Notebook: A special senior class readies for Swamp sendoff

Dec 8, 2020 | 0 comments

Florida’s 2020 senior class isn’t the most accomplished class the school has ever seen, but it is one of the most inspiring classes in program history.

Their careers have been a rollercoaster ride, and not one of those kiddie coasters, either. More like a ginormous steel rollercoaster in the dark with multiple inversions and changes of direction.

As freshmen in 2017, they experienced a 4-7 season and the collapse of the Jim McElwain era. As sophomores, they successfully adapted to a new coaching staff and experienced a 10-win season and a Peach Bowl victory. In 2019, they watched their battle-tested quarterback suffer a gruesome leg injury, only to be replaced by one of the best quarterbacks in school history. They suffered the anguish of losing three consecutive games to Georgia and endured all of the criticism that comes with that.

As seniors, they’ve finally accomplished what they thought they had signed up for as high school prospects in 2016 or 2017. They’ve pounded the Bulldogs, won the SEC East, and positioned themselves for a run at the program’s first berth in the College Football Playoff.

How will the group of 23 be remembered as they prepare for their Senior Night in the Swamp against LSU on Saturday?

“I just think the seniors will really be remembered for just being like a tough, hard-working class,” quarterback Kyle Trask said. “We've been through some ups and downs. Obviously, we had that 4-7 year. Then we had a lot of leaders, and we bounced back to finish off the back end of our career here in college very successfully.”

Because of the NCAA’s decision to not count this season against players’ eligibility, Trask and the rest of the seniors could hypothetically come back next year. Trask figures to almost certainly be gone after this season. He already has his degree, and his draft stock can’t get much better. Trask wouldn’t commit to leaving just yet, but his comments on what Senior Night will be like certainly indicate which way he’s leaning.

“It hasn't really hit me yet, but I'm sure it will be [emotional] because it's been a crazy journey here,” he said. “I’ve made so many great friends, so many great memories. So, like I say, it hasn't hit me yet. We're just focused on getting the W. It’s definitely going to be a crazy feeling coming into that Swamp for the last time.”

Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said Trask has been a joy to coach and a pleasure to watch the past two seasons.

“I can’t say enough about Kyle Trask,” he said. “He’s been everything you could ask for that you want to coach in terms of, obviously, his performance and just who he is as a person, how he prepares, the standard that he sets for himself, how hard he practices, how hard he works, how he takes cares of his business. It’s been really rewarding to watch him go out and have a ton of success as a senior.”

Dan Mullen said the senior class played a pivotal role in the rebuilding of the program. Most of them didn’t choose to play for the current coaches, so it would’ve been very easy for them to resist change or look to play somewhere else. Instead, they bought into a new way of doing things and have put the program on stable footing, with championships possibly on the horizon.

“I think the success we've had over the last three years has shown their buy-in,” Mullen said. “We came in, we said, ‘Hey, if you buy-in and believe in what we're doing, we're going to have the opportunity to compete for championships,’ and I'm sure most of them are very thankful they bought-in. They believe in what we're trying to do, and here they are their senior year, getting to go compete for a championship.”

Left tackle Stone Forsythe credited the coaches for making the transition as smooth as possible and fostering a positive environment for the players to buy-in to a wholesale change.

“I definitely see it as kind of an attitude or buy-in difference,” Forsythe said. “[McElwain] was a great coach, and he was a great players’ coach, but just here [under Mullen], it's kind of like a job, basically. It's kind of that environment, and Mullen's done a great job.”

More efficiency wanted on offense

The Gators’ offense hasn’t played poorly the past three weeks. They’ve averaged more than 34 points and 485 yards per game. Still, those numbers are down from the 511.7 yards and 45.8 points they averaged in their first six games.

The biggest reason for that drop-off is consistency. They’ve only been good on offense in spurts. In their most recent outing against Tennessee, they scored on their first possession of the game, their last possession of the first half, and their first possession of the second half. Their other nine drives produced just 14 points. They’re scoring enough points in pivotal situations to keep games from being competitive but not scoring enough points overall to make anyone feel overly happy when the game is over.

