The Sunday Evening Quarterback: November 17, 2019

ADJUSTING AND ADAPTING, WHAT A CONCEPT!

It was an inability to adapt and adjust that helped do in the previous head football coach at the University of Florida. Perhaps he thought he had all the answers and didn't need to change anything but had that been true, he probably would still be coaching the Gators. What we've seen in the 24 games that Dan Mullen has been Florida's head coach is constant adaptation to the personnel he has available and on the fly adjustments during games.


What a concept.


The 2019 season is a perfect example of adapting to the personnel. Florida came into the season lacking experience on the offensive line and with an abundance of fast, talented wide receivers. Mullen probably figured out back in the spring that unless this group of O-linemen morphed over the summer into one capable of going belly-to-belly with the big, quick defensive lines you find at nearly every outpost in the Southeastern Conference that he was going to go top heavy with the passing game. The question was could these guys protect well enough that Feleipe Franks could get the ball to the receivers? The answer to that has been a yes. More on Franks in just a bit.


Pass protection is like a hybrid of sumo and ballet. Sure, you've got to be strong enough to deal with bull rushers, but you've also got to be quick enough to slide your feet and stay in front of people, many of whom come off the edge with blurring quickness. There isn't nearly as much strength-on-strength as there is in the running game and because opposing defensive coordinators play games with their front seven, the mental aspect of pass blocking is as difficult as the part about keeping in front of the bad guys with hands in their chests. What do you do if the defensive end you're supposed to block loops to the middle or drops in coverage and then some linebacker or safety comes full speed, attempting to roar past? What if three of the four down linemen rush, one drops back and a corner comes off the edge and a linebacker or safety does a delay or sugar blitz? What happens if they show they're bringing seven but three drop and it's a straight four-man rush? Those are the questions that have to be answered on almost every snap of the ball in pass protection.


The one starter Mullen had returning on his O-line for 2019 was center Nick Buchanan, not exactly one of the real physical specimens at the position in the SEC, but maybe one of the most cerebral at his position. Buchanan was so smart at reading what the opponents were going to do and then communicating it to his mates on the O-line that he won the starting center job in the spring of 2018 even though he had (a) never played the position and (b) really hadn't played more than a handful of snaps anywhere on the offensive line his entire career. Buchanan learned on the fly, well enough last year that virtually the same group that gave up 37 sacks in 2017 allowed only 18. This year, working with four new starters and with an offense that has gone from 60-40 run in 2018 to pass heavy this year, Buchanan has once again consistently gotten the Gators in the right protections. Florida has given up 24 sacks in 11 games, but the Gators are averaging 6.5 more pass attempts per game.


A year ago the Gators average 40.5 running plays and 28 pass plays per game. This year, it's 34.5 pass plays and 30.8 running plays. A year ago the Gators averaged 213.5 rushing yards per game and 5.27 per play. This year it's 124.18 and 4.03 per play. The running game hasn't been abandoned, but in part because run blocking isn't the strength of the O-line, the emphasis is different. Third-and-three was a running down last year. Third-and-three in 2019 might be two receivers running vertical routes, two running slants and the running back dragging across the middle.


This where having one of the nation's best receiving corps comes into play to go with a strong element of trust between Mullen, his quarterback and his receivers. Florida has five receivers with 20 or more catches and two within three of grabbing their 20th catch. Led by tight end Kyle Pitts (46-566, five touchdowns), who leads all SEC tight ends in receiving stats and should earn first team All-SEC honors, Florida's receivers force opposing defensive coordinators to play pick and choose when it comes to doubling up. Whoever they double leaves someone else with single coverage and that works to the advantage of Van Jefferson (38-480, four touchdowns), Trevon Grimes (30-470, three touchdowns), Freddie Swain (40-434, five touchdowns) and Josh Hammond (24-307, two touchdowns). Throw in running back Lamical Perine, who not only leads the Gators in rushing (520 yards, four touchdowns) but has caught 32 passes for 179 yards and another four, and it is a lethal bunch.


Mullen has never had a group of receivers this deep and he's tailored the offense to take advantage. Again, it's about adapting and adjusting. The previous coach tried to run what worked at Alabama for three years and the result was a stagnant offense that never cracked the top 100 nationally. Mullen readily admits he loves running the football, but he's pragmatic enough to know that you go with your strength and Florida's strength is its passing game.


