Saturday marks a union of the familiar and the unknown.
Dan Mullen knows the sidelines of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He knows the unmistakable scent of sweat and nachos that penetrate the air on game days.
He’s familiar with the image of the impassioned football fans that fill the Swamp, their faces plastered with orange and blue as they shout onto the field.
But then, he isn’t.
It has been about a decade since Mullen has run through that tunnel, and many things may appear different to the first-year Florida head coach.
Mullen will quickly acquaint himself with the atmosphere of the Swamp when the Gators take on Charleston Southern on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in their 2018 season opener.
Mullen returns to familiar territory in Saturday’s debut, as he began the 2017 season against the Buccaneers and led his Mississippi State team to a 49-0 shutout.
Charleston Southern does have experienced guys up front who know how to keep the offense on the field, though. The Buccaneers also have a veteran receiving corp in redshirt junior Kameron Brown, senior Saire Davis and redshirt senior Kenny Dinkins.
Brown recorded three 100-yards games last season, and Dinkins led the team with four touchdowns, averaging 21.2 yards per catch.
Mullen won’t take the matchup lightly.
“These guys bring a different challenge than another team will. You look at their nose tackle, who’s really, really quick, he’s got the speed of everybody in this league we’re going to play or better. He’s just not as big,” Mullen said. “There’s something to that, having to block those types of guys. They can cause problems and issues for you … This is their shot to go show what they can do. It’s a lot about mental focus and us really playing to our level this week.”
Another unknown lies in quarterback Feleipe Franks.
How will Franks improve on a 2017 campaign in which he went 3-5 as a starter and was benched more than once.
He’ll use this weekend to show what he and this Florida offense have worked on leading up to the season.
“The first game we just want to show how much our offense has improved. As an offense, I can speak for us, we’ve all worked super hard this summer and this fall camp. So just to go back out there and kind of get things where we can stay on the field on third downs, when we get in the red zone putting points up, not settling for field goals,” Franks said. “Little things like that we have to improve on from last season, just kind of like the main things we’ve focused on.”
He’ll be surrounded by nine returning offensive starters. The Gators return 20 starters total, which ties them for third among all FBS programs.
And receivers like Ole Miss transfer Van Jefferson have the utmost confidence that the offense can immediately show its improvement when it takes on Charleston Southern.
“Well, we got a quarterback who can launch the ball. I think Coach Mullen is going to take a lot of shots. Just take what the defense gives us,” Jefferson said. “On Saturday we are going to see what happens, what defense they are playing in and just go from there.”
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