaknesses like they do now. 

“I think our team has a better sense of itself,” Mullen said. “I think that the ability to be around each other. I really like the attitude and the mindset the team has. Even in the summer, we’re not around all the time. And just talking to coach (Nick) Savage, I’ve never asked much about, ‘Hey, what’s this guy doing or how’s our performance level?’ I think people might think that’s crazy. I trust one of the best strength coaches in America. I know he’s going to have them right. 

“I’m always asking, ‘How’s the mindset? How’s the attitude? How’s the team coming together? How are guys lifting each other up?’ You walk around the building, the training room and the locker room, equipment staff, academic staff and the interaction with players: are we in a positive place as a football team? I think we’re in a very positive area.”

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks

No. 14 LSU: Questions that Tigers have taken with them this summer

No. 13 Indiana: Texas A&M transfer Camron Buckley gives Hoosiers another weapon

No. 12 USC: All signs are pointing up for Trojans, making it sunny again in California