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Florida vs. Georgia, Sunday Rundown: Gators played their “worst,” per Dan Mullen

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Florida’s “worst” game of the year leaves questions in its wake.

Florida v Georgia Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Dan Mullen: “I don’t think we played very well at all”

The “worst” from the headline is part of a qualified quote — “might have been our worst execution performance of the year” — but the overarching sentiment of Mullen’s postgame press conference following his Florida Gators’ 36-17 loss to Georgia on Saturday was disappointment in a lack of execution that seemed to me to be tempered by taking heart in the effort on display. “There are a lot of things in this game that showed that we can be an excellent football team,” he also said, at one juncture, though he did advise that “There is no moral victory in anything” at another.

And that idea that Florida played its worst game and lost as a result seems basically right to me: To my eye, Florida didn’t want Saturday’s game any less than Georgia, and didn’t give any less effort, but the Gators made critical mistakes at pivotal moments — three turnovers to Georgia’s zero, four touchdowns conceded on third downs, and a missed deep shot on its first offensive snap — at pivotal moments, and Georgia just didn’t.

So Georgia won, and Florida lost. So be it.

CJ Henderson’s lower back injury not “structural”

Florida cornerback CJ Henderson went down with an injury on the second defensive series of the day and did not return after spending much of the first half getting diagnosed and treated on the sideline. But it seems possible that he’ll be available going forward, with Mullen telling reporters that Henderson’s injury was not “structural,” and implying that he’ll need more testing to be sure of his status.

Henderson being out for any extended length of time would obviously be as severe a blow as an injury to Florida outside of one to Feleipe Franks could be: He has been Florida’s best cornerback by far this year, and has been especially important because of the season-ending ACL tear Marco Wilson suffered earlier this year, which robbed the Gators of their other fantastic sophomore corner.

Florida turned to C.J. McWilliams and Trey Dean at its outside corner roles on Saturday, and while Dean played fairly well, McWilliams — as has been the case for much of the year — was targeted and exploited by Georgia, most notably on two touchdown passes to Jeremiah Holloman.

Florida might try other players at corner in practice to see if any of them can beat out McWilliams — Florida has used wide receiver Dre Massey and running back Iverson Clement as DBs in practice in an effort to sift through sand for a hidden gem — but if Henderson is out for any length of time, it will expose the Gators’ extreme lack of depth at the position. Besides Dean, Henderson, McWilliams, and Wilson, literally every other player listed as a defensive back on Florida’s roster has more experience at safety or slot corner than outside corner. Barring a surprising showing from an unknown party, any stretch without Henderson will force Florida to try to get more out of McWilliams, hope that Brian Edwards (zero snaps Saturday) can contribute as corner, or make the radical move of shifting Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from his more natural “Star” position of hybrid slot corner and safety to an outside corner role he has rarely played, none of which are enticing prospects.

Obviously, Florida will hope to have Henderson and Wilson, neither of whom are draft-eligible, back and healthy for the 2019 season. But the Gators cannot know that Wilson — now recovering from a second torn ACL in his young athletic career — will be what he was prior to his injury, and it would floor me if coaches were perfectly sanguine about entering 2019 with the same depth they have at corner, so I expect that they will expend a significant amount of effort in recruiting to find corners in the 2019 class who could contribute immediately, and would not be surprised to see Florida take a JUCO corner or two.

Absences of Stewart, Edwards go unexplained

Neither Edwards nor safety Brad Stewart — who had played in every game this season, and leads Florida in interceptions — played a snap Saturday. Stewart had been the subject of Internet-borne rumors about a possible suspension prior to Saturday, with Mullen quipping during Wednesday’s SEC teleconference that “I make those decisions, not the Internet.”

Given the chance to clarify why Stewart (and Edwards) didn’t play on Saturday, Mullen demurred.

Additionally, sophomore safety Brad Stewart and sophomore cornerback Brian Edwardsdid not play Saturday. Rumors swirled online in the days leading up to the game about Stewart’s availability, but Mullen declined to offer an explanation for his absence.

”If guys don’t play that’s something we do internally,’’ he said.

Mullen also implied in that postgame presser that he would have to talk to defensive coaches about why Edwards and/or Stewart didn’t play — which, uh, would sure seem to make “I make those decisions” sound hollow, no?

Regardless of the precise reasons why Edwards and/or Stewart didn’t play, I find this obfuscation unnecessary and irksome, and said as much on Twitter Saturday night. If both players weren’t hurt — as Mullen implied on Wednesday, when he gave his team a clean bill of health — then it’s puzzling as to why they didn’t play, especially with Florida’s secondary taxed by an injury and exploited as a result, and Mullen should have to answer for that. And if Florida held them out for reasons not related to injury or suspension, then it calls Florida’s coaching into question.

The easy way for Mullen to answer all of these questions and dispel any speculation is, obviously, with full honesty. He doesn’t owe that to anyone — and, frankly, it’s not something I expect, either as a fan or as someone covering the team. But as a fan, I’d rather the coach of the program I root for not play games with semantics about players’ statuses, and as a pseudo-reporter, I can’t see Mullen being cagey about this paying off in the long run — unless the beat collectively shrugs its shoulders and forgets about this, anyone covering Florida now has a reason, in Mullen’s reticence, to do digging for details that he won’t share with the public.

Emory Jones cameo doesn’t alter redshirt plans

Mullen sprung a surprise on Georgia — and most Florida fans watching — by bringing on true freshman quarterback Emory Jones at multiple points during the game, mostly as a running threat. Jones had four carries for just 12 yards and did not officially record a pass attempt — his lone throw of the day was a beautiful pass down the sideline that all but forced a pass interference flag wiping out the pass attempt — but was still a bigger part of the game than ballyhooed Georgia freshman Justin Fields, who did not play despite speculation about Jake Fromm’s supposedly tenuous status as Georgia’s starter. (That fact led Mullen to crack that “Our freshman quarterback’s numbers were better than their freshman quarterback’s numbers.”)

But Jones is not seen as an actual competitor to Franks in Florida’s pecking order at quarterback right now, with Mullen asserting that the Gators’ plan for Jones is still keeping his redshirt season intact and allowing him to enter 2019 with four years of eligibility.

A new NCAA rule introduced this year allows players to play in up to four games in a given football season and retain their redshirt status; Jones, who had only played briefly in Florida’s opener prior to Saturday, has played in two, meaning he can play in two more games before his redshirt is burned.

My bet is that Florida makes use of those two games against lowly Idaho — a game in which Jones could play series as a quarterback rather than as the focal point of a change-of-pace package with the outcome well in hand — and in a bowl game that comes after a month of practices that could be used to deepen his understanding of Florida’s offense.

The Gators could obviously use Jones as they did against Georgia, too, especially if that seems prudent in an effort to secure a win. But Jones, in his brief appearances, has not seemed to provide so much more value as a specialized player utilized in specific packages that those packages are critical to Florida’s offense — and, in former high school quarterback Kadarius Toney, Florida also already has a player like Jones who could theoretically run similar plays.

And though Franks turned in a performance on Saturday to make some Florida fans pine for his backups, it would still make much more sense for Kyle Trask to relieve Franks than it would for Jones to do so. Jones could arguably fit Mullen’s offense better than both Trask and Franks down the line, and so his eligibility is worth preserving, but he’s also clearly not ready for starter duties; Trask, who is not eligible for a redshirt season, is older and better-prepared for such a role.