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Notebook: Gators face a challenge in preparing for Ole Miss

September 21, 2020
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Depending on how you look at it, the No. 5 Gators either have an advantage or an extreme disadvantage by facing Ole Miss in the season-opener.

On one hand, the Rebels will have only gotten 25 practices in with their new coaching staff led by head coach Lane Kiffin.

On the other hand, Kiffin and his staff have two years’ worth of film to watch of the Gators under Dan Mullen, while the Gators will have to piece together film from Ole Miss last season as well as film from their coaches’ previous stops.

“You’re kind of trying to mix and match what they’re going to do offensively, what they’re going to do defensively, what they’re going to do special teams-wise,” Mullen said. “Watching all these different other teams from where people have been in the past, and then you’re trying to watch their personnel, it’s always tricky.”

While the Rebels’ schemes remain a mystery, Mullen knows that they have talented players on both sides of the ball that will challenge his team.

“They’ve got two really talented quarterbacks, great talent at running back, some guys on the edge, O-Line has some guys kind of back up front,” he said. “Defensively, inside linebacker has a lot of experience and guys that can come off the edge and rush the passer and guys that have played in the secondary.”

Adding to the challenge is the uncertain environment that awaits in Oxford, Mississippi. Ole Miss is allowing around 16,000 fans at the game, which is 25 percent of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium’s capacity. UF redshirt senior quarterback Kyle Trask said their approach to the game will be the same no matter how quiet or weird it feels inside the stadium.

“I think they’ve got a lot of very talented and athletic guys,” he said. “I know that they’re going to be playing with a lot of passion, especially with new coaches in the building, and, as far as our standpoint, whether there’s zero fans or how many thousand fans there is, we’re going to always bring our own juice and be ready to play.”

Injury report

Mullen provided his first in-depth injury update since fall practices began in mid-August. The Gators enter their first game in pretty good shape but will be without a key player.

Sophomore offensive lineman Ethan White, who Mullen said would’ve started at guard or center, had a knee surgery and will be out for the game. He is expected back shortly, though.

Freshman defensive back Fenley Graham, who was expected to contribute on special teams, will be out with a broken arm. Freshman defensive tackle Lamar Goods will miss the game with a strained foot. Freshman cornerback Ethan Pouncey will be out for the season following a hip surgery he had over the weekend. Walk-ons Joshua Tse and Nicolas Sutton will also be out with injuries.

The Gators may also be without several other players due to positive COVID-19 tests or contact tracing. As of last Tuesday, UF had seven positive tests this month. Mullen declined to get into the specifics of who might miss the game but admitted that the possibility of losing players makes him nervous.

“You could sit here and on Thursday afternoon say, ‘Hey these 10 guys can’t play,’” he said. “You kind of have your whole game plan done, your depth chart done. Right now, as it's set up, I could be getting ready to walk on the plane and they could say, 'Hey, these 10 guys can't get on the plane,' and you've got to do a whole new game plan Friday night. That makes me pretty anxious.”

Reports surfaced a couple of weeks ago that an assistant coach had tested positive for the virus. Mullen said that ended up being a false positive. That coach tested negative over the following three days and returned to work.

Replacing White

White had reportedly been practicing with the first team at center prior to sustaining his knee injury in a scrimmage. Without him, redshirt senior Brett Heggie is listed as the first-team center on the depth chart released by UF on Monday.

Mullen said the loss of White will hurt their depth a little bit. Normally, they like to enter a game with eight players that they feel comfortable with upfront. Without him, somebody who otherwise might not have played will be expected to slide into the rotation. Mullen likes the players he has to work with, however. “We have some good young players,” he said. “I do think we have some really good young players, but you want to always give them time to grow on the offensive line. It really, I think, hurts the depth a little bit more.”

The Gators are disappointed for White but are confident that they have the depth to overcome the loss of him.

“It’s one of the closest groups on the team, and I know they’re going to be dialed-in on Saturday,” Trask said. “I think the main thing they’ve improved on is just consistency, getting that push and making a new line of scrimmage, and I see they’ve done a great job, and they’ll be ready to go.”

Mullen said they will use different combinations to get their best five linemen on the field this season instead of getting hung-up on specific positions. They will move guys around as needed.

Gators look to slow down Rebels’ one-two punch at quarterback

As of Monday afternoon, the Rebels’ quarterback competition between sophomore John Rhys Plumlee and redshirt sophomore Matt Corral remained unsettled.

Corral was a top-100 prospect who was committed to Florida for almost five months under Jim McElwain before decommitting after McElwain was fired. He’s more of the prototypical pocket passer and is rumored to be leading the competition.

“He’s a good quarterback, has a live arm, can make a lot of different throws, deceptively athletic in that, for kind of a guy that is credited to be a passer, he’s pretty athletic and can extend plays, make things happen out there on the field,” Mullen said.

Plumlee, meanwhile, completed less than 53 percent of his throws in his eight starts last season but is perhaps the nation’s best running quarterback. He ran for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards per carry along the way. He’s so fast that he also plays center field for Ole Miss’ baseball team.

“We just have to make sure that we contain him,” redshirt junior cornerback Marco Wilson said. “We’re well aware that he can run. The guy is fast. We’ve got to make sure we keep an eye on that. Don’t get lazy in our techniques upfront and make sure we hone-in on that.”

Mullen offered Plumlee at Mississippi State as a cornerback after his freshman year of high school, so he is very familiar with the problems Plumlee can create with his legs.

“He has elite, elite, elite speed and is a game-breaker,” he said. “He can break a game open at any time.

“I don’t know that we have anybody as fast he is."

The Gators struggled with tackling in their two scrimmages this fall, according to Mullen, so getting Plumlee and/or Corral to the ground will be priority number one for them on Saturday.

“It’s going to be kind of that strain to play all the way to whistle on every snap,” Mullen said. “Don’t just assume. A lot of at practice, you thud, the whistle blows, ‘Hey, I had him. Hey, that would have been sack.’ We can’t assume those things. We have to get 11 guys running to the ball as hard as we can every snap.”

High expectations not phasing Gators

Florida is the trendy pick to win the SEC East this season and possibly earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. With a veteran team, talent across the board and coaching continuity, their fans expect big things out of them in 2020.

"There's definitely a lot of expectations, but the coaches do a great job of just helping us focus on the right things,” Wilson said. “Coach Mullen is always helping us focus on being a champion and winning. And really, everything in everybody's mind is focusing on winning and doing everything we need to help the team out."

Mullen said he always sets high expectations for the program, and nothing changes just because outsiders think they’re good now.

“I have extremely high expectations of everybody,” he said. “I always have. That’s just me as a coach. I want us to be the absolute best we can be every single day. I want us to compete for championships on a yearly basis. If that causes our fans to think we’re better than we are, then it does. I’m not going to lower my expectation level to make it easier for our fan base to accept where we are. My expectations are probably going to be higher than our fan base’s.”

While fans look at scores and the win-loss record as determiners of success, Mullen said his expectations are more on a play-to-play, execution basis.

As the quarterback of a team that is regarded as one of the best in the country, a lot is expected out of Trask in his first full season as the starter. However, he doesn’t plan to do anything differently this year. “I don’t really put that added pressure on myself,” Trask said. “I just go into this game like I went into any other game last season - that is to prepare to the best of my ability and try to be victorious on Saturday. I don’t read a whole lot on social media and get into things like that. I just worry about what is going on in this building and just doing the best that I can to make sure we have the best chance of winning.”

Notebook: Gators face a challenge in preparing for Ole Miss

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