Come hell or high water, global pandemics or social issues off the field, the Florida Gators football team seems to be headed for a football season.
Dan Mullen and his squad held their first scrimmage on Friday, a month ahead of kick-off for the 2020 SEC football season.
So how does Mullen think it went?
"Ugh. We have a ways to go.”
As Mullen goes on to point out, this was the first time the Gators had fielded live football since December. Florida defeated Virginia in the Orange Bowl on December 30, 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled sports before spring practice could begin and it wasn’t until late July that the entire team was able to be back together. So understandably, there was some rust to shake off as tackles were allowed.
“We haven't played football in a while. So like yes when you talk about the operation, and not the operation of, 'Hey, are we doing this or that?' but we had missed tackles, we had too many balls on the ground fumbling because you're going live football.
“Just the overall, 'Are we ready to play a game?' I mean that's the first time we've tackled or done anything since last December, and we've got a little ways to go.”
There wasn’t a ton of attrition on defense and on offense, primarily only the receiver unit and running back unit suffered significant losses. So perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that those are the two areas Mullen singled out first as what impressed him in the weekend’s scrimmage.
“I was pleased with some guys. I thought our backs ran the ball well. Really pleased with—I want to say, Malik Davis to me looked like the Malik Davis I saw when I got here before I became the head coach. I haven’t see that in a couple years. I’m think, 'Boy, he’s really back to where he wants to be.’
Davis has long seemed the “what if” guy in not just the running back unit, but on the Gators roster overall. He came in as a loaded recruit but suffered a season ending injury seven games into his freshman year, 2017…and then had it happen again three games into the 2018 season. His third year, Davis appeared in 12 games but totaled only 86 yards and a touchdown on 34 rushes, playing behind senior standout Lamical Perine and the young phenomenon Dameon Pierce.
Still, according to Davis’ official Gators bio, “despite the  injury, he ranks fourth in UF’s history for the most net rushing yards by a true freshman since 1996 as he’s behind Earnest Graham (654 yards, 1999), Jeff Demps (605 yards, 2008) and DeShawn Wynn (540 yards, 2003).
Mullen went on to say, “I was really impressed with Nay’Quan Wright running the ball. Young receivers I thought really for their first time being in the Swamp, some of it’s not - some of the redshirt freshmen guys it’s not. But really in that big scrimmage situation, I thought those guys stepped up, played well.”
On the defensive side, with many starters returning, Mullen used the scrimmage moreso to evaluate younger talent.
“The young safeties I thought came up and really hit. And our young D-linemen, those guys know they’re going to have to play this year and in that situation I think they’re learning, they’re developing, they’re getting opportunities. I was pleased with our freshmen D-linemen. And Jaelin Humphries, who's almost a freshman because of the injury last year. He almost missed the whole year pretty much. He's kind of in that crew.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham also used the scrimmage as time to asses the secondary especially. Three of last year’s four main safeties have returned—Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis and Brad Stewart—as well as defensive backs Kaiir Elam, Marco Wilson and Trey Dean, all of who started during 2019 at varying DB positions.
“The biggest thing is when there is continuity both in coaching and in players. It leads to consistency in play,” explained Grantham.
“I’ve been real pleased with Stiner and the way he’s kind of moved forward. Obviously, Shawn is a guy who can flash, too. Those guys have done a really good job. We’ve brought some young guys in. The good thing about the scrimmages is you’re able to see a guy like [safety Rashad] Torrence and [defensive back Mordecai] McDaniel and kind of see those guys and how they can play when the lights come on. I’ve been pleased with all of those guys as far as their ability to continue to develop. Now, we’re not where we need to be, but they’re certainly working in that direction.”
There was only one injury during the scrimmage according to Mullen; freshman corner Fenley Graham. It was originally believed to be a contusion but was determined to be a fracture in his forearm. Mullen expects Graham to be out “for a couple of weeks.”
The Gators have one more scrimmage between now and the opening day on September 26. That scrimmage is scheduled for Monday, September 7, Labor Day. That’s time, says Mullen, to work out the kinks, but does acknowledge there are limited actual opportunities. Fall camp to this point has been primarily installation. The next week of practice will focus on situational football.
While this past Saturday proved there’s still a way to go though, Mullen says the attitude and grasp of the scheme was where it needed to be. Now comes the test of putting it all together.