Gators notebook: UF 'more educated' on keeping COVID-19 safe, Mullen says

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun

With the Gators set to open preseason camp Friday, Florida coach Dan Mullen said Thursday a high percentage of those in the football program have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mullen was asked during a media session at UF if he expected The Swamp to be at 100-percent capacity this season, considering the highly transmissible COVID delta variant is spiking in the state.

“I think we're confident a little bit more, knowing who's vaccinated, who's not. We have a very high percentage of our organization as a whole that has been vaccinated. We're not at 100 percent, but an extremely high percentage within the organization has been vaccinated,” Mullen said. “As far as where I think everything will be down the road? I'm getting ready to coach some football. There's some people that would have better answers on that stuff."

More:Gators football's strong home 2021 schedule helps boost ticket sales

Seeing as Mullen didn’t give an exact figure when it came to the percentage of UF players who are vaccinated against COVID-19, the question wasn’t going away. 

Asked several minutes later whether the Gators had reached the Southeastern Conference’s 85% vaccination threshold, the percentage required for teams to be exempt from both regular testing and stringent mask policies, Mullen again didn’t have a number to give, opting to repeat that the Gators are at a “very high” level when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations. 

“I don’t want to get into the exact numbers, because I don’t want to misquote it, but I think we’re at a very, very high level on the team and within the organization as a whole with where our vaccination rate is right now,” he said. “I’m feeling pretty comfortable with where we’re at and what (Florida’s Associate Director of Sports Health) Paul Silvestri and his staff have done and some of the protocols we’re going to put in place as we continue moving forward.”

And those protocols are?

Florida is back to its usual plan of staying in a hotel during preseason camp, something the program didn’t do last season due to the pandemic. Although cases are once again on the rise, with the state currently considered the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., the Gators feel more comfortable staying in hotels through the end of August, and Mullen attributed the decision to the rules and regulations planned. 

“We're going to have some protocols that we put in place. I think everyone's a little bit more educated about it now. I wasn't ever used to wearing a mask my entire life. How you pay attention to all these different protocols that are in place, I think there's a lot more familiarity with it right now,” he said. “When you look at what our protocols are, how we're going about it within the ability to wear a mask, when we're wearing them, what situations, indoor compared to outdoors with what we're doing matching the number of guys and looking at how we're managing guys that have been vaccinated compared to non-vaccinated. I think we're just a lot more educated on how we adjust within what we're doing to keep everybody as safe as possible."

Mullen comments on SEC expansion

A lot has changed since Mullen last spoke to the media July 19 in Hoover, Alabama, for SEC Media Days. The three-game series with UCF is now final, but that’s not even the biggest news when it comes to Florida’s future schedule. 

More:Whitley: Texas, OU are coming! Should the Gators panic or party?

The University of Texas and Oklahoma University accepted invitations to join the SEC beginning with the 2025 season — if not sooner, no pun intended — bringing the league to 16 teams. 

It’s a bombshell that shakes up the college football landscape, and the media was eager to hear Mullen’s opinion on the arrival of two premier programs in the sport. 

Asked where he was when he learned the news, Mullen replied he was “at our lake house. I was surfing or doing something, hanging out there, and I saw some report,” although he was initially skeptical of its veracity. 

“But I didn’t take it that seriously. I guess that’s the benefit of going first at SEC Media Days, I was already done,” Mullen said. “When it came up the second day I called Scott (Stricklin) and asked him if there was any reality to that? He kind of gave me the scoop of what was going on a little bit.”

Now that it’s all set in stone, Mullen’s had some time to digest the eventual arrival of the two programs, and he’s of the opinion the duo “really fit” in the SEC. 

“The streak of championships in this league is pretty special. And then you're looking at two academic schools, two schools with very strong football traditions. Two excellent football programs. Very passionate fanbases that really fit what this league is all about. And so it makes sense,” Mullen said. “I think I've said this, college football in the next couple years will look differently than maybe what it's looked like in the past. That's just going to be another step of it, and exciting to have those two great schools and great football programs coming into our league."

Brenton Cox Jr. nearing return

Florida defensive lineman Brenton Cox Jr. is nearing a return from the Jones fracture he suffered in the offseason and the Gators expect to have him available for portions of camp, according to Mullen. Initially, reports from outside Gainesville insinuated Cox could miss a significant portion of the 2021 season, concerning many who expected Cox to improve on a 2020 season where he recorded 42 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Prior to Thursday, Cox refuted that report and indicated he would be ready in time for the season. In case the horse’s mouth wasn’t good enough, Mullen doubled down when asked to provide an injury update on Cox. 

“Yeah we expect him to be back. I don’t know if we’re going to let him go 100% right on day 1, but he’s going to be out there practicing right away and building him up. Right now with the time he’s missed, building him up, getting him back ready to being 100%, in not just the foot injury but his training and conditioning and all that stuff,” Mullen said. “I expect big things out of him, because I thought he had a really solid year last year. Now a second year in the system, more experience, more a veteran guy, an older guy, having to learn, look at what he did well importantly last year and how to build off that.”

Late roster additions

The Gators may open camp Friday, but that doesn’t mean the roster construction has come to an end. 

Tyreak Sapp, a four-star signee at defensive end out of St. Thomas Aquinas, is expected to enroll at Florida by the end of the week, according to a source. Mullen wasn’t asked Thursday about Sapp, who signed with UF back on Dec. 16, 2020. 

And Sapp isn’t the only imminent addition, as former Texas A&M graduate transfer Elijah Blades is in the final stage of enrolling at UF. A source close to Blades’ situation said the 6-foot-2 defensive back, who initially committed to the Gators back on June 22, 2016, is already in Gainesville with the hope of practicing Monday with the team. After two seasons in JUCO, Blades recorded 19 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss through seven games in 2019 with the Aggies.