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Florida Gators Mailbag: Is Dan Mullen on the Hot Seat?

Answering your pressing questions regarding the Florida Gators in a bye week mailbag.

Photo: Dan Mullen; Credit: Alex Shepherd

The Florida Gators' 2021 season has fallen off the rails following three losses in their first seven games and upsets to unranked teams in two of their last three games.

Florida fans are frustrated, naturally. Many are asking what's in store for the future of the program under head coach Dan Mullen, and rightfully so. 

Those questions have led us to an AllGators mailbag. We've collected nearly a dozen Gators-related questions, submitted to our reporters over social media, and provided answers for each question below, touching on a wide range of topics. 

From @pabstisking: Is Dan Mullen really on the hot seat? How do you see this ending if we lose another game this year? 4-6 in your last 10 isn’t good by any standard…

His seat is warming up, but I'll get straight to the point: I think Dan Mullen will be Florida's head coach in 2022.

Mullen signed an extension this past offseason that bumps his salary up to $7.6 million a year next season and keeps him under contract through the 2026 season. Mullen's reported buyout from that deal is $12 million, which is in Florida's favor and is worth less than Jim McElwain's original buyout before it was negotiated from $12.9 to $7.5 million, but it remains a cost the University Athletic Association would not like to absorb less than a year after giving Mullen a vote of confidence.

Now, confidence in Mullen could be totally shot with another upset loss (I’m not sure a loss to No. 1 Georgia would move the needle much at this point), such as to South Carolina or Missouri on the road or Florida State at home. But even in that case, I still wouldn't bet on Mullen getting fired without cause specifically because of his extension. 

Let's revisit this question next year if little-to-no progress has been made.

Dan Mullen

Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen

From @fdr_stan: At what point is it in his best interest for Anthony Richardson to explore other options and programs?

Not yet, and I'm not sure it would be in his best interest to enter the portal anytime soon. It's obvious now that Richardson is deserving of the starting quarterback role and I can't imagine Mullen will wait much longer to make the change.

On top of the increased playing time that will come his way, Richardson is from Gainesville and grew up watching the Gators. He's the first quarterback since Tim Tebow to wear No. 15 for UF and he understands how big of an honor that is. 

Richardson has the unique opportunity to lead his hometown team to potential greatness in the near future, and I don't think he wants to pass that up until he absolutely has to for the sake of his football career.

From @mistochristopho: Would the team start to turn on Mullen if he goes back to Emory Jones for the next game?

That's hard to predict because the team is extremely supportive of Jones, but I would imagine players know that Richardson gives Florida its best chance to win games. And beyond their future NFL Draft stock, the most important thing to college football players is winning games. 

I think if Jones were to start and disappoint once again, a lot of players would lose trust in Mullen's decision-making and demand he rebuild that trust when the team starts anew next season. It wouldn’t be a total shock to see frustrated players enter the transfer portal in this day and age, though.

From @Smith_Justin_L2: Considering recruiting and potential transfers, what is better for the overall trajectory of the program: Fire Grantham now in-season, or fire Grantham after the regular season and maybe after early signing day?

Recruits and their families saw the same thing against LSU that everyone else did: A fireable coaching effort by Todd Grantham. Assuming these recruits are doing the necessary research to choose a school, they're probably thinking the same thing you are: Grantham won't be back next season and Florida's defense will get a fresh start.

Odds are, Mullen wouldn't hire a defensive coordinator before the season is over, or at the earliest very shortly beforehand. As the early signing period falls in mid-December, a hire in that timeframe would probably not make much of a difference from a recruiting perspective.

Grantham's contract with Florida expires after this season, and I can't see UF's athletic administration creating tension publicly with Mullen after he said on Saturday that he doesn't like to fire coaches midseason. I think the Gators will have a new defensive coordinator in 2022, and if that comes to fruition, it probably becomes official upon Grantham's contract meeting its end.

From @jszabo5: IF Todd Grantham was to be let go, who do you believe the candidates are for the new hire?

Three names immediately come to mind, for me at least: Kevin Steele - arguably the top candidate on the market -, Indianapolis Colts defensive line coach Brian Baker, and Miami head coach Manny Diaz if he's fired after this season or before its conclusion.

Steele is currently out of the coaching ranks following his departure from Auburn, a product of Gus Malzahn's removal as head coach, and a very short stint as Tennessee's interim head coach before Josh Heupel was hired. Other than three seasons at Clemson from 2009-11, Steele has been an SEC defensive coordinator, position coach, associate head coach and/or director of player personnel since 2007, primarily at Alabama, LSU, and Auburn.

Steele is considered to be an ace recruiter, playing a part in his school landing nine top-100 recruits in his career according to 247Sports. He has a history of recruiting the southeast well, particularly in the state of Florida. And as required, Steele coaches a great defense, as his unit ranked top-20 nationally in scoring in four of his five seasons at Auburn.

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Baker coached alongside Mullen for two years at Mississippi State from 2016-17. Baker offers almost 40 years of coaching experience including 21 years in the NFL and four in the SEC, although he only has one year of coordinator experience (Georgia Tech, 1995) as well as a season of associate head coach experience (Alabama, 2019). Indianapolis ranks in the middle of the pack in defensive stats this year but owned the league's No. 2 run defense, No. 8 total defense and No. 9 in scoring defense in 2020, thanks in large part to Baker's defensive line.

