Behind-the-Scenes: An in-depth look at Florida Football game week

Oct 23, 2019 | 1 comment

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A few weeks ago, HBO released the first episode of a new mini-series called “24/7 College Football.” The show documented the Gators as they prepared for their game against Towson.

However, there’s only so much HBO could pack into an hour-long show, thus some elements of a typical UF game week remained unknown.

Until now.

Inside the Gators turned to a former Florida football player to glean some insight into the finer details of what happens during game week. Keep in mind that the team might’ve changed their game week routine slightly since last season, so the former player’s game week memories might not 100 percent match what they do now.

NCAA rules state that teams must give their players one day off per week. This means no practice, no workouts, no media interviews and no meetings or film studies with the coaches. For the Gators, Sunday is almost always the designated day off, although they took Monday off the week of the Towson game. Just because they have the day off doesn’t mean it’s a day wasted, however.

The training room is open in the stadium for two or three hours in the afternoon, and the exact hours are determined on a week-to-week basis by Head Athletic Trainer Paul Silvestri. The players check in to the training room and let the trainers know if they’re feeling fine or if they’re banged up. If they’re OK, they can leave and enjoy their day off. Those with injuries receive treatment prior to checking out. Players with serious injuries are required to stay the entire time the training room is open for more extensive treatment.

Around 5:30 or 6 p.m., the team gathers for dinner inside the stadium with the coaches and their families, he said. It serves as the unofficial kickoff to the next game week.

Game week begins in earnest with a team meeting from 8-9 a.m. on Monday with coach Dan Mullen in the south end zone team meeting room, the player told Inside the Gators. Mullen goes over some of the positive and negative plays from the previous game from all three phases.

Mullen then announces which players graded out as “Champions,” which means these individuals executed at the highest level possible in the previous game according to the coaches. The “Champions” are presented with a key on a chain, which signifies that they were keys to victory. Players can be named “Champions” on both offense or defense and special teams, so the goal is to earn two keys every week. One or two “Champions” from the offense, defense and special teams are further distinguished as the Players of the Week.

“That was cool,” the former player said. “It just kind of let [the players] know that they were paying attention and they appreciated when you did your job, even if you’re not out there making a ton of tackles and picks and stuff. If you’re in the right place and cause something to happen, they will let you know, and your team got to see it.”

After this presentation, the players split up into their position groups and review position-specific film from the previous game with their position coaches. If they finish early, they get started on the upcoming opponent’s film.

From around 9-1:30, the players leave the facility to handle their academic responsibilities, such as classes, tutoring and internships, he said. Players start trickling into the locker room around 1:30 or 2. They have lunch waiting on them, such as a sandwich from Jersey Mike’s. The players get taped, put their jerseys and pads on and get ready for practice.

Then, they enter another team meeting where Mullen introduces them to their next opponent and discusses the game plan. After that is a special teams meeting where they go over the opponent’s schemes and their game plan.

The meetings conclude with the players splitting into offense and defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham handles the defensive meeting, while Mullen lets his assistant coaches run the offensive meeting. This final meeting is used to go over everything that is planned for practice, with the emphasis on Monday being first and second downs. Practice is held from 3:30 to about 6:30. This practice is in full pads and is the most intense one of the week, he said.

After practice, they’ll have one of two meals. If they’re coming off of a win, they’ll have “Victory Meal,” an all-you-can-eat buffet consisting of fried shrimp, steak, gourmet burgers, chicken wings, dessert and more, the former player told Inside the Gators. If they’re coming off a loss, they’ll eat a regular meal consisting of frozen hamburgers and hotdogs, fruits and salad.

“If you don’t win the game on Saturday, you don’t get rewarded with a nice meal in Coach Mullen’s eyes,” he said. “Everybody’s in a good mood, and you’re eating steak and sometimes lobster. You pretty much get to choose from whatever you could possibly want.”

Tuesday and Wednesday follow similar schedules as Monday, except they focus on red zone and goal line situations on Tuesday and third down on Wednesday, ITG was told. Both of these practices are in “shells,” which means helmets and shoulder pads only. They watch film from the previous day’s practice during the 8 a.m. meeting instead of film from the previous game. They correct mistakes and tweak the game plan. The entire game plan is installed by the end of Wednesday.

The Gators refer to Thursday as “Perfect Thursday,” he said. They start the day by reviewing their entire game plan to keep everything fresh in their minds. The entire three-deep on special teams goes over their roles and the game plan.

Thursday’s practice is in helmets, soft shoulder pads called “spiders” and shorts and is shorter and less intense than the other practices. The players run at full speed, but they’re careful to not hit each other. However, as the “Perfect Thursday” name implies, attention to detail and situational awareness are huge emphases.

They go over situations such as Hail Mary offense and defense and 25 seconds remaining with no timeouts, the former player said. One specific drill he remembers was called “Turbo,” where they had no timeouts left and had to rush the kicker onto the field for a game-winning field goal attempt.

The first team offense runs a “mock series” where they have to drive down the field and score, and every play must be executed perfectly. If any coach spots something he doesn’t like, they have to start the series over.

“We would do literally every single possible scenario that could come up in the game, and we would also run through every single play,” he said.

After practice, they eat dinner with the coaches and their families.

“That was cool,” he said. “It really felt like a family. We got to know our coaches better and their kids and hang out with them in a non- – I mean, we were at football, but it was more of a just kind of family dinner setting essentially. It got us thinking about other stuff and really brought us closer together.”

