COACHES CORNER: Mullen on the QBs, offense

You pretty much always knew what you were going to get with Chris Leak at quarterback for the Florida Gators. He was a pure drop back passer and not too much a threat to run. He threw a pretty pass, set numerous records and left behind the legacy of a national championship. Enter Tim Tebow to the Florida quarterback picture. Even with all the marvelous plays he made last year helping the Gators win a national title, Tebow is somewhat of an unknown that offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Dan Mullen is going to have to mold into a consistent, productive player in 2007.

Tebow isn’t the only quarterback on deck for the Gators this year, but he is the one with the Division I experience. Unlike last year when Leak and Tebow were it for Florida, the Gators have four quarterbacks on the roster this year and all of them are talented and athletic.

With Leak gone to the pro ranks, Tebow will step in and give the Florida offense quite a different look. The sophomore from Jacksonville isn’t the pure passer that Leak was but then again, Leak was never the runner Tebow is. The threat of Tebow taking off with the ball is something every defensive coordinator will have to plan for.

“I think the biggest thing that is going to change is obviously the threat of the quarterback run,” Mullen said earlier this week. “You get back to seeing not just the direct snap quarterback but back to the zone read and option plays that have the quarterback run more.”

With the threat of Tebow running behind a quality offensive line, one would think opponents will gear to stop the offense by creeping the safeties up and loading the up the box to make Tebow throw the ball. But will that be an invitation for Tebow to throw the ball down the field and over the heads of unsuspecting safeties?

“It always depends on how they play you,” Mullen said. “A lot of teams are going to play us off coverage because of the speed we have at receiver. You might see some safeties not playing us deep but the corners playing off. They won’t just play us straight and let us run by them on the perimeter and just chuck the ball down the field all day long. Our offensive philosophy is not going to change with a different quarterback. We are going to spread the field and find where our best match ups are.”

While the spread offense philosophy won’t change, the offense will change by the way it uses the personnel on hand. With a seasoned drop back quarterback and sure handed receivers in the arsenal last year, Chris Leak could do what he does best which is throw the ball. Now Tebow will be the run-pass threat that creates liabilities on the defensive side of the ball. His threat to run combined with his ability to pass the ball to exceptionally fast receivers gives Florida the opportunity to out-athlete their opponents. That’s exactly what Mullen is counting on.

“The offense is always going to change with the different personnel we have,” he said. “We won’t see the Utah offense exactly like it was here at Florida. The big thing that people don’t always look at is our offense is finding ways to create mismatches with our talented athletes on the field. If we think the biggest mismatch is our wide receiver on their defensive back, we will exploit that. If it is our tailback on your linebacker, we will try and exploit that. As the personnel changes and against the team we play, that is where the offensive personnel changes.

As the offensive coordinator Mullen is always looking for ways to catch defenses off guard. Two straight number one recruiting classes have given the Gators an overflow of fast, athletic runners and receivers that will be nightmares for defensive coordinators.

The offense is flexible enough to use the H-back/tight end/fullback in a variety of ways. Seniors Tate Casey (6-6, 237) and Eric Rutledge (5-11, 253) will play huge parts in the game plan this year, but freshman Aaron Hernandez (6-2, 256) really fits the mold of the versatile all-purpose player Mullen likes to use when the offense takes the field.

“He [Hernandez] is very, very unique,” Mullen said. “He is the type of player that we want at that position. If you look at Billy Latsko last year, he was a great player, but Aaron can do everything Billy could do and flex out as a receiving threat. That way he can cause some issues for us in the pass game.

“His position is tight end, but there is a lot of carryover between fullback and tight end. He has to go earn it with Tate Casey and Eric Rutledge and that is wide open now with the loss of Billy. With his progress he shows a lot of physical talent, now it has to be displayed in production on the field. He needs to be assignment sound and technique sound, when he is, he will see a lot of playing time.”

The slot receiver position at Florida is another hybrid spot that will show up in many places on the field. Percy Harvin showed just how dangerous he can be as a slot receiver and as a tailback motioning into the slot. Look for him to continue to do that along with fellow sophomore Jarred Fayson. Fayson is due to get a lot of touches this season according to Meyer and Mullen can’t wait to use his abilities.