Diaz, whose seat is significantly hotter than Mullen's right now as Miami sits at 2-4 (16-14 since Diaz’s hiring), is a well-respected defensive-minded coach and served as Mullen's defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2010 and again in 2015. In his first stint, Diaz turned one of the SEC's worst defenses in scoring into one of the top three in the conference. The unit underperformed in Diaz’s second Starkville stop, but the Bulldogs owned the nation's No. 9 red zone defense that year.

Steele would be the flashiest hire of the bunch, but Baker and Diaz's relationships with Mullen and previous successes make them capable candidates as well. However, you also have to consider big-name candidates looking elsewhere if the outside perspective is that Mullen's on a short leash.

From @gator_atl: Why did the Gators go from a top-five rushing team to airing it out across the yard at LSU? And is Tyrion Davis-Price still running somewhere in Baton Rouge?

Florida went run-heavy on two of its first three drives (five runs compared to one pass) and the result of those possessions were three-and-outs. It didn't take long for LSU to take a lead and by the middle of the second quarter, that lead had grown to two touchdowns. The Gators had to abandon the run as such and it made sense as LSU had held UF to an uncharacteristic 29 rushing yards on ten attempts at that point.

Davis-Price set a record for the most rushing yards by an individual player against Florida in Gators history. He might not physically be running right now but he'll be running through the minds of Florida fans and UF's defensive coaches for a long, long time.

LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price runs past Florida safety Trey Dean III

LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price runs past Florida safety Trey Dean III

From @mawg8trs: Why are the Gators so bad at creating turnovers?

Your guess is as good as mine. Florida is averaging less than one turnover per game this year (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries), and its turnover margin of negative seven ranks No. 121 in the nation. Mullen has specifically pointed to the turnover margin as a reason why Florida lost to LSU and Alabama this year.

If cornerback Kaiir Elam didn't miss three games this season, ones in which quarterbacks threw the ball a combined 93 times, perhaps the interception count would be higher. The same could be said if cornerbacks Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr. had more experience under their belt. And if Florida didn't struggle with tackling as much as it does, maybe some hard hits would result in more fumbles. But it's hard to attribute a lack of turnovers to one specific factor.

From @gus_logue: Do you expect Jadarrius Perkins to start at STAR at some point or will Tre'vez Johnson hold on to the job despite them rotating recently?

Perkins' usage has been weird this season, to say the least. Days after Grantham considered Perkins' addition to Florida's defense "unbelievable," the cornerback logged a mere two snaps against Alabama and combined for 22 more snaps in his next two games. 

Other than the Vanderbilt game, Perkins has been sound in coverage this season and has made some big hits, although he's struggled with completing tackes in Florida's past three games. 

Johnson, meanwhile, has been inconsistent as the Gators' starting STAR. He's had his share of big plays against the run and pass, but it seems like he's had equally as many blown coverages and missed tackles as well. He was also ejected for targeting in the first half against Vanderbilt.

Perkins saw his highest number of snaps this season against LSU, and should be rewarded more moving forward. At the very least, he should be in over Johnson on coverage downs.

From @1k_Jeff: Does Florida score double digits against UGA? I say no.

I say yes. Mullen has yet to post a single-digit outing offensively against Georgia during his time as Florida's head coach and, although his teams never stood a chance against UGA, Mullen's inferior Mississippi State offenses scored in the double-digits two out of three times when facing the Bulldogs.

Yes, Georgia is allowing a mere 6.6 yards per game. Yes, Georgia is giving up an SEC-best 62.3 rushing yards per game - which will combat the strongest aspect of Florida's offense, the ground attack. In fairness, UGA has not faced a run game as strong as UF's this season. 

But so long as Richardson takes over at quarterback, which I'd expect, I imagine Florida will find a way to create some explosive plays that will lead to a couple of scores.

From @IrishJaguar: Which underperforming Gator will the Jaguars draft next April?

The Gainesville-to-Jacksonville pipeline has been active as of late, as the Jaguars have selected four Gators in the NFL Draft since 2015 and hired former UF head coach Urban Meyer to the same position earlier this year. All four of those draft selections have been a disappointment, and two first-round picks (Dante Fowler Jr. and C.J. Henderson) were traded away before the end of their rookie deals.

Although Meyer didn't pick a Gator in his first draft, he's bound to sooner rather than later, isn't he? At least, so long as he sticks in Jacksonville for a second NFL Draft - with a 1-5 record in his first six games and the viral videos among other mishaps, that isn't exactly a total guarantee.

If the Jaguars are to dip back into the Gators' talent pool this spring, keep an eye on cornerback Kaiir Elam and defensive lineman Zachary Carter. Those are positions of need for Jacksonville and both players are high-quality prospects, Elam being projected as a first-round pick while Carter is in the middle of a breakout season in which he ranks third in the SEC in sacks.

From @BuenosDias99: When will the pain go away?

Existence is pain, my friend.

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