GAINESVILLE — When the staff that recruited him to Bowling Green left in 2000, Joshua Harris was anxious.
He knew nothing about the new regime, and his incoming quarterbacks coach was some 28-year-old graduate assistant.
Harris didn't know what to think of Dan Mullen.
"He hadn't even been a real coach yet, you know?" Harris said. "But it didn't take long to garner some real respect for him."
Almost two decades later, there was no uncertainty when Mullen reentered Florida's quarterback room. His reputation as one of the nation's top quarterback developers commanded instant respect.
"He's shown it over and over, what he can do and how he gets things done," UF starter Feleipe Franks said. "He's done it everywhere he's been."
At Bowling Green, Harris became the second player in Division I-A history to rush and pass for 40 touchdowns. Utah's Alex Smith became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy at UF with Mullen as his coordinator. And Mullen coached the three players with the most passing touchdowns in Mississippi State history.
The NFL drafted one of Mullen's quarterbacks at each stop, and UF athletic director Scott Stricklin kept coming back to his track record with quarterbacks when he hired Mullen away from the Bulldogs in November.
Current and former passers cite several reasons for Mullen's success at the game's most important position: enormous expectations, easy accessibility, an eye for talent and an eagerness to adapt.
He has already proven he can develop the position at UF, where he helped Tebow become a star and the Gators become champions. The question, entering Saturday's SEC opener against Kentucky:
Can he do it again?
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Before Mullen was a quarterback whisperer, he was a quarterback screamer.
Harris remembers making a poor decision at Central Michigan in 2002; he could hear Mullen yelling from the sidelines while the ball was still in the air. The tirade continued after the play, and Harris took it as long as he could before moving down the bench.
A few moments later, Mullen sat down and apologized.
"That was one of the most influential moments…" Harris said. "That just had to do with the standards and the expectation that those guys set for us."
Although Mullen's temperament has softened since then, his lofty expectations have not. That applies across the team — living up to the "Gators standard" has been one of his biggest mantras — but it's especially true for his quarterbacks. A passer could make a great throw off a great read and still get nitpicked over his body language.
The critiques aren't off-putting because Mullen balances it with another strength: His accessibility.
"He's always there…" Franks said. "He's always giving constructive criticisms, but he's always right there when you're doing it."
When Franks is watching film, it's not just him and quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson. Mullen is there, too.
It was the same way at Mississippi State, where Nick Fitzgerald credits Mullen's chalk talk for helping him transform from a two-star recruit to one of the SEC's top players.
"He taught me how all 22 pieces of the puzzle fit together on the field," Fitzgerald said.
And it was the same way at Bowling Green, where Mullen's hands-on coaching helped Harris become a 2003 sixth-round pick.
"He's teaching you concepts, not plays…" Harris said. "He's teaching you the why."
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Producing top quarterbacks is a lot easier when you start with the nation's top dual-threat recruit (Tebow) or a future Pro Bowler (Smith). But Mullen has also found stars that recruiting services overlooked.
Dak Prescott wasn't one of the top 600 prospects in his class; he broke 38 Bulldogs records under Mullen and starts for the Dallas Cowboys. Fitzgerald — whose only other offer was Middle Tennessee State — is poised to pass Tebow later this year for the most rushing yards by a quarterback in SEC history.
"I think he just kind of saw raw talent," Fitzgerald said.
That raw talent was different than the raw talent of Harris, or Smith, which leads to what Mullen considers the biggest reason for his success: His adaptability.
"I think one of the best things about Coach Mullen's resume is the fact that he's coached guys that have all looked very, very different and had different skill sets and gotten a ton of production out of them," said Johnson, whom Mullen recruited and coached at Utah.
The 6-foot-4, 212-pound Smith looked like a prototypical drop-back passer who could speed around the edge. He threw twice as often as he ran. Tebow looked like a tight end (an inch shorter than Smith but 30 pounds heavier) who could power up the middle. He rushed almost as many times in 2007 (210) as Smith did in two years with Mullen (284). Prescott's size and skill set were somewhere in the middle.
All three became superstars.
Mullen's flexibility also shows on a smaller scale, like Harris' mistake against Central Michigan.
After Mullen cooled off, he asked his quarterback what they should do next. Harris wanted to run. He rushed 13 times (and scored on two of them) in the second half of a 45-35 win that kept Bowling Green undefeated.
"Our job as coaches is to put them in position to be successful," Mullen said. "If I've got a square peg in a round hole…you can sit there and slam all you want. It's not going to work."
Of course, the coach Mullen replaced at UF said the same things.
Jim McElwain bragged that he could win with any quarterback — even his dog. Maybe that was why none of his teams cracked the top 70 in passer rating; he didn't give enough reps to Clarabelle.
After Franks threw five touchdown passes in last week's 53-6 rout of lowly Charleston Southern, we still don't know whether Mullen is another McElwain or another Urban Meyer. Harris expects the latter.
"They pulled out of me what they saw was in there, regardless of whether I knew it was in there or not," Harris said. "They saw it, and they pulled it out."
Now Mullen must do the same in his return to UF – and pull the Gators out of their rut in the process.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.