Not once did he even bother to tune into one of 38 bowls or three playoff games — an exercise in restraint for a 20-year-old male in possession of a remote control.
“We ain’t in it, so what am I watching it for ... to get mad?” Gardner-Johnson said this week.
This season under new head coach Dan Mullen, Gardner-Johnson and the Gators got even.
Following an impressive and improbable five-win turnaround, No. 10 Florida (9-3) finds itself on one of the biggest stages of the bowl season. The Gators are set to face No. 7 Michigan (10-2) at noon Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The game will air on ESPN.
“We’re back where we belong,” Gardner-Johnson said.
Mullen, the play-caller for two national-championship teams in Gainesville, is far from satisfied.
“You expect to be playing not just in bowl games, you expect to be playing in New Year's Six bowls and championship bowls,” Mullen said Friday. “You expect to be playing great programs like the University of Michigan.”
Even so, a Peach Bowl appearance and top-10 ranking is a solid first step, given the state of the program upon Mullen’s arrival and the ups and downs the Gators endured this season.
Florida now looks to finish Mullen’s first season on a four-game win streak, culminating with the Gators’ first victory in five tries against the winningest program in college football history. Two of Michigan’s record 953 wins came during the past two years against former coach Jim McElwain’s Gators by a combined score of 74-24.
UF’s 33-17 loss against Michigan to open the 2017 season was barely competitive and strongly hinted changes in the Gators’ program were needed.
After two seasons under McElwain, linebacker David Reese sensed things would be different under Mullen following the first team meeting.
“What I knew is he loves to win,” Reese recalled recently. “And he's a family-type guy and winning is important to him. We were on the same page. We were tired of losing. Just knowing that, we bought in as a group.
“And I love his enthusiasm, his energy that he brings every day.”
Buy-in and belief would be critical as Mullen and his staff aimed to completely overhaul the program.
The Gators’ new offseason approach under strength coach Nick Savage would be a shock to the system. On Day 1, the Gators were handed a thick, heavy rope each player had to hold onto — or else — during a run across campus.
“I kind of knew things were going to change then, by the way he was making us not drop the rope and if you dropped it there was big consequences after,” junior receiver Freddie Swain said. “If you’re running down the road and you fall with the rope, your team can’t stop. You kind of got to catch your feet before they drag you down the road.
“If you let it go, you get ripped by the coaches, you get ripped by your team, just different consequences.”
Swain was a fast learner.
“I ain’t never drop it,” he said.
By the start of spring practices, the Gators had gotten in lockstep, knowing the alternative was to get left behind.
“The biggest thing is teaching them to compete at everything we do,” said offensive line coach John Hevesy, who has served on the same staff with Mullen since 2001. “From the day we walked in, it’s in everything we do, whether it’s the classroom, whether it’s the weight room, whether it’s the agility drills, whether it’s in the game, in practice .... everything.”
Mullen likes to say he doesn’t care whether he’s just thumb-wrestling, he wants to win.
Quarterback Feleipe Franks has yet to tangle with his head coach, though other players have — and lost.
“He cheats, though,” Franks joked, noting Mullen likes to start the match quickly and catch his opponent off guard.
The 46-year-old’s competitive edge and youthful exuberance trickles down to his team.
“I think the players feel the passion within him,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I think when players feel your passion and believe in what you’re selling or what you’re presenting, I think it allows them to buy in.
“As you get guys to buy in, I think it can breed throughout the team.”
The Gators’ belief in Mullen and the program’s direction would be tested.
Following a feel-good 53-6 win over Charleston Southern in the season opener, the Gators were manhandled at home during their first loss to Kentucky in 32 years.
Afterward, Mullen publicly questioned his team’s toughness. The following week Florida responded with a 47-21 romp at rival Tennessee that showcased the Gators’ potential in all three phases of the game.
“I feel like that was the best game we played,” Swain said. “We hit on all cylinders.”
But Florida had to pick itself up again following back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri by a combined score of 74-34. Trailing by 17 points at home to South Carolina a week after the Missouri loss, the Gators rallied for a 35-31 decision.
“We could've easily been 4-7, 5-6 this year ... after that South Carolina win, that really changed the momentum of the season,” Reese said. “We almost let that game slip away. But we realized we could be facing the same thing that we previously just faced the year before.”
Instead, the Gators ended the season ranked the top 10 for the first time since 2012 and with a win could finish with their highest ranking since the 2009 team finished No. 3.
Mullen himself has a chance to join Stanford’s Clark Shaughnessy (1940) and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn (2013) as the only Power 5 coaches to record double-digit wins after inheriting a team that had won fewer than five the previous season.
“He pushes all the right buttons at all the right times,” senior pass rusher CeCe Jefferson said of Mullen. “He’ll motivate you to make you want to run through a brick wall for him. He understands his players; he’ll sit down and talk with you about stuff. He also knows football — his resumé speaks for itself.
“He’s definitely a guy that makes you want to go out and play for him.”
The 13-month journey for the Gators to reach the Peach Bowl began upon Mullen’s hiring in late November 2017. Looking back, he cannot pinpoint a critical moment or turning point in the process.
“I think the key was a lack of resistance,” Mullen said Friday. “Everything that we asked our guys to do, they welcomed.”
Along the way, little-used fifth-year senior tight end Moral Stephens caught a game-winning touchdown at Mississippi State and one-time college baseball player Lucas Krull threw a first-down pass to Franks on a trick play to beat LSU.
Franks went from the scapegoat for the 2017 season to a solid SEC quarterback, while Gardner-Johnson turned into a top playmaker after a shaky sophomore season and now is headed for the NFL. Up and down the Gators’ roster are examples of players who are making a mark under Mullen.
The college football world has noticed.
“You have freshmen that are playing that have come right in and coached right up right out of high school. That’s been really impressive,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “You’ve got your sophomores, your redshirt juniors, you’ve got seniors, a few fifth-year seniors. That’s really impressive to come in as a first-year coach and get the buy-in from the whole team.
“It’s really a good year of coaching for Dan and his staff.”