FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
This marks the eleventh off-season in which Inside the Gators has interviewed an anonymous departing player in order for him to share his thoughts on an array of topics regarding Florida Gators football.
In the past we have conducted these far-reaching interviews in late summer, however, two years ago we began them in the spring. That set-up seemed to work best, so that's how we'll do it again in 2022.
Over the next couple of weeks, and then months, we'll be conducting shorter interviews with a couple of anonymous players in order to give our readers a better understanding of what happened last season, what is currently going on, and some players they should be on the lookout for this spring.
As an aside, allowing a player to comment anonymously obviously has its benefits and downside. The goal of this feature is to give our readers an honest and freely expressive look at the Florida football team, but we also acknowledge the nature of anonymous comments and the stigma that can come with them.
Obviously, the 2020 season was like none we have ever experienced before. Talk about what it was like to forego the normal off-season schedule, including time with Nick Savage and staff, and how you think that impacted the season.
To me, it impacted us a lot, but we didn't go through anything that everyone else didn't go through. Our guys were home for two months without an SEC-level weight room and off-season. Some teams did, but we didn’t get spring ball, which is a big-time learning and development period for us. The staff did a really good job coming back for the summer to get us up to speed and getting back into the routine, which was challenging for everyone.
That year, during camp, it was a time of the BLM movement. How did that impact the team? How did it impact the players and coaches?
It affected everyone in all types of different ways. There was a big issue at hand and we had many team meetings and Gator Life’s that VB [Vernell Brown] would set up to really talk about the issue, which helped everyone learned a lot about how each of us has come up under different circumstances and see things from a different perspective but it didn't mean that I was right and you were wrong. It helped us grow and get to know a lot of our teammates to see how we all came from different backgrounds.
There was the issue where Mullen wanted to scrimmage but some players wanted to go to a BLM rally. Take us back how all of that transpired.
How it started out, I don't put that all on our coaches because it was not well organized by the players to make it a total team event. At first, there were no real ring leaders, it kind of went by position group. To be honest, because we were coming back from being separated by months because of Covid, we weren’t really as close as a team as we were the first two years. It started to become more where it was kind of cliquey where you hung out by position group, so whoever kind of led your group, you followed.
We had some players that tried to go around Mullen to make it seem like the players decided to march and Mullen and the coaches were against it. It was a rough start because it was our first scrimmage that fall and everything was just all over the place. It isn't like this was planned all week and Mullen and the coaches pushed back against us going, so I don’t really blame Coach Mullen for that because no one knew at first except for some of the guys who were organizing it, and then it eventually spread to the whole team an hour before we were going to go to our position meetings. Then after the march, we went to the team room and some guys still didn’t want to scrimmage and just left. I think some of the players were definitely unhappy with Mullen, but that eventually got smoothed over during the rest of camp. You could see though that what happened started to build a divide. As a player, by the way he handled that you could see that the most important thing for Mullen was getting in a scrimmage. That helps protect his high-paying job. On his side, I think he could see that players were becoming more empowered and that was changing how much power he had as a head coach.
Regardless of what happened during the preseason, other than the close loss to Texas A&M, the season got off to a strong start, including Florida finally being able to get the Georgia monkey off of its back. What was the mindset of the team entering that game and what was it like to finally win one against one of the Gators' biggest rivals?
It felt amazing and really showed that we were really going to be in the running that year to be one of the top teams. Beating those guys was a great feeling and felt like after we beat them that we could run the table. After that game was probably the team highlight for the last two years, or maybe even over all four years of Mullen. Everything else that happened was forgotten. We were on top of the world, we all had total trust in each other and the coaches. It felt like we had arrived.
Then, of course, to lose to LSU the way the team did, with them down so many players and then Marco Wilson throwing the shoe. What were your own personal feelings about the shoe throw and how did the team handle it?
