Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullen has always maintained that every position is open. The first shoe-in starter, incumbent quarterback since Tim Tebow? That position is still open. A guaranteed first round pick at corner? That spot is still up for grabs. The most productive rusher in a decade who returned specifically to help the team his senior year? He’s going to have to work to earn his snaps.
It’s an understandable and effective mindset to impart on the entire team. It forces each guy to put in their best effort and doesn’t allow for anyone to slack off, thinking their spot is assured.
Yet with an offseason that has required extreme social distancing and a training camp that is set to begin August 7 but could tentatively be changed, the position group battles are currently in name only.
“That’s one of the challenges this year,” admits Mullen, and while it’s one of many, it’s also one of the bigger ones.
Take the linebacker corps for example. The unit really lost only David Reese II, the senior leader who had held the middle linebacker role for years. There is an abundance of talent still in the room for position coach Christian Robinson. Yet few of them have much if any real experience with significant playing time. It’s the sheer number of them that have made it impossible to have any one see more time than another. It’s a good problem to have…yet still somewhat of a problem, because now Ventrell Miller is the lone primary starter (he started 11 games next to Reese II last season).
“It’s interesting because there are some younger players we’re excited to go get in there,” Mullen says of the group.
The linebacker corps is merely one example and doesn’t serve as a microscope for the entire team. The unit relies on Grantham’s ever shifting over and under fronts and as mentioned, boast a deep rotation that to this point was held hostage as some points by the sheer fact that you couldn’t take David Reese II off the field.
At other positions, things are a bit more settled. Quarterback has a hierarchy, offensive line could have one make an educated guess, same for running back and wide receiver. Corner is relatively set, the defensive line is anyone’s guess and safety will most likely remain the same rotation. And this staff has always been adamant that the position battles are not about who starts but who sees snaps.
“We talk about it with our guys, finding ways to get better. Worry about what we can control and worrying about getting better and the best ways to learn in meetings. Whether we’re taking notes, whether actually you’re standing up and stepping while you’re watching the film during a meeting while you’re doing it virtually, wherever you are watching, whether it’s on your phone or your iPad or on your computer, that you stand, step up and take a step to do things. Hopefully all of that translates into guys being ready to go play this fall.
“I think if you look, though, I think guys get caught up a lot in starts. We try to look a lot more at playing time. For us, it’s about the playing time. We’ve had guys, even though we don’t have a lot of returning starters back, we have guys that have playing time and experience in games. Hopefully they’re able to adjust, and their role’s just going to increase in the fall.”
But within the issue that Mullen pointed out, we do see a unique situation that will possibly plague the coaching staff in whatever version of the 2020 season takes the field…those vaulted position battles. And those position battles—in turn—help shape the personality and mindset of a team. That is going to take a while to become defined admits Mullen.
“One of the big challenges every year is understanding the personality of your team. For us, when you talk about the evaluation, not just the players who are ready to play but the personality of the entire team, and across the board. We're just going to have to do that in a restricted window in camp, and it might actually even take a couple weeks into the season until we really find the personality of this team.”