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'WHAT ABOUT THE QUARTERBACK!?' - Inside Dan Mullen's hectic first signing day at Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the head of an oversized conference table in the middle of the Florida staff room a few minutes after 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning, Dan Mullen spun his wedding ring to channel his nervous energy. As the ring twirled like a top on the smooth glass surface, it played bumper cars with Mullen’s three cell phones stacked on the table. He mostly ignored the cacophony of buzzes, bells and beeps.

Mullen spent most of the morning pacing around the Gator football offices in his blue suede Air Jordans, slugging Diet Pepsi and asking some version of the question, “What do you got?” to his assembled staff members.

By 11 a.m. on Monday, Mullen had gotten most of the 14 commitments – 13 high schools recruits and one transfer – that would mark his first signing day as Florida’s head coach. And that left Mullen locked in on the recruit that would ultimately define his day – Ohio State quarterback commit Emory Jones. It had been known for a while that Jones wouldn’t be going to Columbus, as the Buckeyes staff had even gone out and signed another quarterback. But the drama remained thick in Gainesville, as Jones visited both Florida and Florida State over the weekend.

That set up the first high-stakes recruiting battle between Mullen and new FSU head coach Willie Taggart. With Jones’ announcement expected at 11:30 a.m., Mullen spent the morning with his body a coil of nerves. He’d snap his fingers to release the tension, and hounding Jones’ primary recruiter, assistant coach Brian Johnson: “What’s going on with the quarterback?”

In the 27-day sprint since Mullen left Mississippi State to take the Florida job, he’d attempted to juggle five giant tasks – building a staff, putting together a recruiting class, familiarizing himself with a new team, organizing the structure of the program and spending time with his family. “I feel reborn,” Mullen said. “It’s a new challenge.”

It’s also a daunting one, as Mullen jokes that he’s gone from an underdog program at Mississippi State where people initially laughed at him when he said they’d compete for the national title. Now, they expect it. To get there, it’s no secret that Florida needs improved quarterback play.

Dan Mullen, the new head football coach at the University of Florida, is introduced during a news conference in Gainesville, Fla., on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017. (Alan Youngblood/Star-Banner via AP)

Mullen called plays as the offensive coordinator on Florida’s 2006 and 2008 national title teams, led by quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Since Tebow has left campus, the quarterback position has been a rotating door of mediocrity and the offense a quagmire of the unwatchable.

There’s already talent in the room, including sophomore Feleipe Franks, who started eight games last year. But Mullen knew he needed a marquee quarterback in this class, and the 6-foot-4, 179-pound Jones ranks as the No. 2 dual-threat prospect in the class. Mullen’s success with dual threats like Tebow and Dak Prescott made Jones an ideal building block, which is why he kept asking Johnson: “WHAT ABOUT THE QUARTERBACK!?”

6:45 a.m.
There are four black leather chairs and a glass table in the foyer outside of Mullen’s office at the Florida football facility. Early on Wednesday morning, director of recruiting operations Lee Begley sat down in one of the chairs and popped open her computer.

The actual signing day is more nerves than work, as the nearly month-long sprint here began when the school plane landed to deliver Mullen on Nov. 27. When Mullen arrived, he delivered authoritative chomp. His wife, Megan, followed him with 8-year-old Canon and 5-year-old Breelyn. Begley came next, as the only other Mississippi State employee who came on the initial flight from Starkville to Gainesville. (She would have been joined by Mullen’s longtime operations director, Jon Clark, but he stayed behind because of the birth of his new son, Dakota).

Begley had spent seven years running State’s recruiting and her job offer at Florida came by the form of a question from Mullen: “So you’re on the plane tomorrow, right?” When Begley stepped off the plane in Gainesville, she stepped foot in the town for the first time.

She soon met with Florida’s incumbent player personnel director, Drew Hughes, to figure out what they had and what they needed.

Consider it a shotgun reunion, as the pair had worked together in Alabama’s recruiting office under Ed Marynowitz between 2007 and 2011 as student workers and gophers. Hughes jokes he’d take out the trash there. Begley stuffed so many envelopes she joked that she lacks empathy for her student workers.

Begley is the daughter of Duane Davis, a longtime successful high school coach in Alabama. She grew up second-guessing his third-down decisions on Friday night and then riding in his pick-up truck – Ole Blue – on Saturday mornings to exchange film with opposing coaches in gas station parking lots across the state. After her time at Alabama, Mullen hired Begley and she’s grown into such an important part of his program – “she knows everyone and everything,” says Megan Mullen, Dan’s wife – that it wasn’t even a question as to whether she’d be coming.

Begley turned down more prestigious job offers to stick with Mullen over the years, reciprocating the faith he’d shown in her. “I believe in how he runs the program,” she said. “He and Megan have treated me like I’m in their family. He took a chance at a young 24-year-old, especially back then, there wasn’t many women in football offices.”

Begley reunited with her old pal Hughes, and this time their task was bigger than taking out trash and stuffing envelopes. They had three weeks to analyze the roster, identify glaring needs and plan a matrix of home visits and official visits through staff changes. Mullen inherited a class with 16 commitments, a number that dwindled to 11. As they whipped through the following four weeks, they earned a nickname – #TeamNoSleep.

7:18 a.m.
Mullen earned a place on #TeamNoSleep. He said he went to bed around midnight but tossed and turned most of the night. He checked his phone four or five times, recalling that Chris Jones, a key Mississippi State commitment, called him at 2 a.m. on National Signing Day in 2013.

