Our story about Florida football before an immensely fascinating 2018 season begins with Urban Meyer.
The Ohio State coach lost his trusted offensive assistant, the man who had Cardale Jones ready to play the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game and 2015 Sugar Bowl in a compressed time window.
Ohio State’s offense hasn’t had the same level of command since. Meyer lost a quarterback whisperer and is trying to find a new one. Kevin Wilson was not able to fully unlock J.T. Barrett’s talents in 2017, and as a result, Ohio State’s Big Ten title season wasn’t enough to get the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff.
This is not the first time Meyer lost a valued lieutenant who knew how to bring out the best in his quarterback. Meyer’s first trusted quarterback guru was Dan Mullen.
You might remember a certain quarterback. His name was Tim Tebow. Faintly familiar figure, right? ESPN would mention his name once in a great while. He attained a small sliver of national attention.
Beyond the tidal waves of publicity and the overdone coverage, Tebow was a legitimately great college quarterback in the vein of Tommie Frazier. He might not have done anything spectacularly, but he did everything competently, and he was cash money in crunch time, a leader who brought out the best in his teammates. Tebow was tough, smart, vigilant, poised, a player with B-level skills but A-grade understanding of both people and surroundings. A lot of this came from within, but the right coach had to cultivate his skills.
That man was Dan Mullen, who guided another notable quarterback, Alex Smith, to great heights at Utah before coming to Gainesville with Meyer in 2005.
By the time Mullen left Meyer to take the wheel of his first head coaching job at Mississippi State, Meyer had won two national championships.
Soon after Mullen’s departure, Meyer — by all appearances a burned-out coach — stepped away from Florida, ample off-field controversies, and the football grind.
The Gators are still searching for a credible and fundamentally competent offense.
Even in the 2012 season under Will Muschamp when the Gators reached the Sugar Bowl — and might have made the four-team College Football Playoff had the system existed back then — Florida’s offense struggled. It had its moments, but the Gators rested on a defense which allowed more than 20 points only once during the 12-game regular season while consistently putting the offense in good positions. Quarterback Jeff Driskel threw just 12 touchdown passes all season and collected fewer than 1,700 passing yards. The special teams units also made huge plays, specifically in a too-close-for-comfort home-field win over Louisiana-Lafayette, which was decided on a blocked punt return for a touchdown with two seconds left.
Florida is still looking for an offense which reminds the locals of the Mullen-Tebow years, or the Steve Spurrier era — either period of time would suffice for the Gators, but Jim McElwain’s tenure never resurrected that bursting sense of potency and superiority.
There was, in McElwain’s defense, a brief moment when it seemed the Gators were on their way back. A quarterback named Will Grier had just authored a destruction of a ranked Ole Miss team which had just beaten Nick Saban and Alabama on the road. However, as soon as Grier failed to exercise due diligence in reporting to relevant parties the substances he was putting into his body, the beginning of the end taken shape. Grier couldn’t finish the 2015 season, Florida’s offense couldn’t measure up, and that narrow sliver of optimism vanished as quickly as it arrived.
Grier is the man who legitimately could have transformed McElwain’s career. The man who many thought had a great chance to do the same was Malik Zaire, but the transfer from Notre Dame simply didn’t pick up the playbook and looked hopelessly out of place nearly every time he took the field last season. Grier’s transfer out of Florida robbed McElwain of the man he meshed with; Zaire’s transfer INTO Florida gave McElwain a man he failed to develop. McElwain did have some bad luck, but his years in Gainesville ended in embarrassment on several levels. One was his failure to make use of Zaire, a shortcoming which formed yet another part of a dreary period in which a Florida offense failed to excite Gator fans.
The following idea has gained traction in Gainesville this decade, a decade in which Dan Mullen has not coached at Florida: “If you’re going to be mediocre, at least don’t be boring.” Florida has been both mediocre and boring.
Guess who is coming back — without Meyer, but now as the Big Chief — to restore Florida to its former status as the primary power in the SEC East?
Mullen is not a superstar head coach. That is something he has to earn and prove in Gainesville. However, while not belonging to the elite tier of college football coaches, Mullen can make a very strong argument that he is the third-best coach in the SEC behind the Supreme Ruler, Nick Saban, and Georgia architect Kirby Smart. This is a debatable point (Gus Malzahn has a case to make), but Mullen’s successes in Starkville, Mississippi — with resources which pale in comparison to those found at Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, and elsewhere — suggest that he can be stratospherically prosperous at a heavyweight program. What Mullen did with Dak Prescott and more recently with Nick Fitzgerald, enabling Mississippi State to punch above its weight on several occasions, offers the conceptually reasonable (though hardly guaranteed) expectation that Mullen can return Florida to a former identity: excellent and not boring.
This is what is expected of Gator head coaches. Spurrier changed UF football forever, and Meyer improved upon what Spurrier began, albeit in a tenure which lasted roughly half as long. After many years with feeble offenses, Florida — in the most recent coaching carousel — wanted to at least try to land Chip Kelly, a head coach with more top-rung achievements in college football than Mullen. When the Kelly dream died, Mullen was the acceptable fall-back plan who didn’t represent a home run, but probably a long double… with the chance to show that he can lead UF as well as Meyer, his mentor, once did.
All the pieces — particularly the recruiting — aren’t yet there for a Mullen lift-off in 2018. This season is not going to achieve all of Mullen’s goals and aspirations. It won’t complete any transformation or cement Mullen’s reputation. This season needs to achieve the building of a bridge to 2019 and the future. Mullen has to walk away from this season knowing that his 2019 quarterback will be ready to shine, that his 2019 offense will be prepared to flourish.
Mullen and Meyer both needed a bumpy 2005 debut season at Florida to get used to their surroundings and assess the enormity of the challenge they faced.
They did okay in their second season, to put it mildly — Florida won the national title in the 2006 campaign.
No, that’s not a way of implying that Florida will or should go bonkers in 2019. It merely underlines the point that Mullen has had to inherit a mess in Gainesville once before. This time, Urban Meyer isn’t by his side, but this time, Mullen might have the coaching chops to become the superstar his former boss has been for many years.