Quarterbacks, listen closely and pay attention. Florida head coach Dan Mullen is eager to share some words of wisdom, but only to a select few signal-callers.
The rest of us are left to witness the results.
“Boy, you have to buy the book for that one day. I can’t give away the secrets right now,” Mullen says. “I’m a quarterback — what do they say? — whisperer.”
The 49-year-old’s success coaching the position speaks volumes. From Alex Smith to Tim Tebow to Dak Prescott to Kyle Trask, some of the college game’s top quarterbacks of the past two decades thrived under Mullen’s tutelage.
Mullen’s touch will be put to the test again.
The 2021 Gators’ success hinges on Mullen’s ability to replace the record-setting Trask, nurture another signal-caller and build an offense around him.
The clear frontrunner for Florida’s starting job is redshirt junior Emory Jones, who has waited four years to move into one of the most high-profile roles in college football.
The Gators have produced three Heisman winners (Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel, Tebow), a runner-up (Rex Grossman) and a finalist (Trask) for the game’s top individual award. Jones is eager for his chance to become the next star signal-caller for the Gators.
“It has been hard,” Jones says. “But it’s all been for a reason.”
Shifting back to his familiar spread attack, Mullen will aim to showcase the talents of Jones, the centerpiece of the Gators’ 2018 recruiting class and No. 5 dual-threat quarterback recruit in the country that year.
Mullen also will push backup Anthony Richardson, a redshirt freshman dual-threat QB from Gainesville, and shepherd along first-year collegians Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna, just in case.
“You’ve got to prepare at least two quarterbacks to be ready to go,” Mullen says. “Instead of, ‘Hey, Emory’s the starter. You’re the backup,’ we need two starters, and then I’ve got to figure out the backup situation we’ve got.”
To manage multiple personalities and skill sets, Mullen will draw from previous successes, recognizing that each QB has his own DNA.
“Everybody is their own individual,” Mullen says. “I never like to compare guys because everyone is so unique in their own way and within their development. But I’m gonna tell you, you’re always learning. If you don’t borrow from your past, you’re never learning.”
The demands and expectations of the position require communication, confidence and trust between coach and quarterback.
Mullen has a sixth sense for knowing how to connect with each of his signal-callers and forge an unbreakable, if not lifelong, bond with many of them.
Mullen was a groomsman for Smith — Mullen’s protégé nearly 20 years ago at Utah and a future No. 1 pick — and attended the nuptials of Gators record-setter Chris Leak. Tebow spent Thanksgivings in Gainesville with his coach and will visit his home when in town with the SEC Network, even playing video games with Mullen’s son, Canon.
“He’s a people person, a players’ coach,” says Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys QB who was Mullen’s prime pupil at Mississippi State. “He’s great with relationships — and he’s a hell of a ball coach.”
The Jones-Mullen connection goes back many years.
Jones, a native of LaGrange, Ga., an hour from Atlanta, was a high school freshman when he received a scholarship offer from Mullen, then the head coach at Mississippi State. A few weeks after Florida hired Mullen in November 2017, Jones backed out of his longstanding commitment to Ohio State and signed with the Gators.
Jones arrived in January 2018 in Gainesville as Florida’s QB of the future. Some even touted him as a contender for the starting job based on the Gators’ epic struggles at the position ever since Tebow’s career ended a decade earlier.
Instead, Jones would spend the next three seasons watching Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask start every game while serving as a change-of-pace option or performing mop-up duty.
But in an age when the transfer portal is bursting at the seams, Jones stayed put, showing the willingness to observe, learn and mature into a better quarterback.
Backing up Trask the past two seasons was particularly instructive for Jones. Trask waited more than three years for his shot under center, but it took a season-ending injury to Franks at Kentucky during Week 3 of the 2019 season for him to get his opportunity.
|Completion%||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards||Total TDs|
Alex Smith (Utah, 2004)
Tim Tebow (Florida, 2007)
Dak Prescott (Miss. State, 2015)
Kyle Trask (Florida, 2020)
Trask stepped onto the field and never looked back. In 2020, he set single-season passing records at Florida with 43 touchdowns and 4,283 yards.
Jones saw what was possible each day as he enjoyed a front-row seat.
“I mean honestly, those things went through my head before,” Jones said then of his thoughts leaving before deciding to stay and learn from Trask. “Just seeing how he handles his business keeps me motivated. I just see how much he’s grown over the years. And I see myself still growing and getting better every day.”
The 2021 Gators expect Jones’ patience to pay off.
The 6'2" Jones has packed on at least 15 pounds since he arrived, allowing him to better absorb the inevitable punishment a running quarterback receives.
Mullen’s return to a spread attack featuring RPOs and QB runs fits the style of both Jones and the athletic 6'4", 232-pound Richardson. Smith, Tebow and Prescott flourished in the system, but recently, Mullen had to adjust his scheme for Franks and eventually Trask, a pair of pocket passers who were required to run only when necessary.
“The key is trying to make sure you’re fitting around the strengths of your players,” Mullen says.
Mullen capitalized on Trask’s accuracy, decision-making and football IQ, along with a supporting cast of pass catchers led by All-Americans Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney.
The Gators rode their passing game to the SEC East title and into the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation until a stunning home loss on Senior Night to LSU began a season-ending slide.
A historically bad defense was largely the culprit for Florida’s flop. The Gators expect to significantly improve on that side of the football. Either way, Mullen is confident his attack can continue to set the tone a season after averaging 41.6 points (second in the conference) during 11 SEC games.
Consistent quarterback play will be critical. Jones rarely has played more than a series here or there against SEC competition, but he led the Gators to a key field goal during a 2019 win against Auburn and threw a TD pass in a loss to eventual 2019 national champion LSU. Jones’ mobility will bring a twist to the offense Trask did not provide.
Meanwhile, Mullen says the Gators might even be able to expand the passing game a bit.
“He’s got a cannon for an arm,” Mullen says. “There’s a lot of throws that Emory can make that Kyle couldn’t make. That’ll allow us to tweak and change some things within the scheme.”
Given Trask’s success, those are bold words, especially from a whisperer like Mullen.
Jones’ teammates expect him to back them up.
“He brings a different flavor to the offense,” senior defensive lineman Zachary Carter says. “Athletic guy, he makes you miss. He keeps you on your toes. You never know what the offense is going to do.
“I’m excited with our offense, with the ball in Emory’s hands.”
That Jones is in Mullen’s hands bodes well for the Gators.
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