Yesterday, I saw a tweet from Connor O’Gara from Saturday Down South noting that eight SEC quarterbacks have at least 100 total touchdowns to their names, and four of them had Dan Mullen coach them.
I don’t love total touchdowns as a stat, not the least because passing scores get counted twice: once for the passer and once for the catcher. However, I couldn’t resist digging a little deeper because there’s an easy caveat that you may have already thought of.
The four quarterbacks who played for Mullen and got to 100 touchdowns were Chris Leak (101), Tim Tebow (145), Dak Prescott (111), and Nick Fitzgerald (101). Of them, only Prescott played his entire career with Mullen guiding his offense.
So here’s a quick breakdown of how many touchdowns these guys had that Mullen actually called the plays for.
Leak had 49 as an underclassman and 52 as an upperclassman. So, a little over half of his career touchdowns came under Mullen’s tutelage. However, the year he gained his most total touchdowns was his sophomore campaign while Florida was getting deeper into its first spread offense experiment.
Tebow got to 110 touchdowns in his first three seasons, so he safely cleared the century mark with Mullen on the sideline. It still is kind of amazing to see his scoring decline over the seasons like that, but in 2008 at least it was because he had more help. In 2009, Florida just scored about a touchdown less per game under Steve Addazio’s watch after Mullen left.
I include Prescott here for the sake of completeness, in case you’re curious about how his rushing/passing split worked.
Fitzgerald racked up 72 touchdowns in his first three years while Mullen was his head coach. He continued his rushing touchdowns pace after his remarkable first season as a starter. His passing pace fell off without MSU’s all-time leading receiver Fred Ross, who caught 12 of Fitzgerald’s 21 touchdown passes in 2016.
How to get to 100
It’s not too hard to figure out how to get to 100 total touchdowns. Just average 25 touchdowns a year across your four years of eligibility and you’re there. It’s even easier now that players get to appear in four games and still redshirt. Just be an effective touchdown vulture in those four games and voila, you’re above 100.
Really, though, there are two main paths when you look at the full list.
One is to be a four-year starter (or close to it) in a pass-oriented offense. Aaron Murray, Danny Wuerffel, Drew Lock, Leak, and Peyton Manning all fit this mold.
The other is to be at least a good enough passer while getting ten or more rushing touchdowns a year. Tebow, Prescott, and Fitzgerald fall in here, and that’s really where you see Mullen’s influence.
Most coaches don’t run their quarterbacks like Mullen or his mentor Urban Meyer do. If they do, then the quarterback in question is generally not a great passer. There are some notable exceptions, like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall for Gus Malzahn or Johnny Manziel for Kevin Sumlin, but these are exceptions and not the rule.
Longevity really does count here too.
Take Joe Burrow. How is he not on this list? Didn’t he just throw for 60 touchdowns in 15 games? Yes, but he only started for two years, and he only threw for 16 touchdowns as a junior. He finished with 78 passing and 13 rushing for 91 total touchdowns.
Or think about his counterpart in crimson, Tua Tagovailoa. He was a transcendent talent, evident from his first spring practice round as a freshman. He only started two years though, and his second was cut short by injury. Alabama also didn’t run him much, not the least because it didn’t need to, and so he finished with 87 passing against just nine rushing for 96 total touchdowns. He’d have gotten to 100 if he finished 2019 healthy, but misfortune got to him.
Mullen’s quarterback-centric offense really is conducive to producing high touchdown generators. It has persisted in his return to Gainesville even though he hasn’t had a rushing threat like Tebow, Prescott, or Fitzgerald.
In 2018, Feleipe Franks racked up 24 passing and seven rushing for 31 total touchdowns. If Franks could’ve matched that count in his final two years of eligibility, he could combine his 93 touchdowns under Mullen with his nine from 2017 to surpass the century mark. Kyle Trask accounted for 29 touchdowns last year despite not starting the whole way. Franks had six before going down, giving the UF starting quarterback more than 30 for the second straight year.
It’s hard to project when Mullen’s next 100-touchdown player will come. Trask won’t get there unless he can somehow get to 70 this year — Tebow only hit 55 in his Heisman campaign, so no, it won’t happen — and Emory Jones and his five career touchdowns has only two years of eligibility beyond this fall.
The next one in line would be 2020 signee Anthony Richardson, who’s up in the pipeline after Jones. He figures to redshirt this year, but even then if Jones starts for two years in 2021 and 2022, he’ll have just two years of eligibility left after the ’22 season.
Mullen’s offense will provide the opportunity, but the relative stability he’s generated so far at quarterback means he may not have at least a three-year starter for a while. It will mean a pause on 100-touchdown players but less drama than some other places behind center. I think that’s a tradeoff Mullen will take.