With boxes of donuts tempting him on a table in the staff room, Mullen resisted and eventually asked one of UF’s IT employees to eat the powdered donut with chocolate filling that was calling him. “It was a tough choice,” he said, sipping his Diet Pepsi. “I went with a bagel for breakfast. If I went donut, I’d have gone Diet Mountain Dew.”

Mullen had a giddy air about him, as he wore yellow socks with palm trees and hula dancers as a way to celebrate the day. The signs all pointed to another celebration. Emory Jones’ mother, Trina, told Johnson there’d be “good news” the previous day. And Mullen joked that Marriott should put him in a commercial for businessman’s hotels, as he paced the lobby on Tuesday night to attempt to close the deal with Jones.

Fittingly, the first official commitment came from the first recruit Mullen went to visit after getting the Florida job, Dameon Pierce, a four-star tailback from Georgia. (Pierce went to high school at Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s alma mater, Bainbridge, a factoid that will be mentioned within the rivalry for the next few years.) Soon after, an email came in from Pennsylvania lineman Chris Bleich, and Mullen was bounding down the hallway on the phone welcoming future Gators. “I’ve worked for him for seven years, and I’ve never seen him this excited,” Begley said. “He’s like a little kid at Christmas.”

9:20 a.m.
Mullen’s three phones laid out on the glass table, buzzing and beeping so often he joked: “It sounds like a Vegas casino over here.”

The entire Florida signing day unfolded with few surprises, as the Gators had everyone sign who they expected and didn’t have any unexpected de-commitments. But the jackpot still remained a mystery.

Jones had texted Johnson, his potential quarterback coach, at 1:47 a.m.: “Can’t wait for this.” He included a Gator emoji.

All the signs pointed to Jones jumping on board. Mullen and Johnson gave Jones his first offer back when both worked at Mississippi State, something that stuck with Jones. The Florida staff received recruiting intelligence that the Florida State staff had given up and moved on, essentially conceding Jones to the Gators. But there’s signs and then there’s signatures.

Florida snagged No. 2 dual-threat QB Emory Jones after a little bit of consternation. (Rivals/Yahoo Sports)

Johnson, a former star quarterback at Utah, was the least worried of anyone. As he waited for Jones to wake up, he perused an article an Investopedia on the $1.5 trillion dollar tax plan Congress passed on Wednesday. “I want to be informed,” Johnson said with a shrug.

While thousands of Gators fans refreshed their computers at work for updates on Jones, Johnson was reading up on tax code.

He and Mullen had a great home visit with Jones and his mother on Thursday, eating a feast of chicken, baked beans and macaroni salad. Mullen had already done in-home visits with Georgia commit Justin Fields and Matt Corral, a commitment to the old Florida staff who ended up at Ole Miss. That left the Gators facing Jones or bust on Wednesday.

Jones’ visit to Gainesville had gone well, as Begley noted that Jones had an aura about him that magnetized him to other recruits. Mullen noted that when he left Florida, the quarterback room included Tebow and Cam Newton. At a school with so much quarterback tradition – including statues of the three Heisman Trophy winners outside the stadium – it’s not a spotlight everyone can handle.

“He was saying all the things I wanted to hear,” Mullen said. “The questions weren’t the silly ones. The questions were, ‘How are we going to win?’ He had the ‘IT Factor’ you look for at the quarterback position.”

Mullen showed a Twitter direct message that Jones sent him that summed up everything: “I’m the quarterback you want in this class to come in and compete and be the quarterback for the future.” Now, Mullen just needed that reaffirmed with a signature.

11:30 a.m.
Back at the head of the conference table, Mullen is playing DJ with the IT guys. Jones’ commitment announcement is only going to be available on the radio, so there’s a search to find it another way. It starts with a Periscope feed from the restaurant where he’s announcing it. “DM the guy,” Mullen said, “and tell him we’re watching it. He’ll be a star!”

A radio feed popped up for a while, with Atlanta shock jocks complaining that Julio Jones drops too many passes. The media tour ended with a stream of Jones’ announcement from SEC Country. (It memorably included a host killing time by reading random reader comments.)

By this time, Florida’s class was essentially set. It’s a solid foundation, giving Mullen and staff time in January to target positions of need – receiver, cornerback and both lines – among the remaining players.

The Gators got an Under Armour All-American defensive back in Trey Dean, the country’s No. 1 kicker in Evan McPherson and a four-star linebacker in David Reese.

But the day would be viewed as a bust if Jones surprised everyone and picked the Seminoles. Jones had woken up after 9 a.m. and checked in with Johnson, promising no surprises.

But as the announcement drew closer, some recruiting websites showed him picking FSU. No one told Mullen this, as he was already too nervous. (Begley’s dad fell for a fake tweet about Jones’ commitment to FSU and later admitted he threw his cell phone.)

As the fuzzy feed finally zeroed in on Jones, there were 20 Gator staff members crammed in the staff room watching on a projector.

Jones pulled out a Gator hat and slid on his head. The staff room burst with excitement, as Mullen put his hands over his head like he was signaling for a touchdown, and Hughes yelled: “BOOM!”

There was no understating the importance, as six of Mullen’s first eight questions at his press conference later that day revolved around Jones.

With the nervous energy gone and a 27-day slog to this moment behind him, Mullen grabbed the one of his three phones with his music on it. He headed out for a run and flipped on his Boston Marathon mix. He noted the heavy rotation of U2 and was particular looking forward to one tune for his closing kick: “Beautiful Day.”

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