FLORIDA FOOTBALL & RECRUITING COVERAGE
THREE-PART SERIES: FORMER FIVE-STARS WITH AN ASTERISK
- Part I – Shorter the right player at the right time
- Part II – Cox excited, ready to flourish at Florida
- (Free) Part III – Lingard finding his stride at Florida
Despite being part of a Cleveland Browns’ coaching staff that won five of its final seven games in 2018, finished with the franchise’s best record in more than a decade and developed quarterback Baker Mayfield into a Rookie of the Year candidate, Ken Zampese was let go from his job as quarterbacks coach following the season.
A coaching veteran of nearly 30 years, Zampese wasn’t content to sit out the 2019 season, but all of the NFL opportunities had “dried up.” After a brief stint as offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Legends of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football, he made phone calls to some of the top college programs in the country. Florida coach Dan Mullen returned his call, and Zampese met with Mullen and other members of the coaching staff.
“I wanted to learn more, I wanted to be active, I wanted to contribute and meet new people, get exposed to new ideas,” Zampese said.
Mullen hired Zampese as a quality control analyst, and he joined the program at the start of training camp in late July.
It was his first job in the college ranks since he was the quarterbacks coach at Miami (Ohio) in 1996-97. Back then, college football was still in the early stages of its evolution into the spread out, up-tempo, high-flying game that it is today. Several things jumped out to Zampese in his return to the college level.
“It goes so much faster, the tempo of the game,” he said. “The athletes are better. The things you’re doing on offense to stretch the field and expose the field more. The quarterback’s used in the run game, for sure, a lot more. Those things jumped out to me. The coaching was exceptional. Those guys were top-notch coaches there.”
As a quality control analyst, Zampese provided an offensive perspective to the defensive coaching staff. He studied the opponents’ offensive film and reported his findings to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He also served as a resource for the defensive staff to ask him questions about what an offensive coach might do in certain situations.
“I broke down all the drop-back protections of the opponent,” he said. “So, any game they played that year or even into the year before, I would find … when they were going to block five, six or seven men in a drop-back situation. I would find out the rules for the protection, which way the center was going, which way the back was going and how we could line up in such a way to make them do what we wanted them to do and then we could design blitzes off of those pre-snap formations.”
Thanks partially to Zampese’s work, the Gators recorded 12 more sacks than they did the season before.
After the season, Zampese left the program to become the Washington Redskins’ quarterback coach. Though he was only with the Gators for a season, he was impressed with the way Mullen runs the program and the environment he’s created.
“He’s as good as anybody in the country to me,” Zampese said. “He was thorough. He had a great leadership style where there’s no doubt his confidence just permeated through everybody in the building. You always felt like things were organized, efficient, handled properly. It was just easy to follow because he’s a decisive guy. There’s no doubt, just do it how Coach asked you to do it and things will work out in our favor. It’s very easy to follow him. The confidence and the positive nature, it just made for a great atmosphere every day for those kids to learn and coaches to work in.”
With more than 20 years of experience in the NFL, he knows what it takes for a player to not only get drafted but make an early impact at the highest level. He thinks the Gators’ staff does a great job of preparing their players to play in the NFL.
“There’s a high level of discipline, accountability, guys are getting pushed in a positive way and guys make strides,” he said. “We as a staff got the most out of every guy because of the way the program’s run and the style of coaching. There’s not going to be a guy that ‘He only got about half of his talent.’ That doesn’t happen in Coach Mullen’s program or with Coach Grantham on the other side. That might happen at some other programs, but that program milks every ounce out of the guys they got. That was obvious real early. The average guys play really, really well.”
While Zampese worked with the defensive staff at UF, he’ll always be most known for his work with quarterbacks. He liked what he saw from the Gators’ tandem of Kyle Trask and Emory Jones and their position coach, Brian Johnson.
“I love them, and the way Brian Johnson played them was just right,” he said. “Either guy could play a whole game, and you could win a lot of games, but they have their unique skills and to use them that way really does the best for the team overall. I thought it was just perfectly played, and I loved it. They’re very different styles of guys, but the one thing that’s exactly the same is their commitment to the program, their belief in their coaches, and their leadership skills.”
He said the biggest thing that stood out to him about Trask was his work ethic and commitment to getting better.
“He’s self-critical in a positive way because he always wants to get better,” Zampese said. “He’s extremely loyal and dedicated. He was a great teammate. He was prepared, and it meant something to him. Football was very, very important to him, and it showed all the time.”
Meanwhile, he said Jones’ dynamic skillset jumped out to him.
“Emory just has talent flowing out of him every which way,” he said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen when he’s playing because he’s either going to throw it down the field or he’s going to run it down the field. Something’s happening big, one way or the other. I just thought he was a home run waiting to happen.”
Trask’s rise from a career backup who chose Florida over Houston Baptist to a potential preseason All-SEC selection is just the latest example of Mullen’s ability to get the most out of every quarterback he coaches.
Trask was thought to be too slow to successfully operate Mullen’s spread-option offense. When Mullen was Florida’s offensive coordinator, he transformed Chris Leak from an undersized quarterback with a propensity for making costly mistakes into a national champion. Some thought Tim Tebow’s loopy throwing motion would prevent his game from translating to the college level. Obviously, those people were wrong. At Mississippi State, he turned Dak Prescott from a three-star recruit into one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL.
Zampese mentioned two reasons that Mullen is so good at developing quarterbacks. First, he’s heavily involved in coaching the position. Not many programs essentially have two full-time quarterback coaches like Florida does. Second, he holds the quarterbacks to a high standard and constantly pushes them to be better.
“He is demanding of those guys,” he said. “His delivery is such that it’s easy to digest. It has the details needed to get better. He’s got a way of coming back through the relationship built to continue to push guys forward and really explain how them getting better will get our team better. It always relates to team with Coach Mullen. He’s fabulous that way, to push a guy individually because it relates to the team approach.”
As the Gators prepare for what’s looking like an increasingly likely 2020 season, Zampese said there are several under-the-radar players that could break out this year.
“I think Zach Carter on defense is an unsung player,” he said. “I’ve really liked him. I thought his dedication, his work ethic showed through, and I think this will be a big year for him. On offense, I think [Jacob] Copeland will have a huge year. I think [Kadarius Toney] coming back will have a monster year, staying healthy.”
The Gators were very good in Mullen’s first two seasons, winning 21 games. However, they found themselves stuck in that second tier of teams chasing the handful of teams that regularly appear in the playoff. Zampese believes the Gators are on the doorstep of closing that gap and joining the nation’s elite.
“[The program’s] absolutely on the right track,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s just a matter of time before they take over Georgia in the East and win the SEC Championship and a national championship after that. It’s just a matter of time. They’ve got everything. They’ve got the right coach, they’ve got the right staff, they’ve got momentum. All they need to do is keep on recruiting and go play.
“I think they win the East [this season], and they’re in the SEC Championship Game against whoever. They’ll win the East. They’ll be a top-5 program in the nation.”