GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen was a tight end at little Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., during the early 1990s, before launching his career coaching wide receivers at Wagner and Columbia and working as a graduate assistant at Syracuse and Notre Dame.
Somehow along the way, he became one of the most respected quarterback coaches in the country, which is a key reason why he’s here now.
The new coach of the Florida Gators. The guy expected to finally fix a position that has undermined the program since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season.
There have been 11 different starting quarterbacks since, none quite getting the job done with exception to Will Grier, who gave the Gators six games before a PED suspension ultimately led him to transfer to West Virginia.
There are many reasons Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin hired Mullen away from Mississippi State to set the new direction for the program, but as he acknowledged Monday, Mullen’s strength in the area of the Gators’ most glaring weakness was an especially compelling factor.
“People point to the issues we’ve had here at Florida recently on that,” Stricklin said of the QB dilemma. “So Mississippi State football history, which I’m well versed in having grown up in the state, there were not very many quarterbacks of note in the history of the school until Dan showed up. It was obvious how important that position was at having any chance of any success at this level. You’ve got to have a quarterback, and Dan obviously had a run of them there.
“That kind of made an imprint on me that that has got to be something every coach has got to be able to answer, how they’re going to manage that position and make sure they’re as good as possible in that position. Dan’s track record speaks for itself. It’s pretty remarkable what he’s done.”
Becoming a QB guru
Mullen’s first big career break came when a young up-and-comer named Urban Meyer hired him to be the quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green for the 2001 season.
“There’s no substitute for experience. I was very fortunate, I got to start at Bowling Green State University where, nothing against the Mid-American Conference, but you’re not under that scrutiny that you’re under here,” Mullen said. “So you can make some mistakes in coaching there and I’m sure I’ve made plenty. And probably the biggest thing I can attribute my development of quarterbacks to and who I’ve learned most from is my quarterbacks.”
Mullen said he kept a folder of notes that he carried with him from program to program. He studied the game extensively, read books on quarterback technique, analyzed different quarterbacks and what made them successful, kept making notes, kept evolving as a coach.
Even now, that continues, he says.
“I’ll call Alex Smith, I’ll call Dak Prescott and say, ‘Okay, what’s Coach [Andy] Reid teaching you?’ ‘What’s Coach [Scott] Linehan of the Cowboys, what are you getting into? Coach [Wade] Wilson, what’s their staff teaching you that I’m not? Is there anything new that you’re learning or doing, anything that you’re doing on your own or that you’ve learned to help yourself out that I can use and put in my toolbox and help coach and develop these quarterbacks?'” Mullen said Monday during his introductory news conference.
Those are just a couple of the names, a couple of the QBs through which Mullen has crafted his reputation and track record.
Notable starting QBs under Dan Mullen
|Quarterback||Year||Passing yards||TDs||INTs||Rushing yards||TDs|
|Josh Harris, Bowling Green||2001||1,022||9||3||614||8|
|Alex Smith, Utah||2003||2,247||15||3||452||5|
|Chris Leak, Florida||2005||2,639||20||6||81||6|
|Tim Tebow, Florida||2007||3,286||32||6||895||23|
|Dak Prescott, Mississippi State||2013||1,940||10||7||829||13|
|Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State||2016||2,423||21||10||1,375||16|
*Harris, Smith, Tebow and Prescott were all selected in the NFL draft.
The first was Josh Harris at Bowling Green, whom Mullen coached for his sophomore and junior seasons. During the latter, in 2002, Harris passed for 2,425 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while also rushing for 737 yards and 20 scores. After an even more productive senior season, he was selected as a sixth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
After those two years at Bowling Green, Mullen followed Meyer to Utah to again serve as QBs coach for the 2003-04 seasons. The Utes went 10-2 and 12-0 those two years as Mullen helped turn Smith into the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft after he passed for 2,952 yards, 32 touchdowns and 4 interceptions in 2004 while rushing for 631 yards and 10 TDs. Smith has gone on to make two Pro Bowl teams in a long NFL career that continues with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Then it was on to Florida, where Mullen became Meyer’s offensive coordinator, inherited quarterback Chris Leak and developed Tebow into a Heisman Trophy-winning, national championship-collecting star of college football.
Tebow was a stud recruit, so perhaps more impressive from a coaching standpoint is what Mullen did at Mississippi State. Both Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald were rated 3-star prospects, according to the 247Sports composite, but both would become SEC stars.
Prescott’s senior season stats in 2015 (3,793 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 588 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns) made him a fourth-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, where he became an instant success.
“Florida’s players and fans are very lucky. He knows his players, knows how to get the best out of each individual, and his confidence is contagious for the whole program,” Prescott said in a statement after Mullen’s hiring.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, replaced Prescott at Mississippi State and broke out last season with 2,423 passing yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs and a whopping 1,375 rushing yards with 16 TDs. As a junior this year, he had thrown for 1,782 yards, 15 TDs, 11 INTs and rushed for 984 yards and 14 TDs before breaking his right ankle last week.
Florida has had its share of star quarterbacks (in the past), but as Stricklin noted, developing two unheralded recruits into legitimate SEC stars at Mississippi State firmly established Mullen’s QB reputation.
“Dan is one of best offensive minds in all of college football,” Stricklin said. “He has an unbelievable track record developing what’s the most important position on the field, the quarterback position.”
Building a QB
So what does Mullen look for in recruiting a quarterback?
While Harris (6-foot-1, 238 pounds), Tebow (6-3, 236 when he left college), Mississippi State’s Chris Relf (6-3, 244), Prescott (6-2, 226) and Fitzgerald (6-5, 230) fit a certain mold of a physical, bruising QB, Mullen says that’s not actually the starting point for what he looks for at the position.
