Notebook: Gators look to find their groove again

Oct 26, 2020 | 0 comments

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As the No. 10 Gators (2-1) prepare to resume play on Saturday against Missouri, one of the biggest questions surrounding the team is how they will respond to the two-week layoff. Will they look energized and rejuvenated against the Tigers (2-2), or will they play sloppy in a game that has the feel of a second season-opener?

While that question won’t be answered until Saturday, UF coach Dan Mullen said there’s a lot of excitement within his team. They’re approaching this week as if they’re coming off of a bye week, albeit one without the usual practices and workouts.

“I think just getting back into the flow of the game routine here [is the biggest challenge],” Mullen said. “It's been two weeks since we've practiced. It'll be three weeks between games. That's not kind of a normal deal. Usually, when you have that break, you're playing a bowl game, but you have a very different set schedule and different organization, different planning. So, you know for us, just getting our guys back into regular game-week routine, we'll try to do that [Monday].”

As of last Tuesday, the Gators have had 31 players test positive this month, as well as at least two assistant coaches and Mullen. Mullen said on Monday that the Gators had another player test positive on Saturday, though it is unclear if that positive test was a product of the large team-wide outbreak or an isolated incident. Several more players are likely also in quarantine due to contact tracing.

According to SEC policy, there is a required four-day acclimation period for athletes returning from quarantine. They can’t jump straight into full-contact work as if nothing ever happened. Because different players entered quarantine at different times, some players will be allowed to do more in practice earlier in the week than others. Regardless, Mullen is “sure” that they’ll meet the 53-player minimum required by the SEC to play on Saturday.

The last two weeks were difficult for everybody in the program, but Mullen is proud of the way his team has handled all of the challenges this year has presented so far. He expects them to do the same this week.

“This year’s been kind of a unique year like no other, with stops and starts and different schedules and kind of everything going on,” he said. “Our guys, I thought, have handled everything extremely well throughout the year, so I think they’re going to be really excited to get back out there on the practice field [Monday]. I don’t expect us to come out there and have certainly our sharpest, most crisp practice of the year, but I do expect us to have great energy, excitement and enthusiasm to be on the field to be back out there to get going as we kind of build up to Saturday.”

Wanted: More snaps

UF’s offense couldn’t have gotten off to a stronger start this season. Through three games, they’re averaging 464 yards per game, which is fourth in the SEC, and 7.6 yards per play, which is second in the league and fourth nationally.

However, thanks to a defense that is surrendering 495 yards per game and allowing opponents to convert 61.1 percent on third and fourth downs, the Gators are only averaging 61 plays per game. In the loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago, they only got eight possessions. As a result, even though the offense was efficient and scored on six possessions, the Aggies were able to hang around and eventually pull off the upset win.

“We got to do a good job of getting off the field, whether it be third- or fourth-down conversions,” Mullen said. “Do a good job of getting off the field. We got to be efficient offensively because if [Missouri is] going to play that type of game, you're not going to get many possessions. So, it looks like kind of as the year has gone, that's how people have played us, to really slow games down and limit the number of possessions we have. So, that calls for you to have great offensive efficiency as well with how the game plays out.”

Missouri will likely try to follow the blueprint established by Texas A&M. On Saturday, the Tigers limited Kentucky to an astonishing 36 plays, 145 yards and 16 minutes and 50 seconds time of possession. They did so by rushing 62 times and converting 14 of 25 third and fourth downs. Defensively, they limited the Wildcats to 2-for-9 on third down.

Prior to the shutdown two weeks ago, Mullen spoke about evaluating their personnel defensively to make sure that they’re putting their players in the best positions to make plays. The two-week hiatus gave he and the defensive coaches even more time to assess where they’re at.

More than anything, though, he wants to see more consistency in their effort and physicality.

“We want to see guys react [Monday] at practice and to make sure we’re kind of taking care and doing all the little things the right way: the effort to the ball, the technique, fundamentals, make sure we’re fitting our gap, and that as a coaching staff, we’ve put the guys in the right positions to make plays,” he said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘OK, you draw up a play, and this is what we need done.’ If the guy you’re asking to do it, if you’re asking too much of somebody, that’s not good defense. It draws up great on paper, but the guys that you’re asking to do have to be able to do what we’re asking them to do as well.”

Election Day plans spoiled

The Gators had a well-thought-out plan for how they would encourage their players to vote in the upcoming presidential election. They made sure everybody on the team was registered to vote, and they planned to vote as a team on Election Day. However, an NCAA rule that was passed in September prohibits programs from having team activities on Election Day, which apparently includes voting as a team.

The rule was designed to eliminate the excuse that a player didn’t have the time to vote due to practice and meetings. Ironically, Mullen is concerned that it might actually disincentivize players from voting. Without their teammates and coaches encouraging them, they might just stay home and enjoy their day off.

“It’s very unfortunate the NCAA kind of decided to implement that rule,” Mullen said. “I think it makes it harder for the guys to vote by not practicing that day.”

UF continuing to assess road trips

Mullen once again reiterated that the outbreak was believed to have begun on the road trip to Texas A&M.

“You look at the environment through the months of July and August and through September, we had very minimal things, so obviously what we were doing was working,” he said. “You’re with very few positive cases, so obviously what we were doing was working. Unfortunately, you end up going on the road, and then you’re adding in a two-and-a-half hour plane ride, you’re adding in bus trips to and from the hotel, you’re adding in pre-game meals, and usually, the hotels are not quite as big, so you’re in a tighter meal environment.

“You’re adding in a visiting locker room. I don’t know if you’ve been to many, it’s not like the NFL where they have standards of the home and visitor locker room. A lot of times, the visitor’s locker room, when you’re in there, it’s about a quarter of the size, so basically, when you travel right now, you’re going to put your team [where] there is no social distancing.

“You add that up, and you throw the virus in the middle of it with obviously someone having it on the team or at least maybe two people I’m guessing have it on the team, and then you put it in to that environment, you’re going to get a spread, especially when for us, we’ve had so few numbers. I think there’s a lot of people out there that have had these large numbers of guys already have it, so you’re not seeing a spread anymore because they’ve already had it. We’ve had so few numbers that have had it that it was able to spread throughout the team where a lot of other teams, my understanding of the league, we’re still on the low number, I think, of total positives with people.”

Florida only has two true road games left, and the next one is nearly a month away. They’ll use that time to study their traveling procedures and see if there’s anything they can do to decrease the chances of another outbreak.

“We have some time to make sure we try to organize some things and look at some different options for that moving forward,” Mullen said.

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