Gators’ offensive makeover a testament to Mullen’s flexibility

The stylistic difference between the 2020 UF offense and the current one is truly astounding.

In 2020, the Gators led the nation in passing, and Kyle Trask broke the school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season. Tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Kadarius Toney also enjoyed monster seasons and were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

However, coach Dan Mullen showed little interest in running the ball, and, when he did, it was usually a simple handoff to a running back up the middle. They failed to eclipse 100 rushing yards in five of their 12 games.

Fast forward nine months later, and the Gators are second in the country in rushing at 335.7 yards per game. They’re outrushing all three of the service academies, which operate the triple option. They just pounded mighty Alabama to the tune of 258 yards and six yards per carry. They’ve compiled the school’s most rushing yards through the first three games of a season (1,007) in the last 40 years.

It’s not unusual for teams to slowly transition from one style of offense to another as their personnel changes and the coaches try to keep up with the latest trends in the game, but a rapid change like this is pretty unheard of. It’s almost like Mullen just flipped a switch and put the offense into running mode this year.

Mullen said the reasoning behind the shift in offensive styles is simple – his current players are best fit to play in an offense that prominently features the running game. He’s going to adjust his scheme to match his players, not the other way around.

“The key to it [in] learning through the years is making sure that we have the flexibility to match our players and our personnel,” Mullen said. “I’ve learned … probably through many years of many mistakes. You learn to sit there and say, ‘Hey, OK, we have this great system.’ But the worst thing I can ever say as a coach is ‘I have a great system, but it doesn’t fit the players that we have. So, I guess it won’t work.’ Ours is to always make sure it has enough adaptability within the system to make sure it fits whatever our personnel is at a given time.”

For Mullen’s current group, that’s meant a ton of read-option and speed-option plays to take advantage of the excellent crop of blockers they have at receiver and tight end and the athleticism of quarterbacks Emory Jones and Anthony Richardson. You can probably count on one hand the number of speed options Trask ran last year, and they looked more like turtle options when he did.

“Coach Mullen is a great coach, a great offensive-minded coach,” center Kingsley Eguakun said. “So, I think he just puts every player ultimately in the best position to make plays and be their best version of themselves. Also, like him and Coach [John] Hevesy, their philosophy on the O-Line, I think those things really help us communicate and be one unit and be able to work together to be a great unit.”

Mullen said his philosophy on altering the offense based on the players’ strengths originated when he came with Urban Meyer to Florida from Utah prior to the 2005 season. The two had enjoyed tremendous success running their spread offense at Bowling Green and Utah, so they mistakenly thought that they would just be able to plug in the superior athletes that they would inherit at Florida and continue to pile up the points.

Instead, they inherited a pocket-passing quarterback in Chris Leak, an offensive line that didn’t move well enough to run an option offense and a crop of skill-position players that generally lacked elite speed.

For the first two years of his stint as offensive coordinator, Mullen transformed the offense into some form of hybrid between his spread-option attack and the pro-style system that the players were recruited to Florida to play in.

“We come to Florida and think we have all the answers,” he said. “We have this unbelievable offensive system that we’ve created, and ‘Hey, it worked at Utah,’ and we got to Florida and ‘We’re going to have even better players here at Florida, so we have all the answers.’ And we didn’t. It didn’t quite fit the personnel that was here at this time.

“So, all the sudden, you take a step back and say, ‘Hmm, how do we adjust what we’re doing to make sure it fits the personnel that we have?’ Kind of from that point it continued to grow and continued to expand. And the great thing that you had in the back pocket was, as it kind of changed year to year, you still knew the origins.”

Hevesy said that they have a very large playbook, but they only pull a small section out of it to use in a given season.

“Who do you have [at] quarterback, and then who do you have up front?” Hevesy said. “If we’re not big and thick to run the ball, then it’s not going to work. We’ve got to always match the parts to it, and the playbook’s about this thick, so you can pick some things you need. There’s enough in there. You’ve just got to pull them out and use what’s right.”

Mullen also said that his desire to tinker with his offense is one of the reasons why he’s kept a core group of assistant coaches with him throughout his career.

Receivers coach Billy Gonzales worked with Mullen at Florida under Meyer and joined Mullen’s Mississippi State staff in 2013. Hevesy has been with Mullen since they were at Bowling Green from 2001-02. Running backs coach Greg Knox has worked for Mullen since 2009.

Because these three coaches have worked for Mullen for a long time, they understand the origins of his offensive system and are able to transition from one style of play to another quicker than other coaches might be able to.

“Sometimes, you’ll come up with something and say, ‘Hey, we need to get back to doing this,’” Mullen said. “And some of the new guys are looking at you like ‘What are you even talking about?’ And you go back and say, ‘This kind of fits this mold here of where we are.’ I guess we are fortunate to have a bunch of years of knowledge of doing this, how to make it fit all the different styles of personnel that we’ve had over the last 20 years.”

Hevesy said one of the biggest keys to making the transitions work is the unselfishness among the coaches. Nobody is concerned about the stats that their position puts up. Everybody just wants to win games.

“The bottom line is always going to be the wins and losses because, when it comes [to] November, no one could care less of ‘Hey, they ran for 250,’ ‘They ran for 400’ or ‘They ran for six,’” Hevesy said. “Ultimately, it’s your record. When you guys do the rankings and stuff, you don’t rank them ‘Yeah, but they ran [for] that many yards.’ It doesn’t matter; you win or lose. So, to me, we’ve got to get back to the drawing board this week. It’s a whole new week. We have to be 1-0 on Saturday.”

In less than a year, the Gators have gone from being a team that didn’t try to run the ball much and weren’t very successful when they did to a team where the running game is their biggest strength.

Who knows? By this time next year, everybody might be talking about how this team went from being a great running team back to an elite passing team.

Mullen cares more about his players succeeding than trying to impose his ideal offensive scheme on them, and that’s what makes him the offensive wizard that he is.

“He’s definitely probably the smartest coach that I’ve been around, not just football, just with life,” linebacker Jeremiah Moon said. “I’ve had conversations with him, and we’ve talked about a bunch of other things and just how smart he is with everything. So, there’s no surprise that he’s able to just flip the switch when it comes to whoever comes to this program. When he first got here, it [was] Feleipe [Franks] and then being Kyle, Emory. He’s a mastermind; he’s a genius.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.