Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Tim Tebow, Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators made the jump pass famous in the 2010's. But it was around far before that and evolved.
It was 2006. The Florida Gators were facing LSU. They were in the redzone with freshman quarterback Tim Tebow lined up in an empty backfield, a fullback in front of him to the left and a receiver split out to the sideline. Tight end Tate Casey was on the line at the right tackle’s hip as a blocker. Everything indicated run. Casey had to break through and ended up falling backwards as he pulled in the lofted pass.
It was 2008. The Gators were facing Oklahoma in the National Championship and needed to score in the redzone to ice the game. Heisman winner Tim Tebow had Riley Cooper and David Nelson to his left with Nelson in the slot. There were six offensive linemen to block along with defensive tackle Javier Estopinan in a jumbo package. Again everything read run. But even in a well-defended play, Nelson was able to grab the pass for a touchdown that put the Gators up by 10 on their way to win the title game.
Both plays have become synonymous with Tim Tebow, Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators. It’s the jump pass, the beloved play that thrust Tebow onto the national scene and defined an era. And when former offensive coordinator Dan Mullen returned to Gainesville as head coach in 2018, he brought it along in his playbook. In his first game, as an ode to fans, he had Feleipe Franks toss a jump pass to Tyrie Cleveland.
Casey is now a sideline reporter for the Gators IMG radio network and was standing just outside the corner of the endzone, watching Cleveland in ’18 as he hauled in the pass in nearly the exact same spot as Casey himself did 12 years ago. He jokingly interrupted Mullen during his post game press conference to say his looked better. You can watch the film if you’d like to determine that for yourself.
But the play isn’t unique just to Gainesville. It’s more of a Mullen play than anything, and it’s had a long history to get to this point. Following that 2018 game and Feleipe Franks admitting he had not seen the original Tebow video of the pass before, Mullen revealed there were countless other times he’s ran it and it’s been overlooked.
“You guys just haven't watched me enough over the last nine years. We've called it a bunch of times in games and it didn't always work.”
Before Florida or Mississippi State or Florida again, there was Utah, where Mullen first began tinkering with a pass that was more of a throwback to days of old when the gridiron better resembled a playground. And originally, as Mullen revealed to reporters a year and a half ago, it wasn’t meant to be delivered by a quarterback. Instead it was more of a wildcat play, meant to take some pressure off a quarterback that wasn’t a runner.
“When we were at the University of Utah, Alex Smith was not a running quarterback. I mean he was really good at some read-option stuff and he could pull it, even today, he can pull it and he's fast enough to run around the edge, but he's not kind of a between-the-tackles power runner, so we did a bunch of direct snap stuff. We put our tailback back there and snapped it to him, Ben Moa was the tight end, we'd snap it to him.
“So we had a play at the goal line where we would direct snap to, it was Ben Moa, and he'd power away. And then said as soon as you snap it to him everybody is going to just not think he's going to throw it and we had a jump pass off of it.”
Just as many Gator fans remember every part of the Tebow passes to Casey and Nelson, Mullen can vividly recall the details that went into the first jump pass he called.
“We called it for the two-point conversion to win the game in double-overtime at Air Force. We pounded it in like three times in a row with Ben. Every time we'd run it just off tackle, and he'd just scored the tying touchdown. It was the overtime you had to, I think it was the third, we had to go for two [point conversion]. We stopped; they scored, we stopped their two-point conversion and we scored. Pounded it in with Ben doing it, then we did the jump pass and we hit it.”
When he arrived in Gainesville and found Tebow—a quarterback that had the body of a tight end—Mullen tweaked the idea and utilized a passer that had to be defended as a runner; because for all intents and purposes, explains Mullen, the jump pass is simply a RPO (run pass option).
“They've got to defend it. It's like any run-pass option in place. We'll run some quarterback run. When we run quarterback run they've still got to be ready to defend the pass with the play-action aspect of it.”
There’s also the matter of when you call it, something that’s more important than the scheme of the offensive plan according to Mullen. Because as much as it seems like a broken down play and improvisation, it's actually a planned pass and one Tate Casey revealed he, Tebow and Mullen worked on for weeks after practice.
So in 2018, when quarterback coach Brian Johnson suggested it back during that Charleston Southern game, Mullen agreed, saying he knew it would be fun for fans, but also that it was the perfect example of when you could set up that type of play since it depends on forcing the defense to defend the quarterback run, allowing the formation to change each and every time.
“It’s kind of when you call it. You’ve got to set it up a little bit to get them not expecting it. So that helps… A lot of times with plays, you’re going to trick plays or like deceptive-type play, it’s not really the scheme as much as when you call it is more important than what you’re doing. I’m setting them up for this reverse pass. I’m setting them up for the jump pass. I’m setting them up for the fumblerooski or whatever it is. It’s more of when you call it and is it the right situation.”
The fumblerooski, by the way, is something Mullen says is in his playbook and like the jump pass; it’s all about when you call it in order to make it work.
"I've probably done it with [Chris] Rainey [at Florida]. I did it at Mississippi State I know that. It's all about when you call the plays…we did it and it didn't work. Called that at the wrong time.”
But for now he’s going to focus on the jump pass, keeping it in the playbook and fine-tuning it with this new generation of players. It’s supposed to be more of a finger roll, Mullen jokingly explained back then, more closely resembling the wounded duck of Tebow’s first pass to Casey then the shot that came from Franks to Cleveland.
“There’s a timing aspect to it for the quarterback. And how they jump. We traveled a couple of times during the week. The first time there you run it, they literally jumped. It was kind of funny. I’m like, just jump and throw the ball. It’s nothing complicated. I think all of those have stuff to do with it and how you set it up.”