Upon his return to Gainesville, Dan Mullen did not shy away from Gator Nation's lofty expectations. He actually may have raised them. Mullen's promise of another national championship likely has to wait, but the Gators' turnaround is ahead of schedule following a 10–3 finish, a six-win improvement over 2017.
The next step will not be easy, longtime Mullen lieutenant John Hevesy told his offensive linemen this spring.
"He said it's a lot easier to go from four wins to 10 wins than it is from 10 to 11," redshirt freshman guard Christopher Bleich says.
Most of the pieces are in place for another good season. But Mullen, who called plays for the 2006 and 2008 national champions, knows that good will eventually not be not good enough.
Mullen made that clear after last season's Georgia loss effectively cost Florida a shot at the SEC East.
"We're the Florida Gators,” Mullen said last October. "That's what the standard is here, is greatness. That's what we want from these guys."
Previewing Florida's Offense for 2019
Mullen did not make Florida fans forget the days when he called plays for one of the best offenses in college football. He did offer hope, while enhancing his reputation as one of the game’s top offensive minds.
The surprising development of embattled quarterback Feleipe Franks, daring play calls to beat Mississippi State and LSU, and season-ending blowouts of Florida State and Michigan laid a solid foundation.
Franks' continued evolution and the maturation of the offensive line will be key. A season after he threw nine touchdowns and eight interceptions, Franks tossed 24 scores and just six picks.
Franks will benefit from depth and talent at receiver Florida has not enjoyed in a decade. Senior Van Jefferson, jack-of-all trades Kadarius Toney and 6-foot-5, 210-pound matchup nightmare Trevon Grimes anchor the group. Meanwhile, senior tailback Lamical Perine totaled 996 yards from scrimmage as a backup and is poised for a monster season.
First, though, the offensive line must replace four starters who made a combined 141 starts. Hevesy, who has been on the same coaching staff with Mullen since 2001 at Bowling Green, sets the tone. "He pushes us to 1000 percent," redshirt freshman Richard Gouraige says.
The Gators hope it will be enough.
Previewing Florida's Defense for 2019
Florida's biggest signing this past offseason might have been a 52-year-old. Giving Todd Grantham a $300,000 raise and contract extension fended off overtures from the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals and ensured some much-needed continuity. Mullen already had to scramble to replace two defensive assistants who bolted for SEC foes in line coach Sal Sunseri (Alabama) and cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren (Georgia). Losing Grantham's experience, ingenuity and aggressive 3-4 scheme would have been a major blow.
"For us to not have to learn a whole new defense and come back and just know that defense that we learned last year and just attack, attack, attack," cornerback Brian Edwards says.
Grantham continually changes coverages, formations, blitz packages and personnel groupings to keep offenses guessing.
The 2018 Gators experienced some growing pains but by season's end were swarming opponents from all angles. In wins against FSU and Michigan, Florida forced five turnovers, secured 10 sacks and held the two teams to 7-of-30 on third down.
The Gators now return seven starters and a host of valuable reserves.
One of the nation's top cornerback tandems (CJ Henderson, Marco Wilson), four-year starter David Reese II at linebacker and edge players Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard lead the way. Nickel back Trey Dean III, linebacker Amari Burney, a converted safety, and junior safety Brad Stewart Jr. are poised for breakout seasons.
Developing depth at linebacker and in the interior line will be critical. But the Gators expect to pick up where they left off in 2018.
Previewing Florida's Specialists for 2019
The Gators once again boast an impressive 1-2 punch in the kicking game. Punter Tommy Townsend, the younger brother of two-time NCAA leader Johnny, averaged 45.4 yards and also had a key run on a punt fake during a comeback win at Vanderbilt. Placekicker Evan McPherson hit 17-of-19 field goals as a first-year freshman. Freddie Swain was solid returning punts, averaging 10.2 yards on 22 tries, but the Gators will seek more production in the return game.
Mullen became the third coach, joining Stanford's Clark Shaughnessy (1940) and Auburn's Gus Malzahn (2013), to coach a Power 5 team to 10 wins after it had won fewer than five the prior season. The next step is a big one: Contend for Florida's first SEC title since 2008. To challenge Georgia in the East, the Gators will need some key pieces to fall into place. But few figured the Gators would be back in top 10 and in the national conversation so quickly. After some lean years under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, Mullen's Gators appear poised to once again become an SEC heavyweight.