Florida has a new coach. He’s going to win games. Let’s get that out of the way up top.
Whether Dan Mullen can bring a championship to Gainesville is another question. But the Gators just landed a coach perceived by many as the second-best in the SEC – though by some distance. And he’s a coach who’ll do it in the fun ‘n’ gun style that natives have been clamoring for since Urban Meyer left.
Mullen will rack up wins in Gainesville, as he has everywhere – including a 44-9 record and two national championship runs – during his time as the Gators offensive coordinator on Meyer’s staff. And yet, he will be judged, as everyone is in The Swamp, by championships and by the team’s style points on offense.
It’s not enough to just win. It has to be fun. Aesthetically pleasing at worst.
Like Jim McElwain before him, Mullen’s here to fix a moribund offense.
Mullen proved at Mississippi State that he’s a coach who can close the talent gap through creative game-day coaching. He led the Bulldogs to unprecedented success.
“Dan is the most prepared candidate to have an immediate and long-term impact” Scott Stricklin, Florida’s athletic director, said during Mullen’s introductory press conference.
Gator Nation expects him to hit the ground running.
He should. Mullen achieved a remarkably similar record to Florida’s during his nine-year tenure at Mississippi State, despite an obvious talent deficiency and the most loaded division in college football, while Florida slogged it out in the junior varsity side of the league.
Mississippi State averaged the 27 th best recruiting class in the nation during Mullen’s tenure in Starkville, per the 247 Sports composite, with no class ranked in the top 15.
Florida’s classes finished outside the top 15 only once during the same span . It averaged out at ninth in the nation over the nine-year spell, with three top-5 classes. That’s national title DNA.
The records: Mullen’s teams went 69-46. Florida, under Meyer, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain (with a couple of interim coaches chucked in for good measure), was only four games better at 73-42. A terrible return on the high-level recruiting investment.
“It’s fun to be back”, Mullen said on Monday.
No doubt. If he could win 69 games with a raft of 3-star recruits and JUCO transfers, just imagine what he can do with all those speedy Floridians bouncing all over the field again.
He’s the right guy for the job. His offense is innovative. He gets the most out of quarterbacks, a perennial black hole in Gainesville since the Tim Tebow days.
Mullen is one of the main advocates of the smashmouth-spread offense, a power-running style based out of spread formations. Oh, and he’ll also sprinkle in all kinds of new-age motions and some razzle-dazzle to go with his old-fashioned running concepts and a whole host of option plays that wouldn’t look out of place on the chalkboard at triple-option powers such as Army or Navy.
It’s a style Florida fans fell in love with during Meyer’s tenure. Now, moving to the big-boy chair, Mullen hopes to re-create that on-field success and return Gator Nation’s feel-good vibe.
Everybody enjoys an up-tempo, spread-option offense. Well, seemingly everyone but the last pair of Florida regimes. Even old-fashioned Nick Saban has embraced pace-and-space football. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Mullen is like a great party planner. You know, the ones who are organized, strict about details, have a defined vision and fret about all the little things — never relaxing. They don’t get involved in any of the party’s shenanigans themselves. That’s not their job. They’re there to make sure everyone else has fun.
It won’t always look like the coach is having a ball, particularly as he irons out any frustrating kinks, but his offense is built to entertain.
“Nobody likes points more than me” Mullen said on Monday. A bold statement with a certain former coach taking a break from his latest round of golf just in time to make the introductory press conference for the new boss.
Expectations are rightfully high. Let’s go into the Film Room to see what Gators fans can expect from their new head man, and how he’ll go about churning out those points.
The Run Game: The lifeblood of a Mullen program
Everything in Mullen’s system is predicated around the run game. It’s the launch pad for the entire offense.
That’s good news for Florida. Running the ball is historically more dependable year to year than throwing it. It’s easier to build up a stable of running backs and develop a cohesive offensive line than it is to find a top-level quarterback year in and year out. (I don’t need to tell Gators fans that!)
Mullen doesn’t do anything overly innovative. It’s a theme that will run throughout his tenure. He just happens to do things more effectively than others running a similar style.
