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The key recruits Dan Mullen should focus on prior to national signing day

There has been lots of interest lately in Dan Mullen’s ability to recruit as head coach of the Florida Gators.

First, there was the question of whether Mullen could show similar results to Will Muschamp, Ron Zook and Urban Meyer. Thus far, he has been able to do so.

Then came the questions about what impact the early signing period would have on coaches going through transitions with only a few weeks before players made decisions. Mullen answered those questions as well with the commitments of 4-stars Emory Jones and Trey Dean.

Now, the questions are about whether Mullen can close the 2018 class strong and who he should focus on going forward. Thus, I thought it would be interesting to look at historically how teams that excel recruit, and how that should shape the view Gators fans take of the 2018 class as it is finalized.

Offense or defense?

An interesting thing happened when I started breaking down who Florida should emphasize on the recruiting trail. It became clear that there is one side of the ball where they should focus.

If you examine teams that performed best – both offensively and defensively – against FBS opponents from 2014-2017, one thing becomes clear. The big boys dominate on defense.

I looked at the top-10 offenses and defenses against FBS opponents every year during that time-frame. Only 60 percent of the offensive teams were from Power-5 conferences while 90 percent of the defensive teams were from Power-5 conferences.

And even within those Power-5 schools, there is a major difference. On the defensive side of the ball, you see names like Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Clemson and Florida. Those are true blueblood programs.

Those programs are much less common on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, there are teams like Toledo, Missouri, Florida Atlantic, Pittsburgh, and Middle Tennessee. These aren’t bad teams, but they aren’t the elite-of-the-elite either.

This indicates two things. First, because power schools have much better defenses, it may be that the opposing offenses struggle more than some of the lower-tier schools. This argument is bolstered by the constant appearance of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, two Power-5 schools from the Big-12, a conference not exactly known for defense.

However, I think the difference between the offensive and defensive lists indicates something else as well. I think it indicates that it doesn’t always require elite-level talent to have an elite offense while talent becomes much more of a differentiator on the defensive side of the ball.

Take Alabama as an example. The Tide’s starting defense in 2017 led the country in yards per attempt allowed against FBS opponents at 3.9. Overall, Alabama’s opening day starters averaged a star ranking of 4.4 and a national ranking of 106.2 according to the 247Sports composite.

Recruiting rankings of top-5 2017 defenses in yards per play allowed against FBS opponents. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Nick Saban’s ability to recruit is obviously elite. But you’ll notice that this list of the top-5 defenses in 2017 against FBS opponents also includes Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson, who all average star ratings between 3.7-3.9. Clemson has a higher average national ranking, but that comes from the two corner spots, with 2-star Ryan Carter having a national ranking of 2818 and 3-star Marcus Edmond ranked at 1449.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Dabo Swinney is bringing in 4-star corner Kyler McMichael (ranked 72nd nationally) in 2018 after bringing in 4-stars A.J. Terrell (ranked 55th nationally) and LeAnthony Williams, Jr. (203 nationally) in 2017. An upgrade is needed, and Clemson is addressing that area.

Wisconsin’s success is really remarkable. The Badgers just can’t compete from a recruiting standpoint with the big boys. They featured a walk-on at linebacker (Ryan Connelly) and five players ranked higher than 1389 nationally.

But one thing Wisconsin does do like the big boys is focus on the defensive line.

Recruiting rankings by position for top-5 defenses in 2017. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Each team has a higher average national ranking overall than their collective defensive lines except for Ohio State. And in that case, the Buckeyes still have elite talent on the line (average national ranking of 315), it’s just that the talent at linebacker (206) and defensive back (273.3) is even better.

The message is clear. Elite talent on defense – particularly on the defensive line – is necessary for a dominant defense.

The same trend is not observed on offense. As mentioned above, the teams that make the top-10 offensively in yards per play against FBS opponents are not dominated by the elite programs. If we take a further look at the top-5 – much in the same way we did with the defenses – this trend becomes much clearer.

Recruiting rankings of top-5 2017 offenses in yards per play against FBS opponents. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Oklahoma has the most star-power of these five programs, but the Sooners are not what I would consider an elite recruiting program. From 2014-2017, Oklahoma has had an average national recruiting ranking of 14th. This is very good, but not elite.

The other four teams on this list are all much lower than that. The starters all average less than a 3-star rating and average a national ranking higher than 1000. These are guys who were passed over by programs we would consider elite and are now lighting them up.

Certainly – as my colleague Bill Sikes mentioned on the most recent Gators Breakdown podcast – there are some teams on this list that play in conferences that SEC fans might consider flag football. But at the same time, Oklahoma gave Georgia’s defense all it could handle in the Rose Bowl and UCF torched Auburn in the second half of the Peach Bowl. Perhaps these are just really good offenses.

Recruiting rankings by position for top-5 offenses in 2017. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Further breaking down the data into position groupings, what we find is that there is a slight emphasis on wide receivers and an emphasis on quarterbacks. But what it really points out is that anyone who says Florida’s offense can’t succeed because of a talent problem doesn’t have an argument backed up by the data.

