Under Dan Mullen, Florida has revived ghosts of Tebow, Urban and Spurrier

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

In the decade since Urban Meyer left Florida, the program stumbled through some distinct lows. Florida endured a pair of four-win seasons, a historic loss to Georgia Southern and the generally unmemorable tenures of Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain.

Along the way, the Gators lost something worse than games – the program’s identity. Long associated with swashbuckling offenses, charismatic coaches and pinball scoreboards, Florida football became a bit boring. The program of Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun, Meyer’s spread and Tim Tebow’s Promise had blended into the college football backdrop.

Even when Florida won under Muschamp and McElwain – the Gators appeared in two SEC title games during that stretch – they lacked the familiar and endearing panache.

Two games into the third season of coach Dan Mullen’s revival in Gainesville, everything feels familiar. Quarterback Kyle Trask is among the sport’s top quarterbacks, tight end Kyle Pitts is among the game’s most dominant players and the scoreboard – 44.5 ppg – has responded accordingly. The highest compliment to Mullen may be that a certain swagger has been returned – Florida football is fun again.

“Winning is not enough,” said Chris Doering, the former star Florida receiver who is an SEC Network analyst. “You have to win with a certain flair and offensive style, throwing the ball around and scoring a lot of points. Florida is doing that right now.”

Kyle Pitts #84 and Kyle Trask #11 of the Florida Gators celebrate their victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Oct. 3, 2020. (Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Kyle Pitts #84 and Kyle Trask #11 of the Florida Gators celebrate their victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Oct. 3, 2020. (Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

While some defensive deficiencies make it too early to cast Florida as a national title contender, the Gators are comfortably in the thicket of the playoff conversation as they head to Texas A&M this weekend as a comfortable favorite. More important, they’re relevant, vibrant and have people tuning in to see if they can out-score the opposition. At Florida, victory has again become an expectation, high point totals an inevitability and gaudy skill-position players among the buzziest athletes in college football.

To rekindle those old ghosts, athletic director Scott Stricklin turned to Mullen back in 2017. Stricklin knew what he was getting, having worked with Mullen in eight of his nine years as the head coach at Mississippi State. And Mullen knew what he was walking into, as he’d worked as the play-caller and offensive coordinator on Meyer’s title-winning teams in 2006 and 2008.

“I think a lot of Florida fans, when they have to run to the bathroom during the game, they do it when the defense is on the field,” Mullen told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview this week. “That’s a tribute to Coach Spurrier and his day.”

Stricklin saw a difference in the Gators during Mullen’s first team meeting. Stricklin recalls Florida players under former coach Jim McElwain having terrible body language – slumped over, slouched in their chairs and barely engaged.

Mullen commanded the room instantly, as he whistled to get their attention, demanded their eyes and their postures and attitudes responded accordingly. By the end of the meeting, defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson walked out of the room declaring, “Here we go, we’re about to score 40 a game!”

Stricklin recalls: “It was like flipping a switch. That’s what Dan does. He sets the vision and agenda, tells you what you want to do and holds you accountable.”

Mullen brought with him to the Florida job a crucial element both his predecessors lacked – head-coaching experience in the SEC. While both Muschamp and McElwain served as assistants in the league, they both never appeared comfortable with the demands and expectations in the leading role.

Mullen also brought extensive experience to Florida, as he points out that the school ranks sixth in the country among public universities, and he brought years of experience with admissions, academic support and understanding the campus element. (In a subtle jab that would make Spurrier smile, Mullen notes that no other SEC public schools are close to Florida.)

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) celebrates his touchdown catch from quarterback Kyle Trask (11) with offensive lineman Brett Heggie (61) during the first half against South Carolina. (AP)
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts (84) celebrates his touchdown catch from quarterback Kyle Trask (11) with offensive lineman Brett Heggie (61) during the first half against South Carolina. (AP)

Mullen’s best work so far came in rehabbing the four-win team he inherited into a 10-3 season in 2018. That included demolishing Florida State, 41-14, and a Peach Bowl blowout of Michigan that revived the program’s mojo. Last year, Florida finished 11-2, won the Orange Bowl and the offense began rounding into form when Trask took over in Florida’s third game.

Through recrafting Florida into an SEC contender, Mullen has brought an aura of professionalism and comfort his predecessors lacked. “I don’t think he’s worried if he’s going to be a head coach in this league and survive,” Stricklin said. “He’s done it for 12 years now.”

Mullen’s baseline competency was never doubted. He’d proven a miracle worker by taking Mississippi State to playoff contention and the school’s first-ever No. 1 ranking in 2014. His offensive acumen has long been among the elite in the sport, as he’s among football’s best play-callers. Also, the development of Utah’s Alex Smith, Tebow and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott have long thrust him in the rare air of the sport’s elite quarterback whisperers.

But what’s perhaps been most impressive about Trask’s development from long-time backup to a likely NFL draft pick has been Mullen’s ability to tailor the offense around a pure drop-back quarterback. Trask is 6-foot-5 and won’t be mistaken for Tebow when he takes off to run. The best Trask comp in Mullen’s quarterback dossier may be former Gator Chris Leak or Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell.

“You know me, I’m not going to fit a square peg into a round hole,” Mullen said. “Our offense has the ability to match with our personnel. ... There’s so many shapes and sizes.”

The Kyles, as they’ve become known, have a common theme woven throughout their careers – a precipitous development curve. Kyle Trask believed in the staff and stuck around. Mullen points out that Trask waited it out and didn’t transfer – as an underclassman or as a graduate. Instead, he knew Mullen and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson were developing him and it’s paid off for everyone. “I think that’s a trust factor,” Mullen said.

Pitts is a true junior with rare production from a tight end, as he has six touchdown catches in two games. He’s averaging 18.9 yards per catch, and is conjuring up the highest-end college comparisons – Kellen Winslow, Jeremy Shockey and Tony Gonzalez. “I think they have the best player in America, at least non-quarterback,” Meyer told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a matchup nightmare.”

When Pitts arrived from Philadelphia in Mullen’s first recruiting class – he was recruited by McElwain – Florida had three senior tight ends on the roster and was thin at receiver. So Mullen moved the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder out to wide receiver. That meant a season of refining his receiver skills that only accentuated his pass-catching abilities when he moved back to tight end last year.

“All the teaching and fundamentals of playing receiver, and a year of learning the techniques and fundamentals at tight end, and you combine them,” Mullen said. “He can play attached and block, flex out and create mismatches. You can move him around all over the field.”

Wherever Pitts goes, all eyes will follow. Just like this edition of the Gators, he’s must-see TV. “The reason to come back was you knew this could be a championship-level program,” Mullen said, before adding the secret to the Florida awakening. “I knew how it worked.”

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