It’s all about pace and space: Spreading the field and getting the ball into the hands of the best athletes as often as possible. It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s effective.
Mullen and his staff run base concepts that you will find throughout the country. Expect a cavalcade of zone reads and split-zone options, all of which are based on simple math. The team counts the box, and if there’s an equal number of blockers to defenders, they run the ball. If there’s an extra defender, they throw it. And if there are more blockers than defenders, they run the ball some more.
It often makes this football thing look pretty easy:
“My definition of the spread offense may be different than others. I want to spread the field sideline to sideline and make sure you defend the entire field.” Mullen said on Monday.
That’s not just a post-snap notion. Attacking the entire width of the field comes through formations, motions and tagging inside runs (such as an inside-zone) with an option to flip the ball out to the sideline (like a bubble-screen) all taking place as the team gets up to the line.
Receivers will routinely align in extreme “plus” splits on early downs to force the defense to show its hand prior to the snap, against the run and pass. Players stand far outside the numbers and stretch the width of the field, opening up pockets for running backs or a running quarterback to charge into:
Mullen’s system, like most of modern college football, is built to create 1-on-1 matchups at the point of attack. And more and more that point shifts outside of the tackles to get a back 1-on-1 with either an edge defender or rotating safety.
Hit freeze on that delayed counter action above and you get this:
The backside tackle wrapped all the way around to take on the weakside linebacker. While the initial receiver splits – two aligned outside the numbers, one just inside – left a huge chunk of grass for the back to run into. That’s 1-on-1 football at its finest. If the tackle got a piece of the linebacker, his running back had a free 10 yards.
That’s one of the hallmarks of this attack: Everyone pulls and moves.
It’s tough to stop. When Mullen finds a mismatch or weak position group, he can attack it in a multitude or ways, rather than just running the same concept over and over again. Having difficulty with your interior run fits? Here comes a tackle on a trap, now a guard on a power play, then a tight end whamming from the outside to cut you off. Same attack point, a bunch of options.
Mississippi State worked over LSU’s linebackers this season to the point where the young pup Tigers couldn’t figure out where to line up. The splits, the motions, the varying options and guys pulling from unusual spots in certain formations left them dazed and confused.
Don’t get confused by the emphasis on space, though. This is a downhill running attack. Mullen wants to get downhill as quickly and often as possible. The pre-snap fluff just creates wider lanes between linebackers and safeties and makes life easier for the quarterback.
The quarterback is as important as anyone in the run game. True, Mullen has won without a running quarterback before. He’s excellent at adapting his style to his best players, rather than forcing them into a system that doesn’t fit – one of McElwain’s many issues at Florida.
Mullen has been successful with quarterbacks of all different shapes and sizes, something he’s been keen to point out throughout his career, as though having a running quarterback makes you any less of a coach. Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Chris Leake, Dak Prescott, Nick Fitzgerald, Mullen has won with them all.
There’s no prototype. He’ll find the best player and mold a system around him, but you best believe he’d rather have a mobile guy than not.
And it’s not about having someone to create on the fly when things break down, as other coaches relish. It’s all about option football, and adding an extra number to the box on running downs is a carefully constructed symphony. The quarterback is there to play the right notes.
Mullen’s option attack looks somewhat old-fashioned by modern standards. There’s no whirl motions or double reads; there’s even a distinct lack of hybrid run-pass options (RPO). What you get is the same power-running basics, with an option stuck on; gap-scheme runs such as traps, power and counter, mixed in with some of those triple-options that were dressed up with all kinds of Urban Meyer funkiness. We’re talking speed options, shovel options, and on and on.
11/12 Trap and QB Wrap are the go-to options of choice.
The QB Wrap is a vertical option, with both players who potentially could receive the ball running between the tackles. A backside edge-defender is left unblocked, while that backside tackle pulls across the formation, aiming between the opposite guard and tackle, or hitting the first thing he sees wearing a different-colored jersey.