What Florida has is a quarterback problem.

Oklahoma had Baker Mayfield (198.9 QB rating). UCF had McKenzie Milton (179.3). Memphis had Riley Ferguson (161.2). Oklahoma State had Mason Rudolph (170.6). Louisville had Lamar Jackson (146.6). Florida had Feleipe Franks (113.3).

Of course, it’s easy to say go get an elite QB to have an elite offense. It’s much harder to predict who will turn into that player. However, I’ve written extensively about high school completion percentage and correlation to elite play before. The average high school completion percentage (Junior college percentage used for Riley Ferguson) of these five QBs is 64.6 percent.

And this also isn’t to say that an elite offensive lineman won’t make a difference. But what it does say is that an offensive line or wide receiving corps filled with studs is not a prerequisite for offensive success.

Application of this data to Florida

This applies to Florida in two ways. First, it says that the Gators should already have enough firepower on offense to generate at least a competent offense, if not an elite one.

Recruiting rankings for Florida offense 2-deep. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Without the addition of any recruits from the 2018 class, the talent on Florida’s first and second-team offense is better – and significantly so – than any of the top-5 offenses from 2017. What’s missing is what has been missing for years: elite QB play.

Hopefully Dan Mullen has already addressed that with the commitment of 4-star dual-threat QB Emory Jones. Based on my completion percentage analysis, I believe he should address it with Kadarius Toney. Or maybe he can address it with Feleipe Franks, who despite his struggles in 2017 was ranked 54th nationally in the 2016 recruiting class.

Because of the offensive struggles under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, Gators fans would likely associate the signing of 5-star offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere or other elite offensive players as a slam dunk finish. But I’d contend that –while important – any commitment on the offensive side of the ball isn’t where this class should be measured.

Instead, I think this class needs to be measured based on the defensive side of the ball, particularly the front-7. You can really see this if you look at Florida’s recent history.

Recruiting rankings of Florida defenses from 2015-2018 (projected). (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Florida ranked 7th in yards per play allowed against FBS opponents in 2015. The Gators got better in 2016, ranking 4th in the same metric. That ranking dropped to 67th in 2017. A closer look at the talent level of the defense shows why.

In 2015, the defense averaged 4.1 stars overall, dropped to 3.7 in 2016 and 2017. That doesn’t immediately scream drop-off from 2016 to 2017. But two things happened. First, the defense was extremely young in 2017. Second, the overall national ranking of those players dropped from 224.7 to 303.1.

This really becomes clear on the defensive line, which was an elite unit talent-wise in 2015 (130.0), dropped to an average unit in 2016 (348.0), then got even worse in 2017 (449.7). The drop from 2015 to 2016 was covered up because Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson absolutely shut down just about every passing game the Gators encountered (92.9 passer rating allowed). With those guys gone, the Gators talented but young secondary gave up a passer rating of 130.9.

Takeaway

The good news is that help is coming. Former 4-star defensive end Antonneous Clayton (ranked 27th nationally in 2016) has physical tools that should fit the 3-4 defenseTodd Grantham wants to run. The same applies for 4-star Tedarrell Slaton (ranked 69th nationally in 2017). Linebacker commit David Reese (ranked 290th nationally in 2018) should be able to step in at linebacker early.

But the rest of the 2018 class on the defensive side of the ball is heavy at defensive back, where Florida is already really strong. Yes, Amari Burney, Trey Dean and John Huggins will help. But they are reinforcing a position group that is already the strength of the defense.

Instead, Florida needs more talent on the front-7.

That means that the critical recruits I’m watching are not Petit-Frere or wide receiver target Jacob Copeland. Instead, I’m going to be paying close attention to linebackers Quay Walker and Xavier Peters, defensive tackles Coynis Miller and Noah Jefferson and defensive ends Andrew Chatfield and Dorian Gerald.

The data is clear. To have an elite offense, you need an elite QB. To have an elite defense, you need talent up-front. Inevitably there is an opportunity cost in recruiting. Paying attention to one player means that you can’t pay that same attention to another. This is somewhat mitigated by 10-man coaching staffs and the early signing period.

But make no mistake. If I were Dan Mullen, there’s no doubt where I would focus my energy and attention now that QB is handled. The offensive recruits will grab the headlines and make an offense-starved fan base feel good.

But the defensive recruits are going to be the key to winning games.

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3 Comments

  1. Malik Grady

    Truly chilling. If I were intoxicated, this would immediately sober me up.

    Mullen and his staff certainly seem to be working hard to add elite defensive talent down the stretch, but the number of available top players left to compete simply aren’t there.

  2. Sean Hankins

    Good stuff man. We need the big uglies for sure.

  3. Jason

    The articles on defensive recruiting and Grantham make me wonder about how Mullen’s defenses performed in general versus their recruiting rankings. Mullen was outperforming his recruiting rankings overall, but was that because he could make up for the difference with offense or was he getting it done on the defensive side of the ball?

    I love the articles and the analysis overall. Thanks Will!

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