“He [Fayson] will move around a lot,” Mullen said. “For us that slot receiver position when you use a Jarred Fayson and a Percy Harvin, these are guys that are multi-talented and we want to create mismatches. When your receivers can run the ball just like when your running backs can run routes and catch the ball it causes issues for the defense. Jarred got a lot of work during the season last year although we didn’t see it in games, and [more work] in the spring. Now both of those guys are threats to come into the backfield and do some things.

There is no doubt who the leader of the offense, if not the whole team is. Even as a sophomore, Tim Tebow (6-3, 235) is the epitome of a leader and does everything they ask of him and more.

“Tim is a great leader, he is so mentally and physically tough,” Mullen said. “He is an emotional kid and an extremely hard worker. The thing he has to work on now is he is the distributor of the ball. As a leader it is his job to manage the offense. Last year he came in and he was kind of a playmaker now he has to manage the offense like Chris did.”

Behind Tebow are three backups with big arms and athletic ability. Junior college transfer Brian Waggener (6-6, 232), and freshmen John Brantley (6-3, 205) and Cam Newton (6-5, 243) were all part of the 2007 recruiting class and have never been a part of the Gators on game day yet. They might be inexperienced but Mullen knows the group is very talented.

“It is potentially the most talented group we have ever had,” he said. “But, we need to turn that potential into actual on the field. That is something we will have to see over time and why I am here — to see those guys reach their potential.

“With the younger quarterbacks, they are used to thinking before the snap ‘I am going here with the ball.’ There is a lot that can change after the ball has been snapped in college ball. For the young guys it’s the speed of how things change, and their ability to react is the growing steps of a quarterback. Their abilities aren’t quite as important as when the ball is snapped and a decision needs to be made, how fast can they react and make the right decision to get the ball to the right player in the offense.”

With three guys enrolling at the same time at a position that normally has only one of them on the field at a time, egos could get bruised. According to Mullen, the group is competitive, yet they are all team players and actually will help each other over the course of their careers.

“I think their relationships are very much like last year,” he said. “Chris and Tim have huge championship rings on their fingers and that was priority number one. They also worked well and fed off of each other. I think because a guy like Tim went through it I think the guys we got saw what we had that these guys are competing with each other and not against each other. I think that attitude amongst all the guys keeps them as a pretty tight knit unit.”

The big question among the quarterbacks is probably going to be who will be the second one to take the field when Tebow comes off. Right now, there has been no determination as to who that might be. Likewise, there has been no thought given to red-shirting any of the new quarterbacks.

“The most prepared and ready guy is going to get that spot and get on the field,” Mullen said. “When you have so many inexperienced guys there, the guy that is the back up in game one might be different in game five. That spot could be all three of the guys at some point in the process.

“[Red-shirting] is not something we are thinking about early in the season. We want them all to get ready, we want them all to be ready to go because you don’t know what can happen. We were fortunate last year, but we need to be ready.”

Of course getting on the field for this group requires them to be healthy enough to do so. That was an issue for one of them in the spring and now is an issue for another one this fall for the time being.

“Brian (Waggener) is back healthy after his injury,” Mullen said. “Cam will be a little limited from some back issues that he incurred in high school. Tim’s arm is back healthy and with four quarterbacks we can spread the ball around to make it better for him. John has worked hard this summer and will be ready.”

“They call me (about workouts) because we can’t see anything about their summer conditioning,” Mullen said. “Each of them feel like they have had a good summer. Johnny came in happy because he put on some weight. Tim is in his realm when he is working out. All of those guys enjoy working out. Cam is limited now with some of his [health] issues.”

In their championship season the Gators loved to utilize two quarterbacks in order to keep the defense on its heels. They inserted Tebow in key situations and he was ultra-effective because defenses really had to key on different things in the offense when he was in there. Head coach Urban Meyer and Mullen loved the problems it gave defenses last season. Mullen can see that happening this year.

“That is something we would love to do,” Mullen said. “Maybe there isn’t the drastic change we had last year, but maybe what we will see is one of those guys coming in and doing what Tim did last year. Tim has to be the manager now that he is not going to be the power runner every snap,”

HOLLYWOOD’S TAKE: I think the offense will be better, definitely by the end of the season. With this group of quarterbacks, the staff can do so many more things that confuse defenses than they have been able to in the past. The receiver corps is as strong as it has ever been, and the offensive line is really good.

At quarterback I think Tebow has a strong year and will build for the future where he can be really outstanding down the road. He was tailor-made for this offense and these athletes should really do well with him at the helm. As far as the back up quarterback, I am all for letting that one be determined on the field.