Here is where another adjustment and adaptation took place. With Feleipe Franks, Mullen had a quarterback with the big arm who could escape pressure and turn a potential sack into a 20-yard run. Once Franks figured out when and where it was best to run in 2018, he became a legitimate dual threat guy who burned opponents for 177 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the four-game winning streak that ended the season on such a high note. That's what Mullen figured to have this year and he expected Franks to carry some of the rushing load by being that guy defenses can't account for as a runner. When Franks went down against Kentucky, Kyle Trask had to take over. While Franks can turn a potential sack into a first down run, Trask lacks that kind of mobility. Trask can get some yards when defenses least expect it but he doesn't have the kind of speed Franks has. Franks can get you 20. Trask can get you five. Maybe.


So an offense that was already going to be more pass heavy than the year before adapted to what Trask does best, which is stand in the pocket, see the field and the ball to the open man.

A year ago Franks completed 58.4% of his passes for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns in 13 games, an average of 7.6 yards per pass attempt. Since taking over and leading the Gators to 19 straight points and a come from behind win at Kentucky following the Franks injury, Trask is hitting 66.8% of his passes for 2,293 yards and 21 touchdowns, an average of 8.4 per attempt. Trask has thrown for two or more touchdowns in eight consecutive games, the longest streak for a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow led the Gators to the national championship in 2008.


Between Trask and Mullen we also see a very strong element of trust. Despite his overall lack of experience prior to becoming Florida's starting QB, Trask has shown the ability to make good decisions and get the ball accurately where it's supposed to be on a consistent basis. Mullen can make an initial play call, see something different when the Gators get ready to snap the ball and then signal in a new play. Evidence that he trusts Trask to understand the new play and get the offense adjusted is evident in the few times UF has been called for delay of game when a play is changed at the line of scrimmage.


Trask is a more accurate passer for sure, but here is what has really separated him from Franks – Franks too often ignores a five-yard dump off and goes for the big play even if it means fitting the football into a very tight window in which there is very little margin for error. Trask will occasionally try to fit the ball into a tight window but it's more of a calculated throw with him. More often than not, if the throw he was looking for isn't there, Trask will find a check-down receiver and will be happy to move the sticks flipping the ball to the safety valve receiver.


* * *


The past three games have been all about halftime adjustments for Mullen. Even in the loss to Georgia, he adjusted the offense and got the Gators within a couple of defensive stops away from a shot at winning the game. Florida was down 16-3 at the half, but the Gators put together two second half touchdowns and had the Georgia defense on its heels. Against Vanderbilt, the Gators led 14-0 at the half but they exploded for 35 points in the third quarter – 28 on the offensive end – on their way to a 56-0 win. In that impressive third quarter, every single play call resulted in either a first down or a touchdown. Vanderbilt was doing the same things it did in the first half but the difference was Mullen adjusted to how he was going to attack.


Saturday against Missouri, which has one of the better defensive units in the SEC, the Gators led 6-3 at the half. Mullen once again adjusted what the Gators were doing and the result was two third quarter touchdowns. Florida's 23-6 win wasn't fancy by any stretch, but it was a rock solid win, the kind that probably wouldn't have happened from 2015-17. For the previous coach to win, the Gators usually had to take the initiative from the start and hold it the entire game. With Mullen, it's figure it out on the fly and adapt as you go.


The Gators are 9-2 with the only losses to the nation's first and fourth ranked teams. In both losses, the Gators were a handful of plays away from either sending the games into overtime or winning outright. A year ago, Florida's three losses weren't even close. The Gators lost to Kentucky 27-16, a game not nearly as close as the score might indicate. They lost 36-17 to Georgia and 38-17 to Missouri. A year ago, Mullen was learning what his troops could do as the season progressed. This year he knows what the capabilities are and he's adjusted his offense accordingly. When you add the in-game adjustments into the mix, you have a Florida team that is more capable of dealing with adversity than in 2018.


With a win over Florida State in a couple of weeks, the Gators will finish the regular season 10-2 with a chance to get to 11 wins for the first time since 2012 in what is likely to be their second straight New Year's Six bowl game. When the previous coach won 19 games in his first two seasons, the Gators seemed to be spinning their wheels, which became abundantly clear in season three when everything fell apart. Mullen is at 19 wins and has a chance to finish with 21 in his first two seasons. He hasn't won the SEC East in either year, which the previous coach did, but the previous coach didn't have to deal with such a vastly improved Georgia team either. We see with Mullen a coach who has the Florida program making the right kind of progress in large part because he's not afraid to adjust what he's doing to fit the personnel on hand and knows how to adjust in game.

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