That’s how it works. Wins hide team issues but losses bring them back out. Honestly, that brought back a lot of what was wrong with the program that was covered up because we were winning. Marco is a tremendous athlete and player. [CJ] Henderson got the headlines, but Marco was the better player and we all knew it, but he definitely knew it and had an ego. He did mostly everything right but since he was our best player he would get away with stuff and never really be held accountable. After that game, there was a mix of emotions. From guys crying because of the last game in the Swamp and then there were other guys who were just not being able to look at Marco without being mad.
The three-game losing streak to end the season. What was the feeling like during that time?
After the Alabama game guys checked out. I felt like even after we lost to LSU, heading into that game we felt like we could really upset Alabama and change this season but the feelings from the LSU game really hung over our head. In football, you have to trust everyone else. You have to trust that the coaches are going to have the right play called and that everyone is going to do their job. When you lose that trust you start seeing everyone play their own game and it all breaks down. I felt like we fought hard and obviously were close to winning, but something still felt off heading into the Alabama game.
What are your thoughts and your take on the feeling around the team over the Cotton Bowl opt-outs?
I think some guys were smart in doing it because they didn't have anything to prove so why risk it? But some of them really needed to play it. I don’t think any different of the guys who opted out, but I think that they could have asked themselves if they are getting let down a guy like [Kyle] Trask who hung in there. [Kyle] Pitts didn't have anything to prove to help his NFL stock, but he could have played it and helped Trask improve his [stock] considering how much Trask helped him all season. I don't know, that's the way I look at it but heading into that game a lot of guys and coaches were already checked out mentally, so it didn’t surprise me
What were your thoughts on how Mullen came out and said that he was treating it as a scrimmage? He wanted to get young players in. That the last real game of the 2020 team was the SEC Championship Game?
That was a terrible attitude and honestly, it was disrespectful to the seniors that did play. Yeah, it's great to have young guys play and I’m all for that but the seniors that stayed to play that game to be called a scrimmage to me is just disrespectful and there were already some hard feelings about the way he handled some things before and during the season and the way he handled that game started to bring up some of that bad feelings from before the season started. He planted those seeds in the minds of some of the guys back in camp and those were coming back and he was starting to lose respect from some of the guys.
After all the drama surrounding the 2020 season, from Covid-19, to BLM to the three-game losing streak to end the 2020 year, what was the mood like entering offseason workouts?
It was exciting. It didn't feel like there was any hangover because after everything we all went through, things were getting back to normal and it felt good to be back in our normal weight room and meeting rooms and being able to be around the guys again without all the restrictions.
Did it feel like things were getting back to 18-19 form, or were there some lingering effects?
Honestly once the weekly testing was done and we really didn’t have to wear masks in our facilities the football part of it started to feel pretty normal. Really, just being able to leave the house was enough to make it feel like we were back to normal, but being able to get back to our football routines amped everything up a couple of notches. It was like all was right with the world again.
Going back to this past spring, who were some of the players who stood out during mat and conditioning drills? Did anyone just 'wow' you or emerge as a leader?
Kingsley [Eguakun] and Trent [Whittemore] really killed the off-season in my opinion. They always had a high motor and impressed me with the things they did in the competitive drills. The leaders were definitely DP [Dameon Pierce] and [Mohamoud] Diabate. They did the best job of keeping us motivated and focused.
Florida started out with relatively easy wins over FAU and USF before losing to Alabama by two points. What was the feeling like after that close loss (the second one in four games) to one of the most dominant programs in college football?
It was disappointing because we were so close to finishing the job. We knew we let the Gator Nation down because no one was satisfied with coming close. I wanted to win and possibly see the fans storm the Swamp after knocking off the number one team in the nation.
What was Mullen's message to the team after the loss?
He talked about how we are close and how we are closing the gap. Honestly, it didn’t bode well with most of the players because that was the message after we lost to them in the [SEC] Championship the last year. I know he wanted to point out the positive, but it didn't feel positive because it was more of the same.
Then came a big win over Tennessee, before the bottom began to fall out with the big loss to Kentucky and the close loss to LSU (who was down over a dozen players). What was the team mood after those games?
