By: FRANZ BEARD
“It’s déjà vu all over again” – Yogi Berra
History, which has a distinct way of repeating itself, is on Dan Mullen’s side. Going all the way back to Bowling Green where he transformed a sledgehammer of what was essentially a single wing tailback into a functioning quarterback who was as dangerous with his arm as his feet, Mullen’s history is that every second year starter gets better and every team with that second year starter is a better team than the year before.
Josh Harris was listed at 6-1 but that was in his cleats. The 245 pounds of muscle he carried was very real and made him a beast in short yardage, frightening if he ever broke loose with a head of steam. The trick for Mullen was to refine him into a legitimate dual threat. By year two Harris was lethal and Bowling Green was the team nobody in the Mid-American Conference wanted to play.
Mullen’s come a long way since Bowling Green, but at every rung on his ladder of success there has been a repeat of the process where both quarterback and team improve substantially in year two. That, precisely, is why Florida fans should be optimistic that the Gators will improve on last year’s 10-3 and Feleipe Franks will take his place among the elite quarterbacks in the SEC.
Here is a look at Mullen’s track record with starting quarterbacks dating back to his days as an assistant coach at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer:
Josh Harris, Bowling Green (2001-02): When Harris became the starter in 2001, the spread option concept began to take shape. As the part-time starter, Harris threw for 1,022 yards and nine touchdowns and ran for 641 and eight more as the Falcons finished the season with three straight wins go to 8-3, a huge improvement from the 2-9 of 2000 the year before Urban Meyer became the head coach with Mullen tutoring the quarterbacks. Bowling Green went 9-3 in season two with Harris as the established #1 guy. Harris threw for 2,425 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 737 and 20 TDs.
Alex Smith, Utah (2003-04): Utah went 5-6 with Smith on the bench in 2002. Enter Meyer and Mullen in 2003 and the Utes improved to 10-2 as Smith threw for 2,247 yards and 15 touchdowns while running for 452 and five more. Year two was magical as the Utes ran the table (12-0) with Smith throwing for 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 631 and 10. Utah went from 28.7 points per game in 2003 to 45.3 in season two.
Chris Leak, Florida (2005-06): This was a huge challenge since Leak was a reluctant runner who had been groomed since he could walk to be a pocket passer. Square pegs don’t fit into round holes, so Mullen adapted the offense to fit Leak’s skills. In a year when they were still trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, the Gators improved from 8-5 to 9-3 in 2005 with Leak throwing for 2,639 yards and 20 touchdowns. He ran for six TDs but that was the result of 81 reluctantly positive yards. The Gators improved to 13-1 and won the national championship in 2006 as Leak threw for 2,942 yards and 23 touchdowns while running for three more. Leak was the Most Outstanding Player in Florida’s 41-14 blowout of highly favored Ohio State in the national championship game.
Tim Tebow, Florida (2007-08): Tebow was a valuable commodity on the 2006 national championship team as a situational player who ran for tough yards and threw sparingly. He took over the team as the starting QB in 2007 and promptly put together one of the greatest statistical seasons ever for a college player, throwing for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 895 and 23 more. Tebow won the Heisman Trophy as the Gators went 9-4. The stats weren’t better in 2008, but Tebow was a vastly improved quarterback. In leading the Gators to a 13-1 mark and the national championship, Tebow threw for 2,746 yards and 30 touchdowns and ran for 673 and 12 more. The Tebow of 2008 was a mature QB who knew how to get every one of his teammates involved which had everything to do with the Gators winning the national title.
Chris Relf, Mississippi State (2009-10): Relf worked his way into a starting job during Mullen’s first year at Mississippi State when the Bulldogs went from terrible to respectable. Relf was the running QB while Tyson Lee was the thrower. Relf passed for 283 yards and five TDs while running for 500 and two more scores. As the full-time starter in 2010, Relf threw for 1,789 yards and 13 TDs, ran for 713 yards and five TDs and led the Bulldogs to a most surprising 9-4 record that included a 52-14 thrashing of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (2013-14): A year after backing up Tyler Russell, Prescott, who chose Mississippi State because Mullen would let him play QB, put up good but not great numbers while leading the Bulldogs to seven wins including three in a row at the end. Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and 10 touchdowns while rushing for 829 and 13. Then came his second year as a starter when the Bulldogs spent four weeks as the #1 team in the country and finished 10-3. Prescott literally exploded as a playmaker, throwing for 3,449 yards and 34 touchdowns while running for 986 and 14 more.
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State (2016-2017): With Dak Prescott gone on to the NFL, there were predictions of doom and gloom for the Mississippi State offense since Nick Fitzgerald, he of the 14 pass attempts in 2015, was heir to the Prescott throne. Coming out of Richmond Hill, Georgia, Fitzgerald’s best offers were Chattanooga and Samford until Mullen came along and offered a Division I scholarship to Mississippi State. In his first year as a starter, Fitzgerald threw for 2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs. The stats weren’t as good in 2017 as they were the previous season, but Mississippi State was a better football team with a more balanced offense. The Bulldogs went 9-4 with Fitzgerald throwing for 1,782 yards and 15 TDs while rushing for 984 and 14 in a season cut short by a dislocated ankle.
Feleipe Franks, Florida (2018): It was only a year ago that Franks was thought to be transfer material because there was no way even a noted quarterback whisperer like Mullen could salvage his Florida career. Well, here we are about to start year two and Franks is coming off a season in which he threw for 2,457 yards and 24 TDs and ran for 350 more with seven touchdowns, the best QB stats since Tebow in 2009. To say the transition for Franks went smoothly would be a lie, but at some point the lights went on and when they did the entire Florida football team responded. The Gators went from 4-7 to 10-3 and laid waste to FSU and Michigan (Chik-fil-A) Peach Bowl as the finishing touches of a season-ending 4-game winning streak.