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The pros and cons of Florida’s early, closed spring practices

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Florida might get a full slate of spring practices in. It might be hard to tell what benefit that will have.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators begin their spring practice schedule this Thursday, far earlier than they have in recent years, and will be conducting those practices largely in private, as they will be closed to both the public and the beat writers often given chances to glimpse parts of the practices due to COVID-19 regulations.

That’s all fine, of course: Florida’s privileges as a program include being able to set its practice schedule as it sees fit, and while there’s arguably some validity to the idea that reporting on the marketing arm of a major public institution is in the public interest, you won’t find enough purchase for that line of thinking to get scribes inside the buildings where the Gators will grunt for the better part of a month.

But there are obvious pros and cons to Florida’s non-traditional approach to spring practice this year, and it’s worth running them down.

Con: A new peak for information starvation

I am usually skeptical at best about practice reports that aren’t based largely on a writer’s own observations, as the sources that provide those reports — coaches, program assistants, boosters, family members, and hangers-on who happen to know any of the above — are usually biased toward one player or another. (A fun game every year: Spot the walk-on getting unusually high praise and decide if his uncle could credibly be providing intel.)

But I’m also leery, as someone who attended probably a dozen or so practices open to the public in the last decade, of trusting my layman’s eyes too much when it comes to what I see, and furthermore to extrapolating from that. It tends to be true that the obviously superior or inferior players stand out — this was easy to see with, say, Vernon Hargreaves III or Demarcus Robinson back then, and I imagine it would’ve been glaring how good Kyle Pitts was in practice over the last 18 months — but it is not difficult at all to see a misleading sample of a player and come to a erroneous conclusion. Worse, one can start from the right process and end up with a conviction, like that Jeff Driskel looked like a polished quarterback with full command of Florida’s offense circa August 2013, that simply doesn’t bear out on Saturdays.

This is what happens in the best of times, with theoretically unbiased reporters putting forth their analysis alongside what the program releases and what the public gleans from the viewpoint it is permitted to have. In a year without public or journalist access to practices and in which it will be critically important to keep details about which players do or don’t contract a still-circulating novel virus under wraps, expect the edited and skewed perspective Florida presents to the world to be especially hard to rely on as solid evidence of anything.

I mean, does “selected clips from a practice aired between the hours it is happening via Instagram Live” seem like a great peek into Florida’s process?

While you can contort yourself into believing that this sort of limited drip of details is a pro for Florida if you think the Gators merit military-grade information security, it’s a con for learning anything about this team.

Pro: Probably, this will be a full spring practice slate

Starting a four- or five-week spring practice schedule on February 18 is getting out ahead of most other programs in major college football in a smart way, because it allows Florida as much flexibility as possible in completing practices around the restrictions of COVID-19 regulations. And after a season in which defenses — Florida’s certainly included — eroded and scoring exploded, it makes copious sense to get as many reps in as possible.

Does starting this early guarantee Florida will get every practice it has scheduled in as scheduled? Of course not. It’s not even a guarantee that Florida will get most of its practices in. But the Gators have to play the odds like every other program in college football does, and they’re doing so by betting that the current downward trend in COVID-19 cases gives them a window to get these practices in, that the University of Florida’s lack of a spring break this spring works in their favor, and that going this early — with the prospect of vaccination against COVID-19 on the horizon as an unquantifiable pressure release — doesn’t add undue stress for players.

I’d say the first two bets are pretty good, and the latter isn’t a bad enough wager to wipe out the value of the first two. While it would obviously be a wonderful thing for Florida players to have been vaccinated against COVID-19 before dealing with arduous spring practices and rigorous medical protocols, those relatively healthy young players probably aren’t in line to be vaccinated until the late spring, and so no program in America is likely to reap the reward of holding off on asking more of its football players until they can — literally — breathe a lot easier about a raging pandemic.

(Sadly, I think we passed the point where the argument that none of this is actually smart, ethical, moral, or so forth was potent long, long ago: The gears that grind us all continue to churn apace.) (Oh, and also: Even if Florida starting spring practices in February begins the process of fixing alignment or tackling issues, we might not know about that until September. Fun year, this one!)

Pro: A QB competition in secrecy, if you want it

There is no more important position in football than quarterback, no bigger question for any team to answer than “Who’s our quarterback?”, and no better way to get a fan base chattering than the specter of a quarterback controversy.

