What to make of Dan Mullen being tied to NFL jobs

I’ll start by saying I don’t have any inside information about whether Dan Mullen is genuinely interested in moving up to the next level, if his agent is spreading smoke for negotiation purposes, or if the truth is somewhere in between. If that’s what you’re here for, you won’t get it.

With that out of the way, it makes all kinds of sense for Mullen and the NFL to be linked together. If he doesn’t leave for the professional ranks this year, I expect to hear it most years in the future. The NFL is a copycat league, and once one franchise — even one as dysfunctional as the New York Jets — decides someone is potentially a worthy head coach, the meme becomes hard to kill. You still see David Shaw being mentioned in passing for pro jobs this year even as Stanford has fallen off over the last three-to-four years.

Mullen’s side is the easiest one to explain. He’s a very competitive guy as evidenced by his thumb wrestling quote from the past. He also is one of the brightest offensive minds in football. He has succeeded with Nick Fitzgerald, a high school triple option quarterback who couldn’t throw that well, and Kyle Trask, a top-notch passer who lumbers more than runs, and a variety of signal callers in between.

Exceptional collegiate coaches often hear the siren call of the NFL sooner or later unless they’re manifestly committed to the particulars around the college game. Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, and Chip Kelly gave the pro game try for a couple of years, and Urban Meyer is reportedly taking a long look at a pro job right now.

No, Mullen has not won a national or even a conference title in 12 years of being a college head coach. Neither did Kliff Kingsbury in his six, and he’s the current Arizona Cardinals head coach. The Cards picked him up after he was fired by Texas Tech, all because Air Raid principles have finally become trendy on the pro level and I guess because he was Patrick Mahomes’s college coach.

The latter point is the reason I think Mullen has caught the NFL’s eye. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2020 is the year when a team reportedly has shown real interest in him for the first time.

Mullen was the college quarterbacks coach for Alex Smith, who’s been in the league for approximately 43 years and has started more than 170 combined regular season and playoff games. A future hall-of-famer he’s not, but that’s a lot of first snaps taken. Mullen was also the head coach and offensive coordinator for Dak Prescott, who’s started every game he’s been healthy for with a pair of playoff appearances.

Mullen is about to put another quarterback into the league in Trask, and he’s arguably the most pro-ready of them all from the standpoint of processing the field and making reads. The few mistakes he makes often go very badly — half of his eight interceptions were returned for scores this year — and his pocket awareness is subpar as a result of him not starting in high school or most of his college career. I think he’ll improve on those and become at least a solid pro for a long time.

It’s rare that any coach, college or pro, develops multiple starting-caliber quarterbacks. On the pro level, it’s partially a function of franchises locking up top flight QBs and their coaches for a decade or more. Once you have one, he’s yours forever, and then you’re not trying again for a long time. You can think of some, like Andy Reid with Donovan McNabb and Mahomes, or on the college level Dabo Swinney with Deshaun Watson and soon-to-be top pick Trevor Lawrence.

Mullen is not like those guys in an important way. McNabb and Mahomes were top-ten draft picks. Watson was a borderline 5-star recruit, and Lawrence was a projected first overall pick before he left high school.

Smith barely made the Internet recruiting site era, and he was a 2-star prospect who went to Utah before it was a power conference program. Prescott was a mid 3-star prospect. Trask was a 2-star who, again, didn’t start in high school. Both Smith and Trask signed for other coaches before Mullen arrived. Mullen is also an actual quarterbacks coach, unlike Swinney, who was a wide receivers coach by trade.

In other words, Mullen has been able to take players not well thought of by scouts and turn them into pro material. Multiple times he did it with guys he personally didn’t pick to be his guy.

To be fair, Brian Johnson was Mullen’s quarterbacks coach for both Prescott and Trask, and that’s a big reason why he is getting some heat as a potential head coach despite being only 33-years-old. I’ll also note that no one should get more credit for Kyle Trask’s development than Kyle Trask. The mental fortitude required to prepare as though you’re the starter for more than six seasons without actually starting a game is a rare trait indeed. Even so, Mullen has always been hands-on with the quarterbacks as a head coach and played a large role in developing those guys.

The pro game offers some upsides for Mullen. It’s all about ball there with no recruiting or booster ego massaging to be done. He’s also expressed misgivings about some upcoming NCAA rule changes such as those around transfers. There is no job loyalty in the NFL, but at least everything is clearly 100% business transactions.

I don’t know if Dan Mullen will ever coach in the NFL. Maybe right now is just not the right time in his life or career. Maybe it won’t happen because he’ll bomb all his interviews as he reportedly did for years when trying to get out of Starkville.

Regardless, I don’t think this year’s speculation will be a one-off. There is no more valuable skill in a quarterback’s league than the ability to develop quarterbacks. The offense Mullen built for Trask, with a hybrid receiver/tight end and running backs as involved in the pass game nearly as much as in a diminished run game, is exactly the kind of scheme most of the league has gone to.

That offense is the reason I think Mullen put himself in the NFL conversation for good. He has gone pass heavy before; Mississippi State was about 60% pass in 2015 for Prescott’s senior year. Even so, Prescott was the top ball carrier by a mile. It was still what NFL types would call a “college offense”. Trask’s offense was not a college offense, with the quarterback required to read the whole field and make NFL level throws.

I would guess that Mullen will be back in Gainesville in 2021, and the pro talk may subside for a year after a season of elevated quarterback run game with Emory Jones. However no matter how long Mullen is the coach at Florida, there will probably be NFL discussion more years than not.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2