“You know what is really important is winning. I have enough offensive background, I think we can create an offense around some skill-sets of quarterbacks because if you look at all the different quarterbacks that I’ve had throughout the years, there’s not a prototype,” he said. “They are all different shapes and sizes with different skill-sets and we’ve still been successful with them.”
Smith isn’t viewed as having quite the same physicality as the others on the list, but he also had decent size at 6-foot-4, 217 pounds coming out of college.
But Mullen did indeed have success with Leak, whom he inherited for the QB’s final two seasons at Florida. Leak stands just under 6-feet tall, weighed 209 pounds when he left college and didn’t offer much in the way of rushing ability during his time in Gainesville, but Mullen nonetheless built an effective offense around him. Leak passed for 2,639 yards, 20 TDs and 6 INTs in 2005 and 2,942 yards, 23 TDs and 13 TDs during the Gators’ 2006 national championship season (with Tebow emerging as a change-of-pace rushing complement).
And Mullen’s third QB at Mississippi State, Tyler Russell, had size at 6-foot-2 and around 220 pounds, but he wasn’t a dual-threat either while passing for 2,897 yards and rushing for -5 in 2012.
“The quarterback is the leader. If you take everybody, if you took a football team, and I took a bunch of guys and recruits and put them in the room, OK, and we take a signing class and none of them know each other and everybody gets up and says, ‘Hey, I’m so and so and this is the position I play.’ And I hand them a piece of paper and say, ‘OK, vote for our leader,’ they are going to vote the quarterback,” Mullen said.
“So you have to be a tremendous leader. I want somebody that, you know what, when that team walks into the huddle, all they are looking at is saying, ‘Hey, we have him so we can win.'”
To that end, Mullen says mental and physical toughness are equal attributes he prioritizes.
“After that, you go to decision-making, which I think is one of the hardest things to evaluate at the quarterback position, which is the processing of information. How fast can they process information, how fast can it go from their eyes to their brain or their arms or their legs or whatever decision they have to make,” he said.
“Because it’s one thing talking about football or drawing up plays on a board. But when you have about 1.2 seconds before a 300-pound guy is about to hit you right in the face, it’s really important how you can process everything that’s going on out there on that field, and so that’s critical.”
As for physical skill sets, Mullen says despite the reliance on running quarterbacks in his spread offense, he prioritizes passing ability foremost.
“Throwing is more important than running, or you are going to have everybody just standing on the line of scrimmage,” he said. “You have to be able to throw. Accuracy, over anything else, because you want to be accurate with your throws. And then if you can run, that’s a bonus, because that means you can improvise and make some special things happen when the play breaks down.”
Again, Mullen had success with two non-dual-threat QBs. Yes, he had a freshman Tebow complementing Leak as a change-of-pace ground weapon (469 rushing yards, 8 TDs) during that 2006 national championship season, but Leak was nonetheless the starting quarterback of that team. And in 2012, Mississippi State went 8-5 and peaked at No. 13 in the national rankings with Russell mustering negative rushing yards for the season.
It does seem clear that the Tebows, Prescotts and Fitzgeralds are more ideal fits for Mullen’s offense, but he has also shown flexibility and adaptability when needed.
“I have a different way of maybe looking at quarterbacks and trying to find them. And if you want to put it in one word, it’s winners,” Mullen said. “Because every quarterback that I’ve had, they are a winner. If you want to take Alex Smith out of the Kansas City Chiefs, he’s probably running a corporation somewhere or he’s a doctor or a lawyer. If you take Tim Tebow, if you want to describe Tim Tebow in a word, a lot of people would pick winner; winner is going to be up there. There’s not much he’s going to be able to do that he doesn’t win at.”
The Florida Gators haven’t won enough over the last seven years, albeit with a few highlights sprinkled in, and the major reason has been the lack of production at the quarterback position.
That, as much as anything, is now Mullen’s chief task in his return to Gainesville.
What about 2018?
Florida doesn’t have a quarterback on the roster who projects as an ideal fit for Mullen’s offense.
Feleipe Franks has the size at 6-foot-5, 227 pounds and he can run a little bit, but he just completed a frustrating and disappointing redshirt freshman season in which, more than anything, he failed to show the ability to read defenses, scan the field and make the kind of decisive decisions that Mullen emphasized as a key quality for the position.
Kyle Trask (6-5, 239) has the size as well, but he has yet to see the field in two years at Florida and is a traditional pro-style quarterback. Ditto for Jake Allen, who is smaller at 6-3, 199 pounds and redshirted his first year in the program.
Top recruit Matt Corral is listed at 6-2, 196 pounds and also regarded as a pro-style QB. But he first has to decide if he wants to follow through with his commitment following the coaching change before he’s even considered an option.
Meanwhile, graduate transfer Malik Zaire (6-0, 226) is the only dual-threat quarterback on the roster presently, but he has yet to decide if he will petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility (for his lost 2015 season at Notre Dame due to a broken right ankle) and choose to return for another year at Florida.
Certainly, Mullen will recruit a quarterback who checks all the boxes for him, perhaps sooner than later. He still has two months to make an impact in this recruiting class.
If he can’t flip a guy like highly-touted dual-threat prospect Justin Fields away from his Georgia commitment or land another new QB commit or a graduate transfer, it will be interesting to see what he does with the position next fall.
But one way or the other, Stricklin believes Florida finally has the right guy to answer those questions and solve those dilemmas.
And there’s plenty of evidence to support that belief.
The post Tracking Florida coach Dan Mullen’s emergence as QB guru and what he looks for at the position appeared first on SEC Country.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.