Florida can avoid that last bit entirely this spring, if it wants to.

I fully expect Emory Jones to be Florida’s starting QB this fall, and I think that’s an opinion shared widely in Gator Nation, from Dan Mullen’s office to any far-flung outpost. Jones has paid his dues and then some, and he’s certainly shown enough to make him succeeding Kyle Trask as a starter a reasonable and defensible decision.

But he’s also shown enough to let doubts linger, and Anthony Richardson has shown enough in his even shorter cameos for fans to dream on his potential.

This, in the Florida context, should probably be called the Leak-Tebow Quandary: Having a presumably or proven good quarterback in hand will never prevent glimpses of potential greatness from becoming viral within the Florida fan base. If Richardson had torn up practices this spring with reporters or fans in attendance, or outplayed Jones in Florida’s spring game — about which more in a moment! — then there would be some faction of the fan base that ended up spending the offseason (and fall) baying for him to play, a dynamic that tends to lead to exasperating interactions with fellow fans at best and shameful stuff like Leak getting booed at worst.

A good way to avoid such a competition being a matter of public discussion is to not let it become public. Florida can do that. That’s a good thing.

Con: No spring game is a denied catharsis

Holding a spring game with free or cheap attendance while also needing to make sure it abided by COVID-19 protocols was probably a non-starter for Florida, which is surely part of why that isn’t happening:

And for fans who have done everything right and would have loved to see the Gators take on the Gators in The Swamp this spring, not getting that opportunity is painful.

That said, there’s nothing preventing Florida from having held “an intra-squad spring football scrimmage” with ESPN or SEC Network cameras present and calling it a spring game that fans would just have to watch on TV instead of attending it in person. Fans would have enjoyed that, and ESPN would have gotten better inventory than whatever clip show it’s going to put together instead.

So this is doubly disappointing.

And just as it’s silly to Orwellize “a spring game” into “an intra-squad spring football scrimmage,” it’s almost offensive that the standard or threshold for holding a spring game is now “seems unwise” when any of thousands of decisions made prior to this point to keep the wheels of industry greased in a damn pandemic have “seem(ed) unwise.”

Admitting that everything done from the initial shutdown of college sports in March 2020 to now was done to preserve revenues is a pipe dream — but it’d be honest, and it would make holding a spring game that essentially can’t drive revenue feel like a nice gesture to fans who would likely remember it warmly.

And the idea of honesty and fan outreach leads me to a final point...

Pro and/or con: Mullen is the man again

On Tuesday, Dan Mullen spoke to assembled media members for the first time in a while. To my ear, he did not say much of anything that was surprising or really all that interesting, despite speaking for more than 45 minutes.

It still made national news — that story was on ESPN’s front page sidebar for much of Tuesday, and is still on the college football page’s sidebar — because there’s nothing else to talk about in college football.

Florida being back in swing for the spring means that Mullen is going to be talking to reporters again, and Mullen talking to reporters can, uh, be an adventure. He’s usually going to be honest and respond to questions with good answers, but he’s also not the consummate politician and representative of a college football program that some of the more bloodless or media-savvy coaches in the sport are.

Most of the time, that’s going to produce “news” like Mullen saying for the umpteenth time that he’d consider NFL opportunities if they were presented to him or nontroversies like Mullen being frank about Florida’s differing approaches to the 2020 SEC Championship Game and 2020 Cotton Bowl; sometimes, it’ll produce actual flaps, like his bizarre unforced errors regarding attendance after falling at Texas A&M last fall.

There is something to be said for Mullen being able to take all the questions and speak in one voice for Florida, and I think that’s actually an underrated plus of him being behind a podium again. (I thought — and still think — that his somewhat nonsensical comments about Marco Wilson’s infamous shoe throw last fall actually accomplished the goal of turning down the heat on Wilson and redirecting some scrutiny to Mullen, and I think his ability to take the blame for things and spare those around him is generally not factored into evaluations of his public speaking often enough.)

But while he’s a far cry from Lane Kiffin or Mike Leach, Mullen will occasionally garner headlines for the things he says, and there’s no guarantee that they will be flattering. Having the opportunity to help shape his team’s narrative is a plus for Mullen, but he’s also more than capable of letting the wrong things spill from his mouth, and that’s a great way for him to subtract from his aims.

Here’s hoping he’s as candid as ever, but a bit more circumspect than he was last fall.