Between missed throws, penalties, and a missed field goal, they left 24 points out on the field against the Volunteers. On Monday, Mullen pointed out that they had three possessions that began on Tennessee’s side of the field. They failed to score on any of them. Their goal each week is to score 100 percent of the time in those situations.

“We got to find a way to be better in those situations and really blow up the game when we have the opportunity to do that,” Johnson said.

“I think it was just a combination of things. Maybe we got a little bit too greedy trying to get it all at once and taking back-to-back shots that were incomplete. Drop a ball, miss a block, get a penalty, just things that kill normal drives throughout the course of the game, but it just becomes magnified when you’re in scoring position and you do those things to hurt yourself. So, we have to be much cleaner at that and put our team in a better position to go execute at a high level when we get field position.”

As Florida prepares for its battle with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game in two weeks where every point will be critical, Mullen will be looking for greater efficiency on offense.

“It's lots of different things, whether it be a missed read by the quarterback, a missed check, missed communication at the line of scrimmage, a dropped pass, sometimes great defense,” Mullen said. “Once in a while, there's great defense, too. We forget to give those guys credit whose job it is to stop us. So, I think there's all of that that goes into it. I think we can still continue to get better. I think we can play a lot better than we have.”

Gators not pushing panic button over running game

One thing that might help the Gators become more consistent offensively is a dependable running game. Obviously, when you have a quarterback like Trask and receivers like Kyle Pitts, Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney, you’re going to lean heavily on the aerial attack.

Still, through the first six games of the season, they were able to run the ball just well enough to keep defenses from dropping eight players into coverage and pick up first downs in short-yardage situations. Over the last three games, the run-blocking, particularly on the right side of the offensive line, has deteriorated, culminating in a 19-yard performance against the Volunteers.

While the rushing statistics weren’t there against Tennessee, Forsythe believes they’ve shown that they have the capability of running the ball efficiently. They just need to clean up some small mistakes.

“We know what we're doing,” he said. “We can go out there and pick up the craziest blitz on third downs and stuff like that. So, it's basic stuff on first and second down from the defense here and there. We had a couple of missed blocks at Tennessee, just with different blitzes and stuff we should have picked up. But we know we can run the ball when we need to, so maybe that game is coming down the road, but we can do it.”

While Mullen is disappointed that they only averaged 2 yards per rush against Tennessee even when you remove sacks from the equation, he isn’t overly concerned. He pointed out that they only ran it 14 times if you don’t include the two sacks or the kneel-down. Tennessee’s defense took away their ability to run the ball and forced them to throw it, which they did to the tune of 433 yards.

“I don't think we really tried to run the ball very much,” he said. “So, we can go spend a lot of time, and we can go run the ball. We'll find a way to run the ball and go do it. Probably slow the game down, ball control, grind it out, but that doesn't really fit the strength of our team right now when we have success throwing it and can [create] matchups all over the field that cause problems for people. So, I think it's a lot about what we want to do.

“If we ran the ball 40 times and didn't have many yards, that would probably go into the concern area. The fact that we weren't really trying to run it doesn't really throw it into my concern area.”

Quick Hitters

  •  Brian Johnson says last week was the first time he's interviewed for a head coaching job. He's grateful for the opportunity Mullen has given him and appreciative of how he's allowed him to advance his career. If you do a good job in this profession, people notice and you get opportunities. He's grateful to be a Gator, though.
  • Nay’Quan Wright says the 2018 LSU game was the loudest that he's ever heard the Swamp. Brad Stewart made a huge play, and he couldn't hear the guy next to him in the stands. That win gave the team some confidence and let them know that Florida's back in it.
  •  Kyle Pitts says it surprised him to be named a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff, and it's a great feeling to be considered one of the best pass-catchers in the country.
  • Everything that was said during today’s press conferences can be found on the We Chomp Chat.


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