Athletic directors are all about checking boxes when it comes to coaching searches.
Is this coach a proven winner?
Will his personality be a good fit?
Is he a good recruiter?
And so on and so forth.
When Florida athletic Scott Stricklin began his coaching search a little over a month ago, it’s pretty obvious what was at or near the top of his checklist: Can he develop quarterbacks?
Because in the eight seasons since Tim Tebow’s been gone, the offense has been in steady decline, thanks in great part to the inability to develop quarterbacks who consistently produce.
So, it became a priority for Stricklin. And when the focus of his search turned to Mullen the day after Thanksgiving, he could automatically put a big, bold check mark by the question of whether he can develop quarterbacks.
He has. He can. He will.
“We came back to that a lot,” Stricklin said. “People point to the issues we’ve had here at Florida recently on that. 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.”
Call him what you want — guru, mastermind, whisperer, genius — the bottom line is Mullen has a history of developing excellent (and winning) quarterbacks.
It started with Josh Harris at Bowling Green. Then it was Alex Smith at Utah. Then Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida. Then Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State.
Now, it’s on to Florida to see who’s next. Because, given Mullen’s track record, there will be a next. That’s almost a sure thing. It’s just a matter of when.
Mullen said this all started early in his coaching career, when he would study different quarterbacks and keep the information he observed in a folder. He also read everything he could find on the art of playing the position.
“I read a lot of just different quarterback technique books and all of those things,” he said. “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.
“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.”
He said his first lesson came from Harris, Mullen’s quarterback at Bowling Green.
Mullen was getting too emotional on the sideline during a game and Harris came up to him and told him to calm down and coach.
“I’m going off,” Mullen said. “And he’s like, ‘Are you going to stop yelling?’ He’s like, ‘I want to win more than you do, so if you don’t have anything productive to say, you might as well shut up right now.’
“I learned that day. I was getting emotional about it instead of coaching. I learned that day, and I constantly even learn to this day.”
Mullen said the two quarterbacks he developed that are in the NFL have helped him to continue to develop as a quarterback coach. He’s still learning from them.
“I’ll call Alex Smith,” he said. “I’ll call Dak Prescott and say, ‘OK, what’s (Kansas City) Coach (Andy) Reid teaching, what’s (Dallas offensive coordinator) Coach (Scott) Linehan of the Cowboys, what are you getting into; what’s their staff teaching you? 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?’ ”
It’s an ongoing process that has evolved over time. Mullen said there is no secret formula. It’s about finding the right guy and then going to work, quarterback and coach.
“You can’t just wave a wand and fix anybody,” Mullen said. “I’ve coached guys that were committed to excellence, committed every day to being the absolute best they can be, and those guys are fun to coach.
“If you hire somebody that is committed to being the best that you can be and with an unbelievable work ethic, you’re going to constantly improve. I’ve been fortunate to coach those guys that have had that desire to improve.”
Mullen doesn’t know who his first Florida quarterback is going to be, because he hasn’t had time to do any player evaluations yet.
But he knows what he’ll be looking for in his quarterback — someone who is a leader, intelligent, mentally and physically tough and driven to put in the work that it takes to excel at the position and win.
“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.
“No. 1, it starts with mental and physical toughness, because that’s the guy that is the leader of your program. Playing quarterback here, at the University of Florida, those are pretty big shoes to fill, right.
“They have to understand, have that mental and physical toughness, to be able to handle what it takes to be here and to lead this team and set that standard and set that bar extremely high for our players. They have to have tremendous leadership.”
Mullen said decision making is the next thing he looks for in his quarterback. Can he make good decisions and make them quickly?
“One of the hardest things to evaluate at the quarterback position is the processing of information,” he said. “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?
“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. That’s critical.”
— Dan Mullen (@CoachDanMullen) December 1, 2017
Intelligence is another critical trait, which ties in with decision making, Mullen said.
“The smarter the quarterbacks are, the more we can do,” he said. “I’d rather them not look over to the sidelines after they say hut. I’d rather them already know what they are checking to and they already know what to do, instead of hut-hut and just look for me to go do it for them. I want them to know what to do out there on the field.”
Last, but not least, comes the actual physical part of playing the position. As he has said, there’s no prototypical Mullen quarterback. Some have been better runners than passers. Some better passers than runners. Others have been equally good at both.
In each case, Mullen has built the offense around the skill set of his quarterback, instead of asking the quarterback to fit into a particular scheme.
“Throwing is more important than running, or are you 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.”
Like Stricklin with his coaching search, Mullen will have a checklist when he begins evaluating the quarterbacks. He’ll start checking those boxes soon as he searches for his quarterback.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.