Coaching under Urban Meyer for eight years, including four at Florida, helped shape some of Dan Mullen’s coaching philosophy.
One area were Meyer obviously has had a big influence on Mullen is making special teams a priority.
Meyer has always put an emphasis on special teams and been involved in them wherever he’s been, whether it’s Bowling Green, Utah, UF or Ohio State.
Special teams are big, important, a major phase of the game. And they deserve hands-on attention from the head coach.
That’s been Meyer’s philosophy. And it’s also Mullen’s.
“That goes back to working under Urban,” Mullen said. “Just really understanding the importance of it.”
Like Meyer before him, Mullen is making special teams a priority at Florida. Running backs coach Greg Knox is the special teams coordinator, but he’s getting a significant coaching contribution from Mullen, who has been working with all phases of special teams, just like Meyer used to do at UF.
“Every day,” Mullen said. “We’re going to invest a lot of time on special teams, were going to make sure everyone in the program is invested in special teams, every player understands the importance of it. That’s a phase we want to try to be really strong at.”
In recent years, the Gators have not been strong on special teams. They’ve had good kickers (Johnny Townsend and Eddy Pineiro), but have been lacking in all other phases.
That’s not the way it used to be.
Under Meyer, the Gators had some of the best overall special teams in college football.
They returned kickoffs and punts for touchdowns. They covered punts and kicks. They blocked punts and kicks. They made game-changing plays.
Mullen is striving for similar results, with a similar approach — by helping coach all phases of special teams.
“He works with it closely,” Knox said. “Not a lot of head coaches will put the time in that he does with special teams.
“He’s right there at the forefront of it. I think the players understand the importance of it. That by far is different than a lot of other coaches I’ve been around.”
As the Gators have shown in the past two seasons, there’s a whole lot more to special teams than just the kicking aspect of it. UF was pretty good in that regard, but not in the other areas that are just as important.
“Sometimes after a game, ‘Boy, bad special teams day, we missed a field goal,’ ” Mullen said. “There’s so much more to it than that, or we had a bad punt. You know the (kickers) sometimes get the most attention, but there’s a lot of plays that can be made on special teams with attention to detail on the technique.
“I make sure I’m involved in every aspect of it. Special teams is a huge part of the program. Those guys get special treatment. They eat first at the meals. They’re the ones that are probably the favorites on the team.”
There’s a clear emphasis on special teams now. That commitment didn’t seem to be there under the former coaching staff — and it was reflected in performance.
Other than punting and field-goal kicking, the special teams produced almost nothing in the other phases last season under Jim McElwain and Greg Nord.
The Gators had no kickoff or punt returns for touchdowns, blocked only one kick, gave up 10.9 yards per punt return and averaged only 21.3 yards per kickoff return.
Nothing special there.
Mullen said coaching fundamentals and technique on special teams will lead to production in all phases.
“Every day, we’ve really touched on technique, fundamentals of special teams,” Mullen said. “We’re making sure everybody on the team gets reps and understanding of what the technique and fundamentals are involved in special teams.”
Mullen has been stressing that every player should be striving to play on special teams, which is a good career move.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “One of the easiest ways for anybody if they think they’re going to play at the next level, they better play on special teams. We spend time on that.
“We show them NFL film of guys on special teams. If you want to be successful and have an opportunity to play football for a living one day, you better be a great special teams player.”