Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program.
As such, Gators fans are spending plenty of time stressing over official visits and trying to read too much into tweets from potential commits. You can clearly feel the tension as the euphoria of wide receiver Justin Watkins commitment wanes as the other visitors have failed to pull the trigger, at least publicly.
Add to that the departure of ace recruiter Ja’Juan Seider and Florida State pulling even with Florida in the 247Sports composite rankings, and Florida fans seem to be getting nervous.
But Gators head coach Dan Mullen has the capability of finishing the 2018 recruiting cycle strong. He certainly showed an ability to do that during the early signing period, and has been able to convince a large amount of recruits to visit Gainesville and see what the program has to offer.
However, convincing recruits to visit and closing the deal are completely different things. So where does Florida stand today and how can the Gators close?
What it looks like to recruit at an elite level
The first thing we should do is define elite recruiting. The chart below is an average of the national recruiting ranking, conference recruiting ranking and number of blue chips for each SEC team from 2015-2018 (as the current standings look).
The first thing you’ll undoubtedly notice is that the SEC is a dominant conference when it comes to recruiting, with 10 of the 14 teams averaging top-25 national classes. The second thing you’ll notice is that the rankings don’t necessarily track with blue chip talent.
This is because the national rankings use a point system and so a class like Florida’s 2015 class (21st overall) can be bolstered by the signing of 17 3-star players even though the class only had 4 blue chips.
By average number of blue chip players, Florida has ranked 7th in the SEC from 2015-2018. By this metric, Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M were all more talented in 2017. Of course, this also indicates that the losses to South Carolina and Missouri were unacceptable.
Why is this important? Well, history suggests that about half of the blue chip players who are recruited will turn into significant contributors to the team. That means that over this four-year cycle, we would expect Alabama to have 39 blue chip players and Georgia to have 33 blue chip players capable of contributing in 2018.
That same number for Florida is currently 16.5.
That means that Florida is going to have to rely on 3-star talent to fill the gaps. Sometimes that isn’t a problem because 3-star players can be very good (think Baker Mayfield). But on average 3-star players deliver significantly less often than 4 or 5-star players.
This does two things. First, the starting unit has limitations, as a coach is forced to choose between talent or experience. Second, injuries take that choice away from a coach.
When linebackers Kylan Johnson and Jeremiah Moon went down with injuries last season, Florida’s linebackers were exposed. Christian Garcia just wasn’t able to cover tight ends and running backs and it was exploited by the opposition. Garcia wasn’t the only linebacker to get hurt in coverage either, as Vosean Joseph was picked on in the flat quite a bit as well.
With safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington out, there just wasn’t anywhere else for Randy Shannon to turn. He was forced to put safety Chauncey Gardner in a run-stopping role, which kept him from using his ball skills in the secondary. The chain reaction was a defense that played admirably for much of the season, but collapsed against Georgia, Missouri and Florida State.
How is Florida recruiting compared to its rivals?
Currently, 247Sports has 5-star tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, 4-star corner Noah Boykin, 4-star defensive end Dorian Gerald and 4-star wide receiver Jacob Copeland all leaning towards the Gators.
Assuming 4-star tackle Richard Gouraige maintains his commitment, that would put the blue chip count for Mullen in 2018 at 13, above the totals for Zook (9), Meyer (7) and Muschamp (12). It would also be well above McElwain’s total of 5 in 2015.
It is that last total that really makes Florida look bad compared to its main rivals from a talent perspective.
If nobody was allowed to sign any other players and the recruiting period ended today, the above chart shows where the rivals would stand from 2015-2018. There’s a reason that Florida has lost 5 straight to FSU. It’s also a testament to the coaching abilities of Mark Richt and Butch Jones that Florida has been able to go 6-2 against those two.
The good news is that Florida has the potential to out-recruit these three heading down the stretch. If the above mentioned players end up at Florida, that likely ends up as a top-12 class.
The bad news is that it barely moves the needle because of the previous regime. Even with a borderline-elite transition class, the Gators average class from 2015-2018 would be 13.8 nationally with 9.3 blue chips.
The reality is that Mullen is going to have to plug some holes in 2018 and hope for a little bit of luck to be a top-10 team. More likely is a team ranked in the 15-20 range, as that is the talent profile of the team.
And that’s where the case that I outlined for Mullen as more like Urban Meyer instead of Jim McElwain becomes important from a recruiting perspective. Meyer, Muschamp and Zook averaged the 2nd ranked national class, 1st in the SEC and 16 blue chip recruits in their second season at the helm. If Mullen is already outperforming them in his first year, I think that’s a reasonable expectation for year two.
And that changes the numbers significantly, as Florida would have an average national ranking of 9.0 with an average blue chip count of 12. That’s a team with top-10 talent. It also means that there should be about 24 contributors with blue chip talent and the team can sustain a couple of injuries and still excel.
Everyone – including myself – is going to get caught up in who signs to come to Gainesville in 2018 on February 7. But the reality is that whether Mullen signs 9 blue chips or 15 blue chips, there is going to be a significant talent deficit compared to the major rivals, and much of the SEC.
The good news is that Mullen appears capable of closing that gap relatively quickly. The bad news is that he can’t do it with one class, particularly getting involved late in the game.
That doesn’t mean this class is unimportant. But it does mean that the success or failure of the program does not hinge on one guy. If Jacob Copeland decides to go elsewhere, the Gators will be alright. The same is true for Petit-Frere or Gouraige.
The important thing is that the entire program is trending in the right direction. Mullen is getting these guys to campus. Whether that turns into a windfall in 2018 is less important than the fact that they have visited. With more time in 2019, he’s likely going to be able to draw an elite talent pool to The Swamp.
But he may still be able to do that this season as well. Remember how I mentioned that McElwain used 3-star recruits to bolster his overall recruiting ranking in 2015? Mullen hasn’t done that much at all in 2018, as he only has seven 3-star commits.
So whether the national ranking is 7th or 13th is really immaterial. Mullen is overseeing a talent upgrade, and it is significant. If he can hold onto the guys I’ve mentioned and flip linebacker Andrew Chatfield or defensive tackle Nesta Silvera, it becomes not just an elite transition class but an elite class.
And that’s something we haven’t seen in Gainesville in a long time.