It’s not like the traditional zone read you’re likely accustomed to. Sure, Mullen has that too:
That’s a zone block with an unblocked edge defender, giving the QB the option to pull the ball and scamper away outside the box. Those zone runs are built for quick quarterbacks. The power options are built for bigger, sturdier quarterbacks such as Dak Prescott or Tim Tebow or perhaps Feleipe Franks. When it comes to someone getting the ball outside, Mullen likes that to be the running back, like the earlier counter play or a power read.
The wrap concept gives the quarterback the option to follow in behind the tackle – as a back typically would on a power play – or hand the ball off to his running back, if the unblocked edge guy comes shooting downhill.
It requires the line working in unison. The guys inside must work a combination block before one of them climbs up to the second level. And the frontside tackle (left on the QB wrap play design above) must play with perfect leverage, gaining inside position before flipping his defender toward the boundary.
Gap-scheme runs are harder than zone runs. They require more technique than raw athleticism. But technique can be taught. It’s why Mullen’s staff was so often capable of taking lower-ranked linemen while churning out top-tier rushing attacks.
Mullen’s system makes it clear early on to the defense. We could be reading anyone of you guys. That gets in people’s heads. They start to second guess instincts, jump plays or abandon their run fits. It’s a recipe for defensive disaster.
It’s a recipe for an offensive explosion.
No defender is safe from the read game. And, as I said, everyone gets in on this pulling act. That’s a good way to fuel your big boys up front.
Mullen walks into a Florida team that should be ripe for run-game success, particularly in this system. At this point it’s tough to deny that during the McElwain era the team lacked push up front. They couldn’t run anyone off the ball in a system designed specifically to have them run folks off the ball.
The smashmouth spread isn’t just an offensive principle, it’s a way of life. It harnesses the “relentless effort” that Mullen beat reporters over the head with during his introductory press conference.
The option game should suit a batch of linemen who’re about to undergo an overhauled strength and conditioning program, but who showed sound technique sporadically in the last two seasons. (Did you ever think it would be power that let a group of Gator linemen down? That’s the sound of me shaking my head.) Some young guys grow in increments.
There’s talent at running back. Power, explosiveness and top-level athletes litter the room. Mullen will get more.
The run game will be the lifeblood of his program. It needs to turn around quickly. Finding the right quarterback, with the smarts and willingness to run the option, will be decisive.
Using the pass to set up the run
Think of Mullen’s passing game as a way to supplement and help the run.
“We throw the ball to force the defense to back up so that we can run on ’em” a bright-eyed Mullen told a group of coaches at a clinic in 2004, back when he was the quarterback coach of Meyer’s Utah Utes.
The point of the passing game, as Mullen sees it, is to force the opponent to spread out, defend every blade of grass from sideline to sideline, respect the pass, and shift to two-high safety sets – all so that his team can run the ball.
Efficiency is the key.
Again, the field is spread through formations and pre-snap movement. The defense is forced to defend the width of the field by facing three-, four- and five-receiver sets. All of it coming from multiple formations and personnel groupings. Confuse, then conquer. That’s the plan.
Wide splits from the receivers force the defense to back up, gamble with a one-deep safety (who must play deeper than normal), or reveal whether they’re in zone or man coverage:
“Part of spreading the field is to make life easier for the quarterback as it’s more difficult for the defense to disguise what it’s doing,” Mullen said at a Utah coaching clinic. That has shifted somewhat in recent years with the rise of pattern-matching systems and game-plan specific trap coverages.
The principle remains the same. Mullen wants to make things as simple as possible for his QB post-snap by having the defense reveal as much as possible pre-snap. Sounds simple.
Against any kind of zone pressure the defense is forced to pre-rotate any kind of pressure or disguise before the ball is snapped. Otherwise, there’s simply too much ground to cover. That gives the QB an extra couple of beats to diagnose what the secondary is doing and how to attack it.
If the team is galloping over the defensive front in the run-game, Mullen wants to bait the defense into playing no-deep looks, bringing one defender more than the offense can block. That makes things really simple: Fling the ball to the open receiver as quickly as possible.
