With a delayed start to camp, and restricted means of practice for the upcoming season, the Gators, and the rest of the SEC, could find themselves in a tough position in regards to tackling and physicality this season, which would be a stunning turn for what is typically the most physical conference in all of college football.
The Gators enter the year graded as the fifth-worst tackling unit in 2019 within the SEC, according to Pro Football Focus with a grade of 66.0 and with 137 missed tackles on the year, ahead of Mississippi State (51.0), Vanderbilt (59.8), Texas A&M (63.2) and Ole Miss (63.7).
Florida's 137 missed tackles, according to PFF, was tied for third-worst in the conference with Vanderbilt. Only Ole Miss (141) and Mississippi State (154) had more, with Missouri (100), Georgia (101), Auburn (102), Alabama (107), Tennessee (111), South Carolina (115), Kentucky (122), Texas A&M (124), LSU (131) and Arkansas (132) shaping out the rest of the SEC.
With less preparation than ever, it wouldn't be a surprise if Florida, and the SEC, suffered even more from a lack of tackling, or physicality to begin the season and Gators head coach Dan Mullen agrees there is an argument to be made it could be tough to start.
Obviously, in this league, it’s a very physical league," Mullen said when asked about the physicality in the SEC this season. "We have really talented players, especially on both sides of the line of scrimmage up front. And there’s a lot of physicality. Not just up front, but everywhere in the SEC. That’s a good argument that you could make. We’re going to find out right now.
"You’ve got to understand, we have missed a lot. You can say, ‘Hey, we’ve had some walkthroughs, we’ve had teaching opportunities, we’ve had Zoom opportunities. In the spring, usually we have three full scrimmages. And you make those."
The Gators have not had the opportunities afforded to them in order to be adequately prepared for the season from a physical standpoint, but that shouldn't come as a surprise - no one in the SEC will be, not with the rules and regulations placed upon the league.
During the scrimmage on Saturday, Mullen indicated he liked the team's preparation in so far as knowing the plays, understanding what is expected of them, however, the team struggled in two key areas - tackling and ball security -, but likely result of the lack of playing time the team has had to conduct thud practices and live hitting drills.
"We have a ways to go," said Mullen. "Not a ways to go with our attitude, not a ways to go with understanding the scheme. I think it was a big deal. We haven't played football in a while. So, yes when you talk about the operation, and not the operation of, 'Hey, are we doing this or that?' but we had missed tackles, we had too many balls on the ground fumbling because you're going live football. I was pleased with some groups more than others."
The Gators are also forced into a situation where many of the players returning will be young. A defensive line that has a few core veterans will be backed up by largely young players at positions of power. In terms of a unit that needs to adapt quickly, the Florida defense will be front and center.
Changes will come, and the preparation will surely reach a point in which Mullen and the rest of the Gators coaching staff are satisfied with the result, but it make take a little while, perhaps even into the season.
While Mullen does want the team to reach the standards expected of them, he's concerned primarily with injuries and the overall health of his program. Simply adding a bunch of live-hitting practices could do the team a disservice, more so than playing a little sloppy out of the gate.
"I’m a huge player safety guy," Mullen said. "We’re sitting there making sure we’re keeping everybody safe. I can’t sit there right now and say we’ve missed a lot of this physicality so we’re just going to go smash everybody every single day. That’s not what we’re looking for with the health of the players. All of the things that have happened, and the restrictions, there could be some truth to that. We could find out.”