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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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