Florida vows to be tougher after getting ‘slapped in mouth’

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              FILE - In this  Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 file photo, Florida head coach Dan Mullen, center, runs onto the field with his players before an NCAA college football game against Charleston Southern in Gainesville, Fla. Florida coach Dan Mullen never intended to call his players soft after a 27-16 loss to Kentucky. Mullen says he was referring to how they played while losing to the Wildcats for the first time in more than three decades. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Dan Mullen wants to be clear: He never intended to call his players soft after a 27-16 loss to Kentucky.

Mullen said Monday he was referring to how they played while losing to the Wildcats for the first time in more than three decades .

“It wasn’t a challenge on their character,” Mullen said Monday. “I’m not calling them soft people. I said our lack of toughness was in our performance. And that gets back to practice and your mindset and all that.

“I’m not saying, ‘You guys aren’t tough. You’re a bunch of softies.’ I’m saying our performance wasn’t very physical and tough. And the only way you change that is by changing the habits of what you do at practice.”

Mullen said repeatedly after the game Saturday that a lack of physicality was the biggest issue for Florida (1-1), which dropped its first Southeastern Conference opener since 2004.

The Gators got whipped on both lines of scrimmage, allowing 303 yards rushing and failing to establish much of a ground game.

“They came and slapped us in the mouth,” said defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who incorrectly predicted a 32nd consecutive victory in the series. “We are going to respond. Trust me, we are going to respond.”

The Gators host Colorado State (1-2) on Saturday. It’s a fitting matchup considering Florida is in this position partly because the school hired Jim McElwain away from the Rams in December 2014.

McElwain brought two assistants with him from Fort Collins, Colorado, with the first one being strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Kent.

Players, athletic director Scott Stricklin and even McElwain blamed Kent for the team’s struggles last season, saying Kent failed to develop an adequate weightlifting program.

The Gators spent the last six months raving about new strength coach Nick Savage , and they expected so see instant results this fall. But Kentucky proved Florida still has some room for growth in the trenches.

“Change takes time,” Mullen cautioned. “If you don’t like how things are, you got to change. Well, change is uncomfortable. However you want to change is uncomfortable because you’re kind of used to this way and I’m used to it and I can’t do it how I’m used to doing it.”

Mullen plans to address the team’s issues with tougher, more physical practices.

The Gators would like to quick turnaround, especially since the Rams beat another SEC opponent, Arkansas, by seven points last week.

“It comes from an internal drive,” Mullen said. “I mean, for us to be successful it has to come internally. I can tell if it’s fake. When it is fake, you’ll know. … Sometimes, unfortunately, you might not know until Saturday. I’ve learned that lesson as a head coach.

“You think, ‘Boy, this team’s saying and doing the right things.’ And then you get punched in the nose and we reacted a little bit differently than what we were saying and how we were pretending to act during the week when reality hit us right in the face.”

Florida will pay Colorado State $2 million to make the trip to the Swamp. The arrangement was part of a $7 million buyout to lure McElwain away from the Rams. McElwain agreed to pay Colorado State $2 million, with Florida chipping in $3 million and adding the payday game.

McElwain and Florida parted ways last October , with the coach agreeing to a $7.5 million buyout.

No one expected the coach to be gone by the time his former team rolled into town for the McElwain Bowl.

“I’ll be honest. I look at who we got to play and let’s go find a way to go play them,” Mullen said. “So I never really thought of it that way.”

For Mullen, the week is all about how his players respond.

“I want to see now that we got punched in the face with a little bit of adversity how we handle that aspect,” he said. “Are we still taking the steps forward necessary to be successful?”

NOTES: Mullen confirmed that cornerback Marco Wilson will miss the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his left knee. … Mullen said running back Adarius Lemons has left the team but will remain in school to maintain his eligibility before transferring. … Mullen expects linebacker David Reese and cornerback C.J. McWilliams to return from injuries against Colorado State.