Jim McElwain’s passing game was founded on rhythm throws, with a bunch of pro-style full-field read concepts (most of which he never got to install post-Will Grier because of the limits at the position). Mullen’s system has a far more “see it, throw it” feel.
It’s expanded some in recent years. Dak Prescott transformed a bunch in a short space of time. He was a rare, program-defining player. The two talked and installed a more nuanced rhythm-based passing to prepare Prescott for the NFL. It worked. Suddenly, Mullen had a “levels” and “China/double-under” concept that would make Peyton Manning proud. Both have stuck around in his playbook.
The old favorites are still there. He loves to bunch up receivers to attack man coverage, often putting four eligible players on one side of the formation:
And get ready to see a ton of lateral play designs. Think players, not plays. They’re designed to give the quarterback an easy completion. And it guarantees that the ball is in the hands of a good player, rather than having to worry about all that footwork and reading coverages:
When it comes time to get vertical, Mullen sticks to the rule of simplicity. For a new-age evolutionist, it’s as old school as it gets.
At first glance, it looks like little more than Dad at Thanksgiving yelling, “Go long!” There’s no switch releases, no intricate sense of timing.
It’s a slightly more nuanced than that. Slightly. And there are subtle changes made on the fly depending on whether the team is attacking a single-high or two-deep safety look.
Vs. Single-High Safety Look:
The boundary receivers split the numbers and the sideline, regardless of where they line up. They press toward the sideline, then scoot upfield. The inside receivers attack the hashes. The field receiver – away from the spot of the ball (right on the example above) – must get to 2 yards outside the hash while the inside receiver toward the boundary aims for 2 yards inside the hash. And he must do so with an elongated, swooping release so that the safety in the middle of the field is unsure whether he’s running a deep over (crossing the field) route, or turning it up field.
Life is easy for the quarterback. He reads the free safety, tries to move him one way, and throws the ball the other way ― typically high and outside.
Like everything in the passing game, there’s an outlet: a running back underneath. Mullen doesn’t like his quarterbacks to take great risk. If a deep throw isn’t there, they check it down and live to fight another play.
Vs. Two-Deep Safeties:
Things get more detailed against two-deep looks. We know already that Mullen wants his side to run against any and all two-deep looks. Four verticals comes out when the game is on the line, it’s third and long, or the offensive line is getting whipped up front.
Again, those boundary receivers attack between the numbers and the sideline, with one of them ― the field side ― taking an elongated release this time.
The guys inside have different responsibilities. The boundary guy darts directly up field, right between the numbers and the hashmark. Opposite him, the slot receiver to the field side runs a bend route that starts with pressing outside, then up field as if to run vertically, before cutting back across and attempting to split the two-deep defenders sitting in zones.
It’s trickier this time for the quarterback. The boundary safety is his initial key. If that guy pushes toward the boundary, there should be a gigantic gully for the receiver on the bend route to run into. However, if the linebacker standing over the top of the slot receiver takes a deep drop (like in a Tampa-2 look where he’s splitting both safeties), the QB goes to his running back on the check down.
If the boundary safety sits in the middle of the field, the quarterback attacks outside the numbers against 1-on-1 coverage. That’s a tough throw.
Mullen likes to add his own idiosyncratic tricks to these most common of plays, like demanding a particular angle on a quarterback’s throw, or building in specific route “breaking points,” receiver by receiver.
Be prepared for a heavy dose of four verticals action whenever Mullen is looking to back up a defense so that he can kick-start the run game.
One final passing-game note: Mullen uses backs out of the back a lot. Like, a lot, a lot.
Running backs often are the best athletes on the field. As such, Mullen’s “athletes in space” style demands the ball be forced to them, regardless of whether that’s releasing them out of them backfield on swing route, splitting them out as receivers, or using motion in a bid to out-leverage the defense along the sideline:
Use of play action
When your foundation is the run, the play-action pass becomes lethal. It’s a core component for any Mullen offense. Interestingly, it’s more structured and rhythm-based than you might expect, especially compared to the rest of the passing game.
