In sports we have stock phrases that ostensibly could mean anything but in practice only get used for certain contexts. One of those is “may be his best coaching job ever”.
Any season could be a guy’s best coaching job ever. An undefeated season is likely to be someone’s best coaching job ever.
Really though, people tend to use the phrase for one thing: a team has a record that doesn’t stand out as impressive, but the fine details show that things could be worse if not for some cleverness on the coach’s part. You, the basic sports fan, might think it’s not a special year, but I, the enlightened sports commentator, am here to tell you that this may be his best coaching job ever.
For Dan Mullen, the 2020 season wouldn’t qualify for this trope. Florida is, in most ways, doing better than expected. Doubly so for the side of the ball where Mullen is most hands-on.
But forget the typical meaning. This season may just be Mullen’s best coaching job ever.
Mullen came up in the spread-to-run school. It came into existence to answer the question, “how can we run the ball better?” The solution was twofold: gain a numbers advantage a the point of attack by having the quarterback be a threat to carry the ball, and spread the field to remove defenders from the box to make running between the tackles easier.
One of the reasons Mullen picked Feleipe Franks over Kyle Trask was the former’s greater ability to run the ball. He also had game experience and was more of a vocal leader among the team, but mobility was one of the leading factors.
I don’t know how many people realize how much Mullen has changed his offense to fit Trask’s abilities. He’s never been this pass dependent in his career.
At Mississippi State, the most the balance of plays tiled towards passing was in 2015 with a senior Dak Prescott and no true premier running back. Even then, Prescott carried the ball more than 120 times himself. Mullen’s Bulldog quarterback who did the least rushing was Tyler Russell, but he handed off to a pair of 1,000-yard tailbacks.
Franks was somewhere in the middle of those two as a rusher, averaging more carries per game than anyone this year does other than Dameon Pierce. The offense Mullen created for him was based on a certain level of rushing. When the offensive line proved not up to the task last year, we saw a good amount of swing and screen passes to substitute for run plays.
Those plays are largely gone this year. There’s no reason why Pierce or especially Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright couldn’t do the tunnel screen that Lamical Perine ran to perfection last year.
They’re gone partly because the run game is far more efficient, if not explosive, this fall. Mostly, it’s because Mullen made his first offense that’s truly pass-first. In another phrasing, Mullen has made his first spread-to-pass scheme.
It’s working. There’s not a single defense that’s yet had an answer for everything the Gators do, and hardly anything seems to phase Trask. He’s been without his best target Kyle Pitts for the better part of three games, and he keeps on rolling. Pitts’s absence helps teams focus on his second-best target Kadarius Toney and he still keeps on rolling. The only thing that slows him down to any degree is when defenses take advantage of UF’s still-iffy offensive line to pressure him.
And that’s another thing. Florida has a record-setting offense that may yet be the best in school history, and it doesn’t even have a good offensive line. It has an average-at-best offensive line. It gets beat around the edges. Guard pulls are sometimes too slow. Downfield blocking is spotty. Add it up, and it’s adequate for a 44.7 points per game clip at present.
The defense is where the argument for Mullen’s best job falls down. It had another questionable outing on Saturday, and the things going wrong — communication issues, the secondary giving massive cushions for easy completions, busts for big plays — are the same as they were in Game 1.
For what it’s worth, Mullen spent some of the COVID shutdown sitting down and evaluating every defensive player with his assistants. We saw some improvements right away after. He also pushed them to play more young guys prior to the Vandy game, and some like Jesiah Pierre and Ty’Ron Hopper shined in Nashville.
Mullen calls offensive plays, so by necessity he delegates a lot on the defensive side. He chose his defensive coordinator and position coaches, and not all of them are doing their best coaching jobs ever. Staffing choices are on Mullen even if every day-to-day decision is not, though he’s at least twice stepped in to induce significant and positive changes.
I can’t close without going back to that COVID shutdown. It’s hard this year with everyone in limbo pending virus tests and contact tracing. It would’ve been easy to lose players over the offseason without spring practice or regular, in-person meetings, and a break in team activities such as happened in October is literally unprecedented.
Mullen kept the team together, remained flexible, and is overseeing a fairly normal progression on the field. The team is improving with time and didn’t show a lot of rust once games got going again. He got the win he needed most in dominant fashion after the shutdown occurred.
The season is not over, and there is competition. A more traditional “may be his best coaching job ever” candidate exists in Mullen’s 2010 Mississippi State, which went 9-4 in just his second year after taking over what had been a dreadful team for most of the prior decade. The ’10 Bulldogs nearly beat Cam Newton’s Auburn early on and took one of the great Bobby Petrino Arkansas teams to double overtime before falling.
I can’t help but be impressed at the job Mullen has done as a head football coach this year. He built an offense with a foundation unlike any other in his career, has a Heisman candidate quarterback who didn’t start in high school or college before last year, and is challenging school record after school record.
This year may just be his best coaching job ever.