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The good, the bad and the ugly from Gators head coach Dan Mullen’s first National Signing Day

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First, Caleb Tannor said no. Then it was Nesta Silvera. Then Malcolm Lamar, Noah Boykin and Nicholas Petit-Frere.

At his post-signing day press conference, Dan Mullen wanted to talk about the players who were coming to Gainesville. But I think it’s reasonable for fans to be disappointed that Mullen wasn’t able to close the class by bringing in more of the blue chip talent that he was pursuing.

That doesn’t mean this is a bad class. But coming off of a resounding win from early signing day in December, my hopes were for Florida to sneak into the top-10 nationally on Wednesday. The Gators came up one commit (Petit-Frere) short of achieving that goal.

This is a results oriented business. Mullen surely understands this, as the participation awards for winning the SEC East have been removed from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The 2018 class has many highlights. But I understand why some fans might look at it and wonder what could have been.

National Signing Day: The Good

Coming into the second signing day, Florida’s board consisted of four tiers. The first tier consisted of top-100 players Nicholas Petit-Frere, Nesta Silvera and Jacob Copeland. The second tier consisted of top-200 players Andrew Chatfield and Malcolm Lamar. The third tier consisted of top-300 players Malik Langam, Caleb Tannor and Noah Boykin. The fourth tier consisted of Dorian Gerald, Fabien Lovett and Caleb Johnson.

My expectations were that the Gators would sign one player from each tier in addition to its current verbal commits of offensive tackle Richard Gouraige, wide receiver Justin Watkins and center Griffin McDowell.

The Gators got pretty close to achieving just that, bringing in wide receiver Jacob Copeland (ranked 69th nationally), outside linebacker/defensive end Andrew Chatfield (213) and defensive end Malik Langham (314). That brings the Gators 247Sports recruiting score to 255.3, with a chance to still add defensive end Dorian Gerald on Friday and increase that to 257.8.

Transition classes at Florida for Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain have ranged in number of commits from 17 to 22 signees. The idea that this class was going to be completely full meant everything had to go right. Instead, it was reasonable to expect that Mullen would end up somewhere between 19 and 21 signees. If he can convince Gerald to come to The Swamp, he’d be at 20.

To put a score of 255.3 (or 257.3) into perspective, Jim McElwain had scores of 227.5, 261.0 and 251.2 in his three seasons at Florida. Will Muschamp – known as a very good recruiter – accumulated a score of 258.2 in 2011, his transition year.

Comparison of Gators coach Dan Mullen’s transition class rankings to those of Ron Zook, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Mullen scores favorably to his predecessors in multiple other metrics, including average star rating, average national ranking and average positional ranking. In many ways this transition recruiting class is the best of the bunch. That bodes well for the future as only McElwain continued to struggle in recruiting in his second year. Muschamp, Zook and particularly Meyer brought in monster classes in year two.

I’ve written previously about how elite defenses have elite defensive lines, and so I’d point to the signing of defensive end Malik Langham as the biggest of the day for Mullen. Langham is ranked 314th nationally, but is a true defensive end.

If he – and 4-star 2016 recruit Antonneous Clayton – can play end effectively in new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s defense, that’s going to free up returning senior CeCe Jefferson to line up all over the field. Jefferson had 13.5 tackles for loss playing defensive end in a 4-3 defense ill-suited to his size and abilities. Langham could help free him up.

The second most important commit was someone who was already verbally committed to the Gators. Offensive tackle Richard Gouraige adds an elite talent (ranked 87th nationally) to an offensive line that has struggled. There is some question about whether Martez Ivey should stay at left tackle or move back inside to guard. If Gouraige can make that an easy decision, he is a major addition for 2018.

Finally, the addition of the 69th and 89th ranked players in wide receivers Jacob Copeland and Justin Watkins could have significant reverberations as well. Copeland and Watkins join wide receiver transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes to completely remake the Gators wide receiver corps. Anyone who doesn’t produce is going to find himself on the bench.

It may also make it easier for Mullen to utilize Kadarius Toney as a quarterback, a move that I’ve been pushing for since he came to Gainesville. Whether Toney, Emory Jones or Feleipe Franks end up the starter, recent history suggests that multiple players will be needed at the QB position. Having those four players join the program makes it more palatable to give Toney a true look at the most important position on the field.

