The Florida Gators have had two peak eras of college football. The first was under Steve Spurrier from 1990 to 2001, when they went 122-27-1 with six SEC titles and one national championship running the fun-and-gun offense. The next was with Urban Meyer from 2005 to 2010, when they won two more SEC titles and two national championships with Meyer’s spread offense.
Those were identified by Heisman-winning QBs Danny Wuerffel (1996) and Tim Tebow (2007). Wuerffel started for most of four years and threw for 3,625 yards and 39 TDs in 1996 in an offense that foreshadowed explosive and vertical spread offenses of today at schools like Oklahoma State. Tebow was a situational player for one and starter for three, scoring 97 total TDs in 2007-2008 and establishing a new model in which the QB executes both passing plays and inside runs.
Since Meyer left, Florida has been lackluster, with two fired head coaches and a constant stream of QBs who ended up being better elsewhere or at other positions. The Gators have failed to put a single QB on any All-SEC list and only came close to having truly good QB play for a six-game stretch in 2015, before eventual West Virginia QB Will Grier was suspended.
The Gators have had some strong offensive lines, including under Jim McElwain, and promising skill players. They’ve also been ranked as a top-10 defense by S&P+ on four occasions this decade, never lower than 35th (2011) until this season, when they dropped to 55th amidst program turmoil.
Saying Florida hasn’t had good QB play since Tebow left translates to saying the Gators haven’t been good without a QB coached by Dan Mullen, who left after 2008. If there’s causation in that correlation, we’re about to find out.
Mullen brings back the Meyer offense.
Mullen has a reputation as a QB guru, the ideal reputation to have in today’s job market. Mullen’s Bulldogs didn’t really start to put that together until 2013, when they plugged in a young Dak Prescott and, over the two following years, landed two of the five top-15 AP Poll finishes in school history. Then replaced him with Nick Fitzgerald, a decent passer who’s run for 2,359 yards and 19 TDs in the last two seasons.
This scheme is sort of like blending two seemingly contradictory schools of offense: a Bill Snyder Wildcat and Mike Leach’s air raid. Under Prescott and Fitzgerald the last four seasons, the QB has averaged 380 pass attempts and 182 rushing attempts and led the team in carries every year save for 2017, when Aeris Williams got 224 to Fitzgerald’s 162.
Mullen is on record explaining that he’ll adapt his offense to different skill sets at QB, as he looks to sell fans who are concerned about the lack of dual-threats on the roster. That said, he’s been most successful with big QBs who can run between the tackles 10 times a game. His ability to find guys who can handle that while mastering all of the concepts needed to execute a spread passing attack and spread run game has been the secret to his success.
Mullen’s own words on the topic are pretty instructive.
He’s noted the need for QBs who don’t need to “look over to the sidelines after they say 'hut’” but who “already know what they are checking to do.” There are a lot of concepts within the Mullen offense, and a QB who understands them all is invaluable.
The main thrust is the option run game on standard downs, which can feature the RB, with the QB keeping the defense honest via a keep or pass option:
From there, Mullen teaches his QBs standard play-action plays and some traditional drop-back passing concepts from the spread, some of it inspired by the air raid offense and much of it just standard best practices in attacking modern coverages.
The trump card of the offense, though, is the QB run game that makes third-and-short a near certainty.
As you see on this play, Alabama is playing man coverage on the three receivers and committing everyone else on the defense to the box to stop the run. The Tide still fail to stop Fitzgerald before a nice gain, let alone the marker.
This is what has really made the Mullen offense stand out from other spread systems: his willingness and means of using the QB as a featured runner to guarantee a numbers advantage in the box.
How will this go at Florida?
One obvious issue is that the Gators have a cast recruited to run a pro-style offense, particularly at QB, where their main options in 2018 are redshirt sophomore-to-be Feleipe Franks and some even younger, pro-style pocket passers. The 6’, 225-pound Malik Zaire ran well at Notre Dame and would be a decent fit, but he’d need to apply for and gain a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA.
On the bright side, both Fitzgerald and Prescott were lightly recruited prospects, and Mississippi State didn’t have to compete with major SEC programs of Florida’s caliber to secure their commitments.
There is a question of how long it’ll be until the Gators have a Mullen-type QB on campus.
But he’s made a QB transition work before.
In year one at Florida, Mullen made the most out of having a veteran passer in Chris Leak, and in year two, started to work in freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin to boost the run game and create the kind of option-oriented attack the Gators ultimately wanted.
They won a title with Leak because the senior was a savvy passer, they still used Tebow and Harvin to make third downs and goal-line situations more of a sure thing and to add explosiveness, and they had an elite defense. Florida could very well be great on defense early under Todd Grantham, but how well Mullen adapts to this offensive roster will be curious.
If he can get Zaire to return or find a crafty-and-tough QB from the JUCO ranks or grad transfer market, there’s a lot in place to allow a quick turnaround. The bet on Mullen is a bet that he can find another overlooked, quick-thinking, tough, and imposing QB and get him to Gainesville sooner than it took him to get Prescott in Starkville.