There’s not a heavy amount of newfangled second-level (linebacker) or third-level (safety) read RPO plays in which the quarterback reads a defender as he receives the ball ― before opting to hand the ball off to a running back or buzzing the ball past the ear of an oncoming defender.
The RPO plays are done pre-snap ― box RPOs in coach parlance. The QB reads the box, checks to a run play against two-deep safeties and to a pass play against a single-high safety, while being alert to any kind of rotation.
Intelligence is key, obviously. “I don’t want a guy who has to check over to me after yelling “hut, hut”” Mullen said in his introductory press conference.
How novel a notion in an era of control freak, check-with-me coaches.
Accuracy is crucial to getting the kind of efficiency Mullen wants on offense, which in turn leads to tempo. “Accuracy over anything else”, he said Monday.
That doesn’t mean they have to be precise passers (see: Tim Tebow). They just need to hit throws when they’re there – whether it’s through scheme design or because the defense is keying in on the run.
Play-action opens up a bunch of easy-to-complete throws that can juice the quarterback’s completion percentage and keep the offense chugging along.
There’s a West Coast influence to go with all the spread-option goodness. Quarterbacks need to throw with the rhythm. Their dropback must match up with the steps of receiver’s routes. And the ball must be out on time and in rhythm. It’s different from Mullen’s typical dropback stuff:
Mullen has been successful with pretty much any quarterback he’s worked with because his system makes life easier for signal callers. But he can’t sprinkle magic dust on just anyone.
“The smarter the quarterbacks are the more we can do” he told the media on Monday. To run everything he wants to, Mullen is going to have to go out and find another program-defining talent.
When Mullen lost to bigger sides at Mississippi State, it was traditionally because his side had better athletes. His receivers couldn’t uncover against 1–on-1 coverage, or the offensive line was overwhelmed by a group of players who were bigger, faster or stronger.
Athletes-in-space football breaks down when their athletes are better than yours.
It’s fair to be concerned about his 2-16 record against top-25 schools at Mississippi State when both sides were ranked. But you must also pause to take account of the second half of that sentence. Mississippi State was ranked in the top-25.
Mullen’s win percentage at Mississippi State, in total and against SEC competition, is around 10 percent better than the school’s averages. He performed better at the school than anyone in 70 years. Mississippi State was a conference doormat when he took over.
I’d be willing to bet Mullen flips that figure on its head in the coming years, as long as his staff is able to maintain its recent recruiting successes. Florida currently ranks 11th in the 2018 247 composite rankings and first in 2019.
Coaching vacancies at Tennessee and Texas A&M should help the Gators close strong. Mississippi State has an exciting, yet unproven head coach in former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.
Mullen’s staff will get a chance to pitch to recruits before any of the other new coaches, except for Matt Luke at an Ole Miss program that awaits NCAA sanctions. Mullen is even looking to nab one or two of the targets he had in mind while with the Bulldogs, players he’s evaluated and knows can fit his system.
He’s also brought the Mississippi State band with him to Gainesville. Co-offensive coordinators John Hevesy (offensive line coach) and Billy Gonzales (receivers coach), as well as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, are already out on the recruiting trail. It should be an easy transition.
Mullen only once had a defense outside of the top-40 in S&P+ during his tenure with the Bulldogs, according to FootballStudyHall. Grantham could work wonders with the Gators’ talented yet ill-disciplined group. Randy Shannon’s departure was the right call.
If Scott Frost skedaddles from UCF to Nebraska, as is rumored, that could help Mullen. After all, his offense prioritizes the same characteristics at the skill positions. Jimbo Fisher could leave Florida State. And don’t discount the potential for upheaval at important assistant coach positions across the SEC as they get recruited for head coaching gigs or promotions. Alabama could be looking for a new defensive coordinator when all is said and done.
It sets up nicely for Mullen to turn Florida around ― and fast. With his blend of old-school principles and evolutionary thinking, the new coach has a chance to make Gators fans swoon and win hearts along with games. Winning games alone won’t be enough.
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