Dear Readers,

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption to the lives of everyone in Tampa Bay and to so many businesses in our community. Here at the Tampa Bay Times, we continue to provide free, up-to-date information at as a public service. But we need your help. Please consider supporting us by subscribing or donating, and by sharing our work. Thank you.

  1. Sports
  2. /
  3. Gators

The moment Dan Mullen hooked the Florida Gators

Plus Plant High product Jake Fruhmorgen’s journey from Clemson to UF to Baylor to the East-West Shrine Game.
Florida receiver Josh Hammond (18) on the field during practice for the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field on Monday. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Florida receiver Josh Hammond (18) on the field during practice for the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field on Monday. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — There are a lot of reasons why coach Dan Mullen quickly transformed Florida from a 4-7 team to one that has won 21 games and finished in the top 10 in back-to-back years.

Growth at quarterback. Excellent play-calling. Rising talent.

But for ex-Gators receiver Josh Hammond, the change started at the very beginning of Mullen’s tenure.

Related: It’s time for the Florida Gators to start challenging for championships

“The first day, he came in and ran a campus run with us,” Hammond said. “That was pretty good.”

It might have been even better than pretty good. It might have been the turning point for the program.

When Mullen pulled on his long sleeves and joined his players for an early-morning run around campus, it was an unmistakable introduction to how things were going to be different in Gainesville.

“It just showed he was all-in with us…” said Hammond, who will join former Gators teammates Freddie Swain and Tommy Townsend on the East team in Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field. “I knew right then and there he was for us. He wanted to win. He was in it with us from that point forward.”

Swain remembers feeling the same way.

Related: The good, the bad, the ugly: Revisiting Matt Baker’s preseason college football picks

“He got in there running with us, running back and forth with the groups the whole run, it kind of gives you energy and lets you know your coach has your back,” Swain said. “When a player feels like a coach has his back, there’s nothing he won’t do for him.”

Fruhmorgen’s homecoming

Baylor offensive lineman Jake Fruhmorgen (63) stretches while on the field at the beginning of practice Monday. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]

When Plant High alumnus Jake Fruhmorgen left Clemson midway through the Tigers’ 2016 title run for personal reasons, he remembers hearing questions about whether he’d ever play again. He never doubted the answer.

“I knew I was going to play football again,” Fruhmorgen said. “I didn’t know if teams would give me a chance…”

Two teams did. First it was UF, which announced the former four-star offensive lineman as a summer enrollee in 2017. But Fruhmorgen said he “didn’t mesh” with the coaching staff the way he expected.

Instead, he ended up at Baylor, thanks in part to a friend from Plant and the fact that he could get a fresh start there with Matt Rhule’s new coaching staff.

Related: More East-West Shrine Bowl: Mike Norvell’s FSU culture change could take time, former Memphis player says

The move worked out. He started 14 games over his final two seasons and helped the Bears grow from 1-11 to 11-3.

Fruhmorgen is trying to make the same move his former coach did by going from college to the NFL, after Rhule left Baylor to become the Carolina Panthers’ head coach after the Sugar Bowl.

“He told us in team meetings before the bowl game that he might transition to the NFL…” said Fruhmorgen, who has seen time at center for the West. “He always told us his dream would be to go to the NFL. He was always upfront with us. No one has bitter feelings toward him. It’s a goodbye, but happy for him.”

Gator to watch

With Florida losing five of its top seven pass catchers, the receiving corps must reload if the Gators are going to challenge Georgia to win the SEC East. One player Hammond said fans should know: fifth-year senior Rick Wells.

Related: Pooping rhinos, profanity and fan ultimatums: Inside FSU’s Bob Stoops emails

“I think Rick Wells will be big,” Hammond said. “I think he’ll be the sleeper. He did really well all throughout the season just preparing, preparing, preparing. I love his game. I love his attitude. He’s been through a lot, so adversity doesn’t faze him anymore. He’s ready for whatever’s thrown at him.”

East-West Shrine Game

Player experience: 1-3:30 p.m. Friday at Tropicana Field. Free and open to the public.

Game: 3 p.m. Saturday, Tropicana Field

Tickets: $15 general admission. Purchase here