By FRANZ BEARD
GatorBait Senior Columnist
To paraphrase Gator great Chris Rainey, “It’s good to be Dan Mullen these days.” You could say Mullen has been living a charmed life since he became Florida’s football coach in December of 2017, proof being seasons of 10 and 11 wins, back-to-back New Years Six bowl games (Peach in 2018, Orange in 2019), guaranteed consecutive top ten finishes for the first time since 2008-09 and the establishment of something called “The Gator Standard,” which encompasses far more than winning football games.
As if Mullen needed anything to top that, he had what can only be called “The Week That Was,” which started with Florida’s 36-28 Orange Bowl win over Virginia at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The Orange Bowl win was just the beginning, too. There was extraordinary news on the recruiting front and then there was the announcement that corner Marco Wilson will return for 2020 rather than declare for the NFL. The subtle announcement that Mullen had turned down overtures by the Dallas Cowboys to remain at the University of Florida only added to a week where the good news just kept on coming.
So, yes, indeed, it is good to be Dan Mullen.
The Orange Bowl was special for numerous reasons. Florida is on the short list of teams that have played in and won New Years Six Bowl games the past two seasons. By knocking off Virginia, it ensured a top ten finish. The Associated Press had Florida at #6 in its final poll before the national championship game so it’s highly probable the Gators will top their #8 finish in the 2018 poll.
That was followed by the announcement that former 5-star running back Lorenzo Lingard (6-0, 205) had gotten word from UF admissions that he was clear to transfer in from the University of Miami. Lingard is a redshirt sophomore who sat out all of 2019 while recovering from an ACL tear. He is a slasher of a runner who can cut on a dime and then put serious distance between his back side and the nearest pursuer. Since he took a redshirt in 2019 and his father’s health (dialysis three times weekly) made it impossible for him to attend games at Miami, it is expected that Lingard will be granted a waiver from the NCAA that will make him immediately eligible.
Put Lingard in a running backs room with Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Iverson Clement, and Mullen has an exceptional combination of power and speed for 2020.
Next came the commitment of 4-star wide receiver Xzavier Henderson (6-4, 180, Miami, FL Christopher Columbus), CJ’s younger brother, on national television from the US Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. Henderson is a gamebreaker who scored three touchdowns in the state championship game. He runs fluid routes, can make the tough catches and has the speed to go deep. Henderson has documented 4.54 time in the 40-yard dash and is the Florida Class 4A state champion in 400 meters (46.77 seconds). He has also run an 11.06 100 meters and a 21.53 200 meters.
Henderson and signed 4-star wide receiver Ja’quavion Fraziars (6-4, 195, Dunnellon, FL) are part of a trend toward taller, stronger wide receivers recruited to Florida by Mullen. Four-star Marc Britt (6-2, 190, Miami, FL Miami Christian) is committed to UF and expected to sign with UF in February. The Gators also have a commitment from four-star Leonard Manuel (6-4, 200, Fort Lauderdale Stranahan).
At his Early National Signing Day press conference back in December, Mullen talked about how the recruiting landscape had changed. Graduate transfers, the NCAA transfer portal, waivers that grant non-graduate transfers immediate eligibility give coaches like Mullen more options to build their roster than high school recruits. Given his success in landing transfers Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Jon Greenard, Jordan Pouncey and Brent Cox – and now Lingard – it’s clear that Mullen knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to putting a roster together. Unquestionably, Florida’s 2020 roster will be the deepest and have the fewest holes since 2010.
Now, add to the good recruiting news the decision by Marco Wilson to return for 2020. Based on what NFL scouts saw of Wilson in his freshman year of 2017, there is no doubt Wilson would have gotten drafted if he had declared for the NFL, but it was evident in 2019 that he was still shaking off the rust of missing the entire 2018 season due to an ACL tear. Wilson had a very good 2019, but with another year to get stronger under Nick Savage he should elevate his NFL Draft status next season.
If the Dallas Cowboys did make a bid or float a trial balloon to land Mullen, it went absolutely nowhere. Mullen’s agent Jimmy Sexton listened, relayed the info to Mullen and Dan politely said “thanks, but no thanks.” He knows what he has at the University of Florida. The Gators are one gigantic leap closer to the perpetual reload mode Mullen is building toward. That means championships and a program that will rejoin college football’s bluebloods after a 10-year absence.
The Week That Was only got better Tuesday and Wednesday when there was a major power shift in the Southeastern Conference East Division. It all started Tuesday when Georgia starting left guard Solomon Kindley became the third Bulldog O-lineman to declare for the NFL. On that same day, Georgia released five-star running back Zach Evans, considered the best in the nation, from his letter of intent and former four-star corner Otis Reese put his name in the NCAA transfer portal.
That was just the start.
Wednesday brought the decision Georgia fans had been dreading since the Bulldogs were poleaxed by LSU in the SEC Championship Game. Quarterback Jake Fromm, who took Georgia to an SEC title and the national championship game as a freshman and two subsequent SEC East championships, declared for the National Football League. As if that news wasn’t bad enough for Georgia, starting right guard Cade Mays announced he’s transferring out, meaning Georgia will be without Fromm, four starting offensive linemen, and running backs D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien next season. Perhaps every bit as important, offensive line coach Sam Pittman, Georgia’s best recruiter and maybe as good a position coach as there is in the country, left to become the head coach at Arkansas, taking with him Georgia special teams coordinator Scott Fountain and two strength coaches with him.
With so much chaos at Georgia, the balance of power in the SEC East shifts dramatically to the Florida Gators, who have filled nearly every hole in the roster with another outstanding recruiting class, added five-star running back transfer Lorenzo Lingard (from Miami) and are expecting to land one or two high end transfers. Without question, Florida will be the favorite to win the SEC East for 2020. The way Mullen is building the team, the power shift could favor the Gators for years to come.
So, if you’ve seen Mullen in the past few days wearing a grin that absolutely can’t be erased, you know the reason why. “The Week That Was” will do that for you.