After a long, grueling week of practices and meetings, the Gators use Friday as more of a relaxing day. There is no team meeting in the morning, and the time the players have to report to the facilities changes depending on whether they’re playing at home or away. The day starts with a long special teams meeting in the afternoon where they’ll go over all of their game plan, watch Thursday’s practice and watch film of their opponent’s special teams.

“Just go through all the tips and reminders that we needed to go through, which is why our special teams has been so darn good for the past two years is because of how much time we spend on it and how much attention to detail Coach Mullen and Greg Knox and all of them take,” he said.

They then eat a snack and attend long position meetings where they review practice film and the game plan.

After all of the meetings are over, they walk over to the Indoor Practice Facility in T-shirts and shorts and take part in the “Best Fridays in Football,” as Mullen calls it. They divide the team and assistant coaches into different teams and play “Gator Ball,” which has relaxed rules. For example, it’s two-hand touch, the offense has four downs to go the entire field and they can throw an unlimited number of forward passes on each play. This was seen on the HBO special.

However, what wasn’t shown on HBO is what happens afterward. After “Gator Ball,” they stick around for an additional 45-60 minutes to go through every play and special teams situation again. They then shower and get ready to board the buses to head to either the airport or the hotel.

“Friday’s relaxing, but you’re still locked in,” said the former player. “You’re paying attention, but it’s not super intense. The coaches really aren’t yelling at you on Friday meetings or anything like that.”

If this seems like an extremely large amount of preparation to play a single game, remember that this is only part of the 20 hours coaches are allowed to spend on football-related activities with their players each week. To become a truly elite team, the players need to study film on their iPads on their own time.

The former player said a bunch of the guys were “buried” in their iPads when he played, and he used to spend an hour each night before going to sleep studying film. No matter how much film a player watches, they always learn something new each time they watch it, he said. In a super competitive conference like the SEC where the talent level is fairly equal, every small advantage they can find could be crucial.

After the preparation is done, they head to the airport or hotel. For away games, the “huge” linemen who can’t fit in business class seats get first-class seats on the airplane, along with some of the seniors, he said. The upperclassmen who got left out of first class get to sit in business class with an empty seat between them, and the rest of the team fills business class three to a row.

The players all have their own routines on flights, he said. Some watch film on their iPads, while others take naps, eat snacks, play games, watch movies or do homework. Each of the players has a written test that have they to fill out before a game, and some of the guys will do theirs on the bus or plane. The test quizzes them on what plays they have in the game plan, what routes they have versus different coverages, how to block runs versus different defenses, etc.

Once they arrive at their hotel, they’ll go straight to the dining room, he said. Mullen addresses the team and talks about the week of practice and how big the game is. Director of Strength and Conditioning Nick Savage then gives one of his famous pep talks. Mullen follows by announcing the game captains and calling the different groups to eat. The punt unit always goes first, as Mullen believes they are the most important group on the team. They eat dinner while watching the Friday night college football game on television.

After dinner, they meet with their position coaches one last time to go over their tests, explain the right answers and turn them in. After this, they are free the rest of the night until curfew. They can watch TV, play cards with the coaches, eat a snack or drink a smoothie prepared for them by the nutritionists. As shown on HBO, Mullen conducts his bed check at curfew, and the players rest up for the battle ahead.

For noon games, the players have to report by around 7:15 a.m., but the coaches knock on their doors 45 minutes in advance to wake them up. They walk around the parking lot to get everybody’s legs moving early in the morning before returning to the dining room for breakfast. Pancakes and bacon are served, but entrees such as spaghetti and meatballs are also available for those who like sticking to their game day routines even if it means eating dinner at 8 a.m.

The players get to sleep in until around 9 a.m. for 3:30 kickoffs and around 10 a.m. for night games, he said. For late games, they have a walk-through where they go through all of their plays in the parking lot with trash cans lined up as defenders. They then have about two and a half hours off to take a nap or watch other games before they head to the dining room to say a prayer and eat their 'spaghetti and meatballs.'

A chapel service is available for those who wish to attend. Mullen gives his final address to the team, and they show the team a hype video with highlights from the previous week’s game or the last meeting with the particular opponent to get the competitive juices flowing. They board the buses and head to the stadium for Gator Walk, a truly incredible experience, the anonymous player told Inside the Gators.

“That’s awesome,” the player said. “Even when you’re on Archer Road out there, there’s fans waving you down and giving you the Gator Chomp, and then you turn onto Gale Lemerand [Road], and that place is just loaded with fans all the way from when you turn onto Gale Lemerand all the way to University [Avenue]. When you get off on University, all you see is just a sea of orange and blue. It’s unbelievable how many people show up that early just to see us walk into the stadium.”

Finally, after hours upon hours of meetings, practices, treatments and walk-throughs, it’s time to show the world what they’ve worked toward all week. All of their preparation comes down to three or four hours.

“When it’s time to relax, it’s time to relax, but, when it’s time to focus, you’re dialing that in,” said the former player. “Saturday wakes up, and you’re pumped up. You’re ready to go. That dial just keeps on turning, keeps on turning all the way – [Mullen] talks about all the way up until kickoff time. He’s like, ‘You’re walking down into the stadium, that dials just keeps turning.’ You keep locking in on what you need to do, and you start getting in that zone.

“It just keeps going and keeps going all the way up until the ball hits the foot and it’s go-time. Relentless effort. We go hard at every single thing that we do until those clocks hit zero. And if the clock hits zero and it’s tied, we go until there’s a winner and there’s a loser.”

And then they do it all again the next week.

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