MIAMI GARDENS – The trust that it took for Dan Mullen to let Kyle Trask check into an option play on fourth-and-one from the Florida 44 in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s Orange Bowl game with Virginia had its origins in that first team meeting two years ago when Mullen addressed a bunch of beaten down Gators who came to Florida expecting more than four wins and no bowl game.
“I knew there were guys that they'd won four games the year before and looking at guys in the room and they were saying that's not why I came to Florida, I came to Florida to be a great football team,” Mullen said after the Gators finished the 2019 season 11-1 with a 36-28 win over Virginia. “It takes a lot of trust. It takes a lot of trust. In that first team meeting I said I'm going to earn your trust and you're going to earn my trust as a coach and how we're going to run this program and build this program.”
Obviously, the two-way street of trust Mullen was talking about that day is alive and well because two years later the Gators have won back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games while improving from 10-3 in 2018 to 11-2 in the season that completed at Hard Rock Stadium Monday night. If there is the perfect example of what happens when you combine patience with trust it is Trask, who seemed destined to finish his collegiate career the same way he spent his three varsity seasons at Manvel High School in Texas – carrying a clipboard on the sideline.
Yet, it was in the monotony of preparing for what had to be seen as the most remote of all possibilities that Trask transformed from Mr. Insignificant into the indispensable leader of an 11-2 football team that will be ranked among the top eight teams in the country when the final polls come out after the national championship game in a couple of weeks. Sure, a measure of luck was involved – back luck on the part of Feleipe Franks, who dislocated his ankle in game three against Kentucky; good luck on the part of Trask, who led the Gators to 19 straight points for an improbable come-from-behind victory – but none of that could have happened if not for the trust whose seeds were sown at that first team meeting two years ago when Mullen was introduced as Florida’s new football coach.
The trust between Mullen and Trask has grown exponentialy since that night in Lexington. Trask, who never started a varsity game in high school, is 8-2 as Florida’s starter. In less than 10-1/2 games he has put up better numbers than Franks did in 13 games last season. Franks threw for 2,457 yards and 24 touchdowns with six interceptions last year. Trask has thrown for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns. That’s more yardage and more TDPs than Tim Tebow accumulated (2,895 yards, 21 touchdowns) in his senior season of 2009.
Mullen beamed with pride post game Monday night when he talked about Trask.
“I think if a young person wants a role model, they can look to the guy to my left right now, know what I mean?” Mullen said. “A guy that maybe life didn't seem to be going maybe the way you want it to go in high school, but you know what, he still was given an opportunity, worked his tail off and was given an opportunity. Maybe it wasn't going the way he wanted it to go when he got to college, but he didn't worry about that. He worked his tail off and then when he was given the opportunity, he was completely prepared.”
Because Trask was so completely prepared, Mullen didn’t flinch in the fourth quarter when the Gators faced that fourth-and-one at their own 44, clinging precariously to a 27-21 lead. Come up short and Virginia would be working with a short field, this after the Cavaliers had marched 75 yards in six plays to trim the Florida lead to that very skinny six points.
Another coach might have called time out upon seeing how Virginia stacked the box in anticipation of something straight up the gut with Lamical Perine but Mullen trusted Trask to make the right decision. Instead of attempting to blast between the tackles for the yard the Gators needed to extend the drive, Trask checked into an option play around the left side. Trask slid down the line, drew the defense to him when he threatened to cut upfield and that provided just enough space for Perine to take the pitch, square his shoulders and power forward for the first down.
“They [Virginia] had everybody pinned inside,” Mullen said. “He checked to the pitch to the outside because they had everybody lined up inside. It was a great check by Kyle, great job by Lamical, obviously a veteran player knowing what he needed to do to get the 1st down and all those things. You're at that moment, you have fourth-and-one, we felt comfortable, felt like we should be able to get that yard, and if not, our defense playing hard, they make plays and we've been aggressive all year long.”
On the next play, Trask and Tyrie Cleveland hooked up for a 30-yard pass play, then Perine squirted through the line and cut to the sideline. By the time a UVa defender got just enough of him that his left foot grazed the out-of-bounds marker, 23 yards had been covered and the Gators had first-and-goal at the one. Virginia guessed wrong on the next play, expecting Perine to get the call for what would have been a fourth TD. Instead Trask tucked it and waltzed into the end zone to increase the UF lead to 33-21.
There was another one of those trust plays following a Kaiir Elam interception at the Florida three on Virginia’s next possession. When Trask and the Gators broke the huddle, the play call was for Perine to find some running room to wedge the ball out from the shadow of the goal line but at the line of scrimmage, Trask not only saw ideal one-on-one coverage on Van Jefferson on the outside but a Virginia corner giving way too much cushion.
So he checked out of the run and into a pass play. It was a relatively safe pass but it would catch the Cavaliers flatfooted.
“They [Virginia] were playing soft,” Mullen said. “They were playing off on him [Jefferson]. They played really soft all night long, almost forcing us to run the ball the whole time. That was one of the ones, know going in if they are going to give the big cushion and leave him one-on-one out there we were going to get the ball out there quick to him.”
Trask took the snap and without hesitation turned and threw to Jefferson, who took one step back toward the end zone. He made the lone defender miss and then took off down the sideline. By the time Virginia defenders caught up, Jefferson was 53 yards downfield to the UVa 44.
Florida finished off that drive with a field goal for a 36-21 lead. Virginia would get a touchdown inside the final minute but those two Trask audibles made the Virginia rally a little bit too little and too late.
So the Gators got a win Monday night, one made possible because of a bond of trust that got its start two years ago. Dan Mullen earned Kyle Trask’s trust and in turn, Trask earned Mullen’s. Although he had to wait patiently for his opportunity, Trask never wavered in his trust or in his belief that everything would work out as it is supposed to.
“Today's world we live in is such an instant gratification world,” Mullen said. “I want it now, I want it now, I want it now and people forget the path to success is not a quick, short turn. The path to success is a long journey, and the guy next to me should be a role model for all young guys out there.”