National Signing Day: The Bad

SEC Country’s Christopher Smith wrote during the 2017 season about the futility of Jim McElwain’s defensive recruiting. Smith actually postulated that McElwain might get the offense turned around, but when he did it wouldn’t save his job because by then the defense would be bad.

In hindsight, this is something I should have seen as well. We certainly saw it play out on the field in 2017. With suspensions to linebackers Ventrell Miller and James Houston – as well as a knee injury to linebacker Nick Smith – the Florida defense was left with a limited supply of linebackers.

Even counting Kylan Johnson (who was recruited as a safety) and the suspended and injured players, the Gators previous three recruiting classes (2015-2017) include nine linebacker recruits, none of whom were ranked in the top-300 nationally.

Florida versus Florida State linebacker recruits from 2015-2017. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

Compare that to Florida State. I chose the Seminoles for comparison because Florida and Florida State compete for many of the same players, and have similar programs from a recognition standpoint.

Over the same time-frame, FSU has also signed nine linebacker recruits. However, the Seminoles have signed five top-300 players. The average 247Sports rating for the nine players on each team would have amounted to the 314th ranked player nationally for Florida State and the 1056th ranked player nationally for Florida.

The talent level at linebacker is a problem.

Yet Mullen only signed two linebackers in this class in David Reese and Andrew Chatfield. And while both are top-300 players, Chatfield is more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end and likely ends up playing more defensive end in Grantham’s defense.

I understand not wanting to reach for positional need and instead make sure that the players you bring in are the cream of the crop. But only having two linebackers in this class is going to bite Florida on the field in 2018, and likely 2019 as well.

One way to protect a young or limited linebacker corps is to have elite defensive linemen in front of them to take up blockers and win one-on-one battles. The problem is that when compared to Florida State, the McElwain regime again came up short.

Florida versus Florida State defensive line recruits from 2015-2017. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

The overall 247Sports ranking for Florida is better than for the linebackers. But it is also better for Florida State. The Seminoles have more than doubled the number of top-300 defensive linemen (9 to 4) over this time-frame, despite signing one less prospect (12 to 13). These ratings would have produced national rankings of 358 for Florida and 148 for Florida State.

Yet Mullen only signed one defensive lineman (two if you count Chatfield, but you have to choose whether to count him as a linebacker or defensive lineman). Malik Langham is a talented player (ranked 314th nationally), but the front-seven needed more help.

National Signing Day: The Ugly

Some of the shortcomings in the class are to be expected. Mullen only had a few months to convince recruits who had bought into the McElwain program that they could trust him with their careers. And then he had to fill the holes with players who were open to considering Florida. There’s a reason that transition classes are always worse than the second year class.

But even with that acknowledged, I think it is still concerning how significant of a gap there is between Florida and its most important rivals.

Florida just brought in 10 top-300 players. That’s a really good total, and the 12 blue chip players Florida brought in is a significant upgrade from where recruiting has been. But Georgia just brought in 12 top-100 players.

Jacob Copeland is Florida’s highest ranked recruit (69th). Georgia has 17 players from the last two classes with a higher national ranking than Copeland. Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is building a behemoth in Athens.

Additionally, the state of Florida was in flux with Willie Taggart taking over in Tallahassee. But Florida State ended up with a better recruiting class by national ranking, number of blue chips and average recruit rating than Florida.

Mullen had a head start on Taggart, got his staff together much quicker and still was not able to put his foot on the throat of a program that has dominated Florida recently. It is true that if either Nesta Silvera or Nicholas Petit-Frere had chosen the Gators, Florida would have rated higher than the Seminoles.

But they didn’t choose Florida.

Comparison of Florida’s recruiting from 2015-2018 versus its main rivals. (Will Miles/Read and Reaction)

The above chart shows the national recruiting ranking, conference ranking, and number of blue chip recruits signed by Florida and its main rivals each of the last four years. There is no sugarcoating that Florida places fourth on this list.

