Mullen Offense 101: which personnel groupings to watch for

In the other installments of my Mullen Offense 101 series, I’ve done film study pieces. Today I’m going to take a step back and talk about one of the most basic elements of offense: personnel groupings.

I try to avoid using football jargon in these explainers because I want them to be accessible to as many people as possible. This time I’m going to use a bit of it because it makes talking about personnel groupings a lot easier.

Personnel groupings are noted with two numbers. The first refers to how many running backs are on the field. The second is how many tight ends are used. Subtract those numbers from five, and that’s how many receivers there are.

So, 11 personnel (pronounced “eleven”, not “one-one”) means one running back, one tight end, and three receivers; 10 personnel is one running back a four receivers; 12 personnel means one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers; and so on.

I’ve begun doing in-depth charting of Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State games. I’ve done a sample of five so far that I think are representative of his time there, at least among available full games out there. Two are from 2012 when he had his only pocket passer Tyler Russell, one is from 2017 when he had gifted runner and iffy passer Nick Fitzgerald, and one each are from 2014 and 2015 when he had his best runner and thrower Dak Prescott.

One thing that immediately stands out is that by far the most common grouping is 11 personnel. When you think of a default Mullen play, it should have one running back, one tight end, and three receivers. In fact in his breakthrough 2014 win against LSU, Mullen used 11 personnel exclusively until a couple of late goal line rushes traded a receiver for a second tight end.

Speaking of, the next-most common grouping Mullen uses is 12 personnel. As you might expect, he will use that when he wants to run. In the pair of games with Russell, he almost always used 11 and 12 personnel. He did employ some 20 personnel (two backs, no tight ends) to mix things up, but against the Tide and Texas A&M that year, it was mostly 11 and 12.

The strengths of who Mullen has on the team dictate where things go beyond that. The 2015 game I charted shows that well.

You can just look at the team’s receiving stats from ’15 to see that it was a receiver-heavy unit, led by the best receiver in school history Fred Ross and a size mismatch in the huge De’Runnya Wilson. The team’s best pass-catching tight end Gus Walley had a bad time with injuries too, and as it happens he was out for the ’15 Texas A&M game I charted. Mullen compensated by using Justin Johnson as a tight end in that one; Johnson was listed as a receiver in his freshman season that year but has been listed as a tight end from 2016 forward.

Even counting Johnson as a tight end in that contest, this game was by far the one where Mullen used 10 personnel the most. With his deepest fleet of receivers and not his best tight end grouping, it made sense to trade out some of the 11 personnel sets for 10 personnel sets. In the 2012 Alabama game, he only used 10 personnel on 3rd & long. He didn’t use it at all against Texas A&M in 2012, LSU in 2014, or LSU in 2017.

One thing I didn’t see in any of these games was true 00 personnel — five wide receivers and no running backs or tight ends. It might’ve happened in that 2015 Texas A&M game if you count Johnson as a receiver because of his roster listing, but again, he was clearly playing the tight end/H-back role in that one.

With that said, Mullen still used five-wide sets in every one of these games, even occasionally from 11 personnel. That means he was sending even running backs out wide like receivers.

Why do that? It’s mostly to put the defense in a bind. The running back typically, though not exclusively, ends up the guy furthest out by the sideline. Either the defense will essentially waste a cornerback on someone who’s not likely to be the target of a throw or put a linebacker out there and have one fewer run stopper in the middle. The increasing prevalence of nickel (five defensive back) and even dime (six defensive back) defenses makes wasting a corner less of an issue, but it’s great for the run game if a linebacker does end up out by the numbers instead of in the box.

Having said all that, let’s bring this home to the 2018 Gators.

Tight end is not one of the team’s deepest positions. C’yontai Lewis is by far the most experienced, but his blocking is inconsistent and he’s been plagued by drops sometimes. Moral Stephens has only shown occasional flashes, while Kemore Gamble has no game experience following his redshirt in 2017.

Meanwhile, the team is absolutely stacked at running back and has a lot of bodies at receiver. It’ll be in great shape with wideouts if both Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes get cleared to play right away, but I personally don’t expect the former to. Even if only Grimes gets a waiver, there will still be plenty of at least decent options at the position with the tantalizing potential of 2018 signees Jacob Copeland and Justin Watkins to come in the fall.

Therefore, I suspect that we will see something a little like 2015 where Mullen uses less 11 personnel and more 10 personnel. He may also lean into the strength at running back and pull out a lot more 20 personnel. The most I saw of that was in 2012 when he had 1,000-yard rusher LaDarius Perkins and future 1,000-yard rusher Josh Robinson in his stable.

I also don’t think we will see any 00 personnel, even with as many potentially good receivers the team has. It may be tantalizing to imagine Grimes and Cleveland stretching the defense long with an intermediate route for Copeland with plenty of area underneath for Kadarius Toney and Watkins to get isolated in space. However, I didn’t see Mullen go five-wide with five wide receivers in any of these games. I’ll make a note later if I ever spy it in one of his past games, but it doesn’t seem like a thing he does.

Finally, a lot of the offensive improvement that isn’t on the quarterbacks or line will depend on Lewis, Stephens, Gamble, and incoming freshman Kyle Pitts at tight end. Even in that 2015 Texas A&M game with his top tight end out hurt and the best top-to-bottom fleet of receivers he ever had in Starkville, the dominant grouping in the game was still 11 personnel.

Mullen asks a lot of his tight ends, from blocking edge rushers to pulling across the formation to pick up blitzers to running standard tight end seam routes to lining up as far away as the numbers and running routes out there. Are the Gators’ current tight ends up to the task? To what degree they are will go farther than you might’ve previously thought to determining how good the Florida offense can be in 2018.