With his first-round selection, Kadarius Toney just became a massive recruiting piece for Dan Mullen
As soon as Roger Goodell let out the words, “with the 20th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, the New York Giants select … Kadarius Toney, wide receiver, Florida,” I imagine Dan Mullen took a large puff from a cigar and began daydreaming about future recruiting visits.
Wait until he gets to tell ’em about the tale of Toney.
It was filled with plenty of twists, jukes, dips and dives. Fortunately for Mullen, the tale of Toney ended with a first-round selection. Giants fans didn’t seem to pleased about that, though who knows if they knew the full tale of Toney. It’s one that’ll benefit Mullen in ways that few have.
Toney had a rather candid reaction in his first post-selection interview, which he did with the Giants.
“Thankful, really. Just for the opportunity. Not gonna lie. I’m just thankful, you know, like somebody taking a risk,” Toney said before tweaking his answer (via New York Giants on YouTube). “Not even taking a risk, but giving me an opportunity. That’s all I pretty much need to show what I bring to the table. Like, every play, every day.”
I took Toney briefly referring to his selection as “taking a risk” as his way of realizing that he isn’t the prototypical prospect at receiver. Most guys taken in the first round aren’t converted quarterbacks. The polish it takes to get to that level, especially when you aren’t 6-5, 220 pounds, is second to none.
And it’s true that Toney needs to continue to build on the monumental progress he made as a route-runner. That’ll determine his ceiling. You don’t become an elite slot receiver in the NFL without becoming an elite route-runner. One would assume that in addition to contributing immediately in the return game — something that could’ve pushed the Giants to take him instead of Elijah Moore or Terrace Marshall — he’ll be asked to play primarily in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, that’s where Toney played 506 of his 614 snaps (82%) in Mullen’s offense in his breakout season.
Mullen finally, after 2 years of hearing about Toney needing more touches on a weekly basis, found the proper way to utilize him. It turns out that you can’t just throw him bubble screens and run jet sweeps in hopes that it’ll turn into a 70-yard touchdown every time.
I mean, it’s cool when it happens like this, but these plays are still the outlier:
Oh my goodness Kadarius Toney 66 yards TO THE HOUSE!
#8 Florida leads 7-3 over Miami.
— Sideline CFB (@SidelineCFB) August 24, 2019
Before 2020, those plays were essentially a Quentin Tarantino movie. They were unique and memorable, but the frequency was still so limited. Part of that was Toney being hurt for most of his junior season, and part of it was that Mullen had never coached a player exactly like Toney. Before you tell me that Percy Harvin was that guy, remember the whole “converted quarterback” element of that equation.
We saw those un-teachable traits in flashes. Ask anyone who scouted Toney during the pre-draft process, and I’d bet they’d tell you he was raw as a route-runner before 2020. Credit Toney for putting his head down and going to work to become a high-volume guy (he had 70 catches for 984 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns in 2020). Credit Florida receivers coach Billy Gonzales for putting in the time to help take Toney from an athlete with limited receiver skills to a player who could thrive in Mullen’s offense. Toney certainly credits Gonzales for that.
#Gators WR Kadarius Toney talking to the media now, says he “made a lot of strides” learning from WR coach Billy Gonzales
— Graham Hall (@GrahamHall_) December 20, 2020
That’s the pitch right there. As rare of an athlete as Toney is — not many human beings who’ve ever stepped onto a football field casually ran through 5 SEC defenders like they were bowling pins — not every coach can figure out the way to develop AND utilize those skills. Mullen did so in a year in which he had Kyle Pitts explode into one of the best tight ends in the sport’s history while Trevon Grimes developed into one of the country’s better outside weapons.
Mullen’s offense didn’t require some all-world quarterback recruit to function, either. It never really has since he became a head coach. You know. In case you haven’t heard.
Let’s think about what could’ve happened if Toney had continued his status as the ultimate “what if.” As in, what if he put it all together? Had Toney instead compiled some 25-catch, 400-yard season with 2 jaw-dropping plays in 2020, there’s a 0.0% chance that he’s even in the Round 1 conversation. Nobody is “taking a risk” on Toney. He’s a Day 3 flier who should be able to play special teams and hopefully develop into a role player one day.
In the recruiting world, that would’ve been a tough pill for Mullen and his staff to swallow. Kirby Smart could’ve walked into living rooms of those elite athlete recruits and said, “don’t go play at Florida. Look at Toney. Mullen never figured out a way to harness his talents. Come to Georgia, where we can make sure you’re not a ‘what if.'”
(This is the part where you, reader of this column, remind anyone within earshot that Georgia has only had 1 receiver drafted before Day 3 during the Smart era.)
Instead of Toney being part of a negative recruiting pitch, Mullen can walk into living rooms and tell recruits about Toney’s journey from raw converted quarterback into Round 1 receiver. And then if Mullen really wants to make the sell, he can add another piece to it. “Trust me when I say that you’re way past where Toney was when we first got him.”
Mullen will casually leave out the other part of that, which is that Toney also had physical traits that 99% of the recruits he talks to don’t have. If we’re being honest, though, no coach’s job is ever to lay out the limitations to a recruit; it’s to show the possibilities.
Toney’s success opened a new world of possibilities for Mullen. The fact that it took Toney doing the cliché thing of working his tail off and breaking out in Year 4 is also a key selling point for recruiting a player to stay on the roster and not transfer or head off early to the NFL.
In a way, Toney might actually be a more relatable recruiting pitch for Mullen than Pitts. Sure, Mullen can point to Tim Brewster’s ability to develop tight ends, but Pitts is seen as a football unicorn. That’s why it seemed like anyone could draft Pitts and figure out a way to use him, even the teams with an established tight end.
Mullen will come across a lot more Toney-types than Pitts-types on the recruiting trail. Well, I should say, he’ll come across more recruits who are capable of becoming his next Toney compared to becoming his next Pitts. The latter might not ever come along.
Maybe nobody will ever follow a Toney-like path at Florida again under Mullen. Nobody should be holding their breath on finding the next 6-foot converted quarterback who throws All-SEC linebackers like Nick Bolton off his back like a rag doll.
Kadarius Toney. Mercy. pic.twitter.com/bFwKSqH3rC
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) November 1, 2020
Yeah, Mullen and Gonzalez can’t take credit for that one.
Even if Toney doesn’t become an All-Pro receiver in the NFL, the hay is in the barn for Mullen. The 2020 rise of Toney will accompany Mullen on recruiting trips like toothpaste and an extra pair of Jordans. It’s an easy thing to fall back on for any recruit who says, “what about the fact that you’ve only had 1 single 1,000-yard receiver during your 12 years as a head coach?”
Would a recruit actually say that? I don’t know. Kids these days are savage.
What I do know? Kids these days are going to know exactly who Toney is.
And if they don’t, Mullen will gladly pull up a chair and tell ’em about the tale of Toney.