Now, much of this is Jim McElwain’s doing and not Dan Mullen’s. But with commitments from Petit-Frere and Silvera, Mullen had the opportunity to announce that Florida is going to be back among the elite very soon. Instead, we are left to parse recruiting rankings and statistics to compare Mullen to his predecessors, looking for clues that he is more Urban Meyer than Will Muschamp or Ron Zook.

Takeaway

And that’s the thing I’m having difficulty processing after yesterday’s events. By all the metrics that I can find, Mullen has put together a really good transition class when compared to historical data.

But I wasn’t just hoping for a really good transition class, I was hoping for a really good class. And I think this class falls short of that goal.

It is really tilted towards the offensive side of the ball, as only seven of the 19 commits are on defense. Of those, four are safeties (though Trey Dean may be able to play corner) with only three front-seven players. That means that the limitations at linebacker and defensive line are going to become more pronounced than they were last season.

Jordan Sherit is gone due to injury. Taven Bryan is gone to the NFL. I’ve previously outlined the limitations with Todd Grantham as a defensive coordinator. I worry that it’s going to be tough to cover up the talent deficit, particularly against Florida State, Georgia or Alabama. And that’s critical because those are the teams that absolutely waxed McElwain’s teams.

Yet it’s hard to pin that on Mullen. He’s just dealing with the hand that he was dealt, and it has some limitations. Many of these problems would still exist, even with the addition of Petit-Frere and Silvera.

And as much as I may see a defensive cliff coming, the reality is that the offense has been so awful that even the elite defenses in 2015 and 2016 could barely save it. If Emory Jones, Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and Justin Watkins are running wild, maybe none of my concerns on defense really matter. A 45-42 loss is still a loss, but after the struggles during the McElwain era, it would mean something different.

But unfortunately none of that changes how I feel. This is a good transition class, and makes me believe that Mullen will bring in a top-3 class next year with a full year to prepare.

But there was a chance to do something special Wednesday and it fell short. That doesn’t mean these players won’t be instrumental in leading Florida to its next championship. But I had hoped for an absolute no-doubt win for Mullen to continue momentum into the spring.

I don’t know exactly how to feel about this class, but it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for.

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13 Comments

  1. Rich

    This is so well written I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate an article with facts, metrics and stats backing up the words.

    It’s a refreshing take getting the pros and cons without Orange and Blue goggles. Only facts and trends.

    If you could direct me to your Twitter and anywhere else I can read your articles I would be greatly appreciative.

    I worked in TV sports for awhile even at CNN and it’s so refreshing to read really good writing, for my favorite team no less.

    Anyway, great job I look forward to reading much more.

  2. Nate W

    (whistle intro snap snap) dont worry… be happy… Love your takes and agree with the defensive worries but cmon Will this class could have been a disaster! Mullen swooped in on his helicopter and caught us midair falling to another decade of fooseball mediocrity. Two 4 win seasons in five years and dismal offense for the last 10. Corral, chase, copeland, dunlap decommitments only weeks before early signing day. We have more reason to throw a parade than ucf did. Wonder what the best ranked recruiting class after a 6 plus loss season is… ohio state 2012 class ranked 5th after 6-7 record but that was placed in the middle of 12 ten win seasons in a row dating back to 2005… Hugh Freeze had an 8th ranked class in 2013 after a 7-6 season the year before… But we all know how he got those players…. Theres no shortcuts, we have to win more to expect top 10 recruiting classes dont we?

    • Eli anderson

      I totally agree with you Will and Nate! I think its more of a frustration factor with us not getting into the top 10 or top 5 year after year the last several years that is more disappointing then missing out on Petit-Frere. I think missing out on a 5 star sucks genuinely but having the 14th ranked class is even worse. I find it amusing that when we are getting top 5 classes like we did several years ago we never used the average star ranking stat but when we have McElwain we use it to try to justify his abysmal recruiting. thank goodness he is gone and the florida Chopper was out and about last week visiting the class of 2019!

  3. I really do not understand the expectation of having anything better than a transition class…when it IS a transition class. This is the best transition class I have ever seen here. And that is from a bunch of coach’s that have not recruited Florida for many years (main recruiting area). I caanot believe anyone is anything but amazed with the results. But Gator fans expectations have been over the top forever, and sometimes makes it difficult for HBC’s to stay around. And yes…I include myself in that group.