We felt defeated. Two years in a row we should have beat them but we didn't. It was frustrating to say the least. You could feel it, a lot of guys checked out mentally after that game. The coaches can say whatever they want to you about there still being goals to play for, but a lot of guys thought the season was over after that.
Could you feel like things were starting to come undone?
I think after we lost to Kentucky. We were so much more talented and athletic than they were. Losing to them at their place and having the fans storm the field felt like the beginning of the end.
Florida is going toe to toe with No. 1 Georgia until two minutes remained in the first half. Have you ever seen a game turn in such a short amount of time? What was the team attitude after that blowout?
I don’t think I have but it didn’t surprise me. That Georgia team is good enough to where if you give them the momentum, they will crush you. We gave them way too much and they took full advantage. After that game, again, we were just kind of going through the motions week to week.
At what point did it start to feel like this Florida team just didn't have it?
I think the Kentucky game. We are way more talented and have better athletes. When we lost to them it showed that we had a major problem. After that game, if you ask me that's when Mullen checked out. He had already started to undo some of the rules and standards from the first two years and then this year, if you were a starter or really even if you played, he didn’t hold you accountable, so we all checked out it seemed like.
What do you mean by that? What are some of the things he said or did differently? What are some examples of him not holding anyone accountable after that?
Just his attitude in the building and when you see him. He kind of seemed more reserved and to himself than usual. And an example of not holding anyone accountable would just be guys missing meetings and not being punished at all. They’d get talked to, but that’s really it. The first two years, if you missed a meeting or were late or missed classes, things like that, you either had to get up and go through conditioning with [Nick] Savage early in the morning before regular workouts or during the season you had to stay after practices. They started to let that slip in 2020 and then last year, they gave up even trying. [defensive back] saw they weren't going to do anything so he came and went as he pleased and still played.
When did you or the team really start to feel like Mullen wouldn't survive?
After South Carolina. Losing to them like that was embarrassing. Even as a player, I didn’t understand how that happened, but I definitely felt it coming though because you could tell by the way we looked in practice and in our attitude that no one really cared from the top down. To me it started during camp last year  when you could feel Mullen getting more distant. To me, he'd been a college coach all of these how many years? It's his way or the highway and now players get NIL money and can leave without any penalties. It probably felt like he lost his power and didn't want to deal with the way college football is today. That's why I don't think he wants to be a college head coach.
Then after that game [South Carolina], I saw a meeting between Mullen and [Scott] Strickland when everyone was heading into the lockerroom. Mullen and Strickland and I guess they were boosters waited outside and talked. Stricklin looked pissed. I didn’t hear what they were saying but you could tell by the body language that but it didn’t look like a good conversation and he was fired in like two weeks.
How was the news of his dismissal handled by the players? I didn't get the sense of a player revolt.
I don’t know of anyone who was hurt that Mullen was gone. He didn't have that kind of relationship with players. It was more business-related. He needed us and we needed him on the football side of it, but I don't know that he has the personality to be really close with players. The ones that were upset it was because they knew that their position coach was most likely going to be gone and the same with strength staff. That coaching change usually comes with head coaches being fired. Other than losing the coaches we loved, I think most of us knew it had to be done.
Mullen took some heat from a segment of the fanbase for how he changed from his first two to his last two years – have your feelings of him as a coach changed at all over the last two years?
From parts of last season  to this past year, he just didn’t seem genuine. It was like a light switch was flipped off. It was really disappointing because when I first met him I was pumped to play for him and it was incredible the first two years, but the last two years he didn’t match the same guy you get day in and day out from the first two years. The energy, the commitment to the programs, and the standard he preached weren’t the same the last two years as it was the first two years.
What was your initial impression of Billy Napier?
I didn't really get to know him that much because I saw him once, but he came off really calm mannered, but strict. He has a certain tone to him that he means business and really can see a future insight. It’s still early, so I hope he stays this way.
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Up Tuesday is Part II of the first player Q&A. Check back with Inside the Gators over the next several weeks and months as we continue our in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the Florida football squad.