Part 1: Anatomy of a game plan

Dan Mullen has the one job that nearly every offensive coordinator in Division I football would kill to have. He’s got a space age offense that spreads the field and makes even the best of defenses vulnerable and he’s got the personnel to make every game a dial-a-score affair when the game plan comes together. He’s got the Heisman Trophy quarterback in Tim Tebow, the most feared open field player in the college game in Percy Harvin and perhaps more speed at the skill positions than any offensive coordinator in the country. Up front he’s got a big, nasty offensive line that is as comfortable in a road grader mentality as it is in the finesse and nuances of pass protection. He’s got the offense and he’s got the players to make it work which might explain the smile that never seems to leave his face.

Mullen is one of the rising stars among assistant coaches in the college game. He’s coached four extraordinary quarterbacks in Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak (Florida) and Tebow. Harris and the spread option offense transformed Bowling Green from a perpetual loser into a high-scoring team that won 17 games in two years. Smith, who became the first round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, quarterbacked Utah to 22 wins in two seasons including a magical 12-0 in 2004. Leak quarterbacked the Gators to 22 wins in two years and won the national championship in 2005. In Tebow’s first year as the starting quarterback, he accounted for 55 touchdowns and became the first quarterback ever to rush for more than 20 touchdowns and throw for more than 20 touchdowns in the same season.

Gator Country spent part of an afternoon with Mullen to better understand what goes into a game plan from start to finish. In this three-part series, Mullen will take you from planning to practice to game day execution.

SUNDAY NIGHT: By Sunday afternoon, film has been graded from the previous game and that means it’s time for Mullen and the offensive coaches to start formulating the game plan for next Saturday’s opponent. It starts with breaking down film on Sunday evening to determine the base defense the Gators will be going up against.

“The first thing you do is you watch the film of the opponent,” said Mullen. “We watch full games to try to figure out what their base defense is and what they fundamentally believe is their base defense. There are all sorts of different base defenses, just like there are all sorts of base offenses. Are they a 3-4, an odd front or odd stack, a 4-3 or a 4-4, an under, a big blitz team, a zone coverage or man coverage team?  We want to get a feel for what is their fundamental belief.”

The next step is to understand how the opponent brings pressure. Do they do it with their front four? Do they blitz? What are their blitz tendencies?

“The next step is the cut-ups — all their different pressures, what their blitzes are and when they run their blitzes,” he said. “You have to know what blitzes they use against the run and other blitzes are more oriented against the pass. You have to know when to expect to see the blitzes.

“The rest of the Sunday is the formational cut-ups or the personnel cut-ups or how they adjust and what adjustments they make according to your formations or what personnel you have in the game. Sunday night is really all about understanding what they want to do with their defense.”

MONDAY MORNING: Before the sun rises Monday morning, the offensive coaches will be in their offices, each with an assignment. They will spend all morning working on their responsibilities so that when they meet as a group around lunch time, the game plan will start coming together.

“Each one of our coaches splits up Monday morning,” he said. “By then I have a general idea of what we want to do to attack the other team. I do a lot of the play action passing, deceptive sort of plays and big hit plays that we might have or different formations that I want to use to attack the team, but the rest of the staff is split up.”

Mullen gets together early with wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, who has put together a plan for third downs and what the Gators will do in the red zone.

“The first thing we do Monday morning is he and I get together and review all the team’s third downs and I have some ideas about them, too,” Mullen said. “We watch all the teams third downs and we put together our third down attacks, what we’re going to do and why we’re going to do what we’re planning to convert third downs. Last year we led the nation in third down efficiency so this is a critical part of the game plan. Billy does a fabulous job on that and he comes up with a plan and he and I work together on it to come up with a package that we’re comfortable with, that we think can be successful.”

MONDAY AFTERNOON: By late Monday morning or early afternoon, Mullen convenes a meeting with all his offensive staff. He already has a general plan of attack ready and Gonzales has the third down and red zone packages. Offensive line coaches Steve Adazzio and John Hevesy have the blocking schemes set up. Running backs coach Kenny Carter will have a checklist of plays and personnel for the running game.

“We all have our list of things that we like to do and they present a plan that these are the runs we like, the runs we don’t like, why we do or don’t like certain things and our base formations they would like to do out of,” Mullen said. “At that point my input is the tweaks — how we really want to set up a run using this formation or what play action or pass do we run when we have have this personnel group in the game. For example, we might run a counter play based on what pressure they’re bringing or run the Tebow power out of certain sets with a certain personnel group because it sets up play action for a big hit play. We get an idea about what we think can be successful, why it should be successful and when do we want to run the play and how we set it up.”

Deciding the plays to run is only part of the task. Equally important is making decisions on when to run them, what personnel to run the plays with and what formations. In a typical season, the Southeastern Conference will have anywhere from five to eight of its defensive units ranked among the top 30 teams in the country in just about every category. A measure of deception is paramount for an offensive coordinator. Making sure the offense isn’t transparent and easy to figure out falls on Mullen’s shoulders but he relies heavily on the input from the others on the offensive staff.

“A lot of that falls on me with our checks and balances,” he said. “Steve or John or Kenny might say we love the counter play in these situations or we love the inside zone read and I’ll say, okay we’ve done it this way in the past, but let’s disguise it with this kind of motion or this formation … tweaking how we run it. We might know what play we’re going to run, but how are we going to run it so our opponent doesn’t know what we’re going to do?

“You can’t be obvious, not in this league. The defenses are too good, too fast … the defensive coordinators are way too good. They pick up on things so quickly that you always have to make sure you’re giving them a different kind of look whether it’s the people you have in the game or what formation you line up in. It’s all about staying one step ahead of the other guy.”