  4. Robert Guinn

    Keep up the great work on here and Gators Breakdown!

  5. Jeff Brown

    The biggest frustration is our main competition continues to get better.
    I’m more mad at Foley than anyone lol.
    After being snake bit for the last 8 years, I’m not hopeful for a top 5 class in ‘19z

    Great read, Will!

  6. Sean A Nicholson

    Continue to dropping NOLIJ on ’em Will. This is great stuff, I felt similarly about us not actually hitting the homerun recruits again this year. But I feel more confident that Mullen’s coaching abilities will make a difference on the field, like they did at Miss St. We’ve certainly increased are talent level on offense since McElwain took over, we’ll see just how far we’ve dropped off on defense come this fall.

  7. HymanRoth

    I think the writer has expectations that don’t quite match the reality that Dan Mullen is UF’s coach. Dan Mullen has NEVER been known to be a great recruiter, even as an assistant at UF. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, even with a shorter time frame and a much longer period of completing a staff, that Willie Taggart did better at FSU. Taggart’s main asset has been his reputation as a great recruiter. So, instead of hoping for UF to out recruit FSU, which is probably a pipe dream given the above facts, the hope should be that Mulen is a better coach on the field. After all, how you coach in real games is FAR more important than how you can recruit. Recruiting is NOT the problem at UF, even considering how poor McElwain, relatively, performed. Even at the most glaring need, QB, UF has recruited well since Tebow. It’s Franks, on the current roster, not Jones, who is UF’s highest ranked QB coming out of high school. Mullen has got QBs ranked much lower to perform well. Perhaps that fact will be what makes UF a team that is a perennial top ten finisher, unlike the one that has only done that once since Tebow left.
    Let’s not forget that Mullen has also lost, a choice he clearly made, the best recruiter he had, Seider. I think it’s telling, and something the writer failed to point out, that the self-proclaimed “DBU” failed t sign a single CB when the state of Florida was loaded, and I mean LOADED, with blue-chip CBs this year. The new secondary coach, Warren, is the same coach who was so good at his job that he coached them up to provide THE highlight of UF’s season last year. Remember the Hail Mary against Tennessee? How can you let someone get behind you on that play?
    The writer did touch on UF’s failure to recruit defensive linemen. I don’t know why UF has such a hard time recruiting big guys, defensive tackles. They sign guys like Langham, but have a hard time signing ANY top defensive tackle. Last year UF signed a guy that most projected to be an offensive lineman, Slaton, and put him on the defensive line. Isn’t there a huge need to upgrade the interior of UF’s offensive line?
    Finally, what’s with the obsession to see Toney at QB? He’s NOT a QB! He couldn’t stay healthy last year at receiver. He’s small, and you want him to get pounded running the ball in Mullen’s run heavy offense?
    Also, why keep mentioning Antonneus Clayton? Is your obsession with recruiting “stars” blinding you to the fact that he can’t play a lick? He’s already been on campus two years and has done NOTHING in a real game. That should, for anyone with eyes, tell you something.

    • Will Miles

      If you don’t like what I write, feel free to go elsewhere. No need to be a jerk.

  8. HymanRoth

    PS I think the writer pays attention to high school stats. That’s a silly thing to do since the vast majority of the school’s best player plays QB and their stats are meaningless. Hence the obsession with Toney playing QB. To show a prime example of why it’s ridiculous to even look at high school stats, how about looking at Cam Aker’s at QB? They dwarf Toney’s, but I doubt he’ll ever line up at QB at FSU.

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  10. Carey Freeman

    Okay, after watching last night’s GB, here’s my question re. F$U vs. UF recruiting. How many guys did they beat us for head-to-head? You mention your disappointment with not “beating them”, but that seems somewhat irrelevant if we’re not going head-to-head (and losing) on a lot of guys. From what I understand, the only HTH competions with F$U were EJ and Lamar and, frankly, I’ll take that tradeoff all day and Sunday. Am I wrong here? Did they beat us out in a bunch of HTH battles that I’m not aware of? Isn’t this more about who the former staffs had lined up originally than whether they “beat” us?

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