Buddy Martin Blog: What Billy Gonzalez and Stella Self Have In Common. Both Are ‘Secret Weapons.’

Billy Gonzalez (and Stella Self), SEC secret weapons. Photo Courtesy: UAA, Alexa DelaOsa

Never heard of Stella Self? You’re not alone. Until this week I had only heard about her by vague reference, but didn’t know her name and had no luck finding anybody who did.

It pays to be intentional if you want to stay on task. Especially in a midst of a pandemic. While others were dabbling in geo-politics, amateur science and pseudo medicine, or waving a white flag, people like Greg Sankey and Dan Mullen were working diligently daily to seek a path forward. And they pretty much have found that pathway, thanks to a little help from their friends.

Stella Self and Billy Gonzalez.

“Who?” you ask?

Billy Gonzalez, as you already know, is co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach for the Florida Gators, who once again has emerged as a cohesive force for Mullen’s offense and continues to enhance his reputation. Lately, the term “best wide receiver coach in the country” is being invoked so often that it’s beginning to sound like Gonzalez’s job description.

Gonzalez has taken his wide receiver room from what some people considered left-overs in a Greyhound bus station waiting room to a full a compliment of talented, team-oriented, consistent playmakers. What at first appeared to be a dearth of pass catchers and shortage of skill players suddenly started looking like semi-low hanging fruit. And that’s what started the promising receiving corps legacy.

“Billy’s going to do such an unbelievable job of not just recruiting and getting quality guys here, but the improvement they make in his development with them,” said Mullen. “Their development in the fundamentals of the receiver position, the style of offense that we run that prepares them to play professional football at the next level in a pro-style offense…”

The message here: Come to Gainesville, learn the fundamentals of pass receiving, check your ego at the door and maybe get to play football for a living.

Four senior receivers all made NFL rosters on opening day—Tyrie Cleveland (Broncos), Van Jefferson (Rams), Freddie Swain (Seahawks) and Josh Hammond (Jags). Now we’re researching the archives to when that happened last time – if ever.

Turned out that the “low-hanging fruit” was plucked out of Mullen’s already-planted crop two seasons ago when Gonzalez arrived and culled four receivers from the heap, either already on the Florida roster or somebody else’s.

The role of Cleveland, Jefferson, Swain and Hammond played a big part in Mullen winning 21 game over two seasons. They landed on those NFL rosters due in large part to their unselfish “team first” attitude, work ethic and consistent execution taught to them by their position coach, Gonzalez.

These days the Gator receivers are now regularly praised by coaches and players in the Zoom conferences as one of the team’s strengths.

Former All-American and SEC record holder Chris Doering is impressed:

“I think it’s extremely cool and virtually impossible. Speaks volumes about the type of coach Billy is. There has been so many years of underachieving at the WR position for UF before he returned and he changed that immediately. Largely with guys he inherited.”

More on that in a moment.

Now for a word about Greg Sankey’s secret weapon, Stella Self.

Don’t know Stella Self? You’re not alone. Until this week I had only heard about her by vague reference, but didn’t know her name and had no luck finding anybody who did. I heard the SEC commissioner on a local show talking about getting advice from some female biostatistician from South Carolina -- about how she convinced him to wait as long as possible before calling the shot on whether the SEC should follow the Big 10 and Pac 12 into canceling the season.

What I remembered about Sankey’s interview was that he had been “mentored” by this woman in South Carolina to stay the course and study the situation closely before reaching any hard conclusions. He was taught about the path of patience and introspection.

Who could have such an impact on such a powerful figure in college football? I sought her out — left jer a phone message at USC, Striking out on every front, including the SEC office, Google and a few top SEC media people like Tony Barnhart and Paul Finebaum, I sent out a few emails.

I was intrigued to know her name, so made a few other calls, but finally gave up the idea, until South Carolina Assistant Athletic Director Steve Fink finally located it and texted me her name. Then, of course, I had to Google her – after which I couldn’t discern her skill set and never did learn what she told Sankey.

To wit:

Stella Self. Epidemiology and Biostatistics Arnold School of Public Health, Assistant Professor

Department: Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Arnold School of Public Health

It went on to say her Research and Teaching Interests included

Bayesian spatio-temporal modeling, spatial clustering analysis, disease forecasting, random effects models, and Markov chain Monte Carlo methods.

Huh? Yeah that. I didn’t see anything in there about advising SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. And by the way, if Sankey had caved in and canceled the season, there might not have ever been a football season. So he did more than just keep the embers of hope burning.

Now that we’re off and running with a an abridged season -- the SEC schedule rolling out Sept. 26 and the Big Ten 28 days later – many analysts will trace the logistics of how the championship was won. Almost nobody wants the winner to be designated with an asterisk. The team and coach that winds up with the championship will have more than earned it and will have been favored by mother nature, medicine and mentoring – including from an apparent rare gem like Stella Self.

Florida has a shot at the national title. Urban Meyer sees the Gators winning the East and going to Atlanta because of their coaching staff, quarterback, defense, talent, continuity, etc. He gives Florida an edge to win the East and play Alabama, Auburn or LSU for the SEC.

Not even Meyer knows this little secret, however: This season’s wide receivers are far better than most people know, thanks again to Gonzalez.

What can Gonzales do with the next batch of receivers? Photo Courtesy UAA, Credit Jay Metz

In addition to returning Kyle Pitts, Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland, Kadarius Toney, Rick Wells, etc., Mullen and Gonzalez are high on youngsters Xzavier Henderson, Jay Fraziars, Trent Whittemore, Jordan Pouncey and Ja’Markis Weston.

And then there is Justin Shorter, the transfer from Penn State whose accreditation by the NCAA took about the same length of time as passing the bar three times over – finally given his approval. And Mullen was almost effusive in praise of the 6-4, 226-pound X receiver. In fact, he stated that Shorter was “leading the way.” He talked about Shorter’s impressive work ethic and how he places as much importance in blocking “as catching a 50-yard touchdown pass.”

“He has a great attitude,” said Mullen. “He works hard, very physical player, talented, has size, has speed. You know, and can make explosive plays down the field.”

And we haven’t even seen him in action yet, although he’s very promising. Again, an edge for Mullen’s secret weapon – Gonzalez.

“You look at Billy and how he develops players, you look at where we came from two years ago when we first got here and everybody’s like, ‘We have the worst receiving corps in the NCAA’ and all of a sudden four of them are playing on Sundays,” said Mullen. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we fixed the problem by just going to recruit.’ We just concerned ourselves with recruiting great players. We want to recruit great players but we’re also going to coach and develop them.”

It’s not uncommon to read a Tweet from one of Billy G’s Fab Four, giving their old coach props. Like:

I asked Mullen how much veracity he put in the comments being made about Gonzalez by his former players who keep calling him “the best wide receiver coach in college football?”

“Freddie (Swain) said it. I think Van Jefferson had something out, and those guys made impacts in games yesterday in the NFL” said Mullen.

“I think you look at his body of work throughout his career and his success those guys have had going on at the next level is second to none and it’s great to hear those guys that go onto football and say he’s the best football coach in the country and if you want an opportunity to make it in the NFL, go play at Florida.”

So while some people look at the Florida roster and question the caliber and depth of wide receivers, Mullen and Gonzalez see it as a strength of the team in a year when it’s anybody’s trophy to grab. There is so much to know, so much to learn – but none of it would have likely been happening without the coaching of a South Carolina assistant professor. So thank you Coach Stella Self.

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