By the time the Gators head out to practice Monday afternoon, much of the game plan will already be in place along with the check down package. Because the defensive coordinators in the league are so good, Mullen and the offensive staff have to make sure they have a check down package ready for each play.

“Monday afternoon they have the goal line package and the base plan of any checks we’re going to have in that plan,” he said.

TUESDAY MORNING: This is when the game plan starts to get a bit more complicated. Mullen has to be comfortable with the work that was done on the running game on Monday because once the Gators hit the practice field on Tuesday, they will be incorporate more of the passing game and the audibles that will be called at the line of scrimmage to get the Gators out of a bad play and into one that will work against the defense they’re seeing on the field.

In putting in the audibles, Mullen also wants to ensure that when the Gators check out of one play, that the next play they get into isn’t easily identified by a defense which will also be calling audibles.

“Tuesday morning we’re going to work on play actions and make sure everything has a complement,” he said. “For a specific formation and motion we want to have an inside run, an outside run, a play action pass, a drop back pass and an option. We aren’t transparent that way. If we are going to focus on being in a certain formation this week — if we are going to feature a certain set or a certain motion — I want to make sure we have the balance out of it so we don’t become so easy to figure out that when fullback is lined up in the B gap we run this play or if the running back is lined up to the left, then we run this play.

“We have our checks and balances on how we call a game. One way is what we have done in the past and what is in our plan for the week and just because it’s in the plan doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to run it. That’s part of the balances coming out. We might have these six things in this week’s plan that we want to do but we’ve had those before and we only called two of them. They’re expecting those two specific calls out of that formation so that leaves us four that we can use and that’s a good example of how the checks and balances work in what we do.”

By the time the players come in for their pre-practice meetings with their position coaches Tuesday afternoon, they are hit with handouts, videos, packets of information about what to expect Saturday and notes about what they will be doing when they hit the practice field.

“This is when they get the bulk of the running game, our play action game and what we’re planning to do on first and second down,” Mullen said. “This is what we’re going to do on Tuesday. We’ll walk through all that and practice it.”

Since it’s a full contact day, Tuesday is when the running game gets the bulk of its work. Coach Urban Meyer calls it “Bloody Tuesday” because the contact has game-like intensity but that is what is necessary to have an effective running game since it’s the most physical aspect of football.

“These are the running plays we’re going to practice and here are the five different defenses we expect to go against so we’ll practice each play against each defense we expect to see, the main ones we expect,” Mullen said. “You don’t always get what you expect but you anticipate that this is what you’re expect to see out of this team.”

The Tuesday and Wednesday practices are also a time for teaching the players the reasoning behind the plays they practice and the check downs that are in place.

“You get into a feel with them knowing the plan and knowing what you want to do,” Mullen said. “One of the big things you want the players to know and be comfortable with is why are we doing this? You don’t just want them to know what we’re doing but you want them to know why we are doing it.

“A certain formation, for example, why are we running this formation with these players? We believe that if they understand why we’re doing it, when we check down into it or have to make an adjustment during the game, it’s much, much easier. When they understand why we’re doing it, it’s not a problem to execute it when we have to make an adjustment on the spot.”

WEDNESDAY PRACTICE: By the time the Gators get to practice on Wednesday, they have the running game in place and the team is comfortable with what plays are going to be run on first and second downs. Most of the audibles are in place and Mullen has to be comfortable with the play action passes on his priority list.

Before the team hits the practice field, the players will have meetings with their position coaches where they will go over Tuesday’s practice and then outline the goals for Wednesday, another contact day although generally speaking a lighter day than Tuesday.

“You get to Wednesday and there are so many specifics in the game that it’s hard to get it in place in just a week,” Mullen said. “By then we’re into a goal line period and a red zone period of what our plan is to attack once we get down there and what are our changes since we’re working with a shorter field.

“We’re on third downs and what do we want to do on third down to stay on the field and what changes we’ll see on third down from the defense.  Most teams’ blitzes are much different on third down than on first and second down so it’s like seeing a completely different defense and we have different packages of what we want to run on third down.”

Wednesday is also the day that the Gators will work on special plays designed to go against a specific team’s weaknesses. If there are trick plays in this week’s aresenal, they’re practiced on Wednesday along with reverses, complicated check downs and the no-huddle offense.

When Mullen leaves the practice field on Wednesday, he goes back to his office and then goes through the priority list of plays for this week. The Gators have approximately 500 plays in the playbook and on any given week there will be as many as 120 plays on the ready list. Every play has been charted during practice and Mullen starts counting the number of times the plays were practiced.

“I come in and on our game plan board we have every play written up,” he said. “On every play there is a dot next to it. A different colored dot represents what period it was run in.  If it’s a red dot it means it was run during 7-on-7, a green dot means we ran it during team period and a blue dot means during the inside drill. I look at the board and I start counting the dots. If we’ve only practiced a play once or twice on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then we probably don’t like it too much because we’re not working it into our practice plan. I do that Wednesday night and then on Thursday morning when the rest of the coaches come in I say we only ran this one twice and we ran this other one six times, so we either have to take this one out of the plan because we’re not ready for it or else we have to practice it at least three or four times on Thursday.”

PART TWO ON MONDAY NIGHT: Thursday is the last serious practice for Saturday’s opponent and Friday is a travel day if the Gators are away from home or a light-hearted walk through day if the game is played in Gainesville. A look at what goes into preparation all the way up until game time plus candid talk from Mullen about how the quarterbacks have input during the week in the game planning process.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.