Dan Mullen’s transitional recruiting class needs proper expectations

We’re a few weeks away from Dan Mullen finalizing his first recruiting class as Florida Gators head football coach. As I write this, he has 13 players signed with two more committed. UF will sign roughly just under the max of 25 players in the class, which means almost ten more spots are open if offensive line prospect Richard Gouraige and wide receiver Justin Watkins keep their commitments and sign.

Given that we don’t even know who a big chunk of the class will be yet, it’s obviously too early to judge the result. It always takes years to evaluate any class, for that matter. However, it is important to temper your expectations because it’s a transitional class.

The first class that a head coach signs tends to be a crapshoot for a number of reasons. He may not know the existing commits all that well, and he has to rush to fill up spots with players he may not have a long relationship with.

To wit, here are how the last three transitional classes in Gainesville have turned out. I’m dividing up the players into four categories: those who became solid starters for at least a year, non-starters who played big roles anyway, those who made little impact, and those whose Gator careers ended early for reasons other than graduation or going pro.

Jim McElwain: 2015

  • Starters: Martez Ivey, Cece Jefferson, Jordan Scarlett, Antonio Callaway, Jabari Zuniga
  • Contributors: Tyler Jordan, Kylan Johnson, Keivonnis Davis, Frederick Johnson, Luke Ancrum
  • Marginal Role: Nick Buchanan, Rayshad Jackson
  • Transfers/Gone: Jordan Cronkrite, Chris Williamson, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Brandon Sandifer, Camrin Knight, Kalif Jackson, Richerd Desir-Jones, Andrew Ivie (medical), D’Anfernee McGriff (didn’t qualify)

This isn’t all that bad as far as transitional classes go, though there are still more guys in the latter two categories (11) than in the starter and contributor categories (10). Those five starters have been high quality starters — though of course two of them missed last year due to poor off-the-field judgment.

The only one of the washouts that seems right now to be a loss is Imatorbhebhe, who looked promising as a tight end for USC in 2016 before injuries cost him much of 2017. Cronkrite will have a chance to show off at USF in 2018, though Florida is pretty set at running back looking forward.

There still is time for some of the marginal characters to move into the Transfer/Gone category; it seems more likely that they’d do that than climb up to become contributors. This class was merely okay, not great.

Will Muschamp: 2011

  • Starters: Jeff Driskel, Marcus Roberson, Jabari Gorman, Loucheiz Purifoy, Trip Thurman, Clay Burton, Hunter Joyer, Kyle Christy
  • Contributors: Valdez Showers, Tevin Westbrook
  • Marginal Role: None
  • Transfers/Gone: A.C. Leonard, Mike Blakely, Jacoby Brissett, Ja’Juan Story, Javares McRoy, Graham Stewart, Pop Saunders, Chris Johnson, Tommy Jordan (medical)

I included Driskel in the Starters category even though he eventually transferred; as a multi-year starter in Gainesville, it really seemed more fitting to have him there.

Muschamp had the wind of the Meyer recruiting regime at his back, but it was a benefit as well as a detriment. You can see it in how this class was almost entirely guys who were starters or transfers. Many players found their way to the top line of the depth chart. However, several of the eventual transfers signed for someone they didn’t initially commit to and ended up not liking who they actually played for.

The transfers were the big problem here, particularly on offense. Blakely and McRoy transferred months after signing. Story left after a year of not playing, while Leonard also redshirted and then left after an offseason arrest. Brissett took off as well after losing out to Driskel two years in a row. UF never had enough good offensive players under Muschamp, and this class’s offensive half slowly melting away was a big part of that.

Urban Meyer: 2005

  • Starters: Ryan Stamper, David Nelson, Louis Murphy, Kestahn Moore, Jonathan Phillips
  • Contributors: Dorian Munroe
  • Marginal Role: None
  • Transfers/Gone: Avery Atkins, Josh Portis, Nyan Boateng, Jon Demps, Eddie Haupt (medical), Eric Sledge, Brian Ellis (didn’t qualify), Darryl Gresham, Ronnie Wilson, Simon Codrington (medical), Kalvin Baker

Want to know how a coach wins a national title in his second and fourth years but has a terribly young team that loses four games in his third? Here’s why.

Meyer’s 2005 class was small to begin with, and over half of it ended up washing out for one reason or another. Many of them had memorable stories too, from the tragedy of Atkins to Demps getting in trouble for throwing a sandwich at a Jimmy Johns employee to Meyer sticking his neck out for — and ultimately getting burned by — Wilson. Almost a decade ago, I ran through the fate of this class player-by-player if you want to see all the details.

Even among the guys who made positive impacts, some were muted. Nelson never caught as much as 300 yards in a season, while Moore was eventually passed up by guys from later classes. Stamper and Phillips needed years to break the lineup; Munroe looked promising early but fell off as injuries derailed his career.

Dan Mullen: 2018

It should come as no surprise that the above classes weren’t major program changers. Muschamp’s was the only one that was made up of more than 50% blue chip (4-star or 5-star) players, and even then, six of the 11 blue chips were gone before the 2013 season began (Leonard, Blakely, Brissett, Story, McRoy, and Stewart).

Mullen’s 15 combined signees and commits right now consist of nine 4-stars and six 3-stars. Among the non-blue chippers are a kicker, a tight end, and two offensive linemen, positions where it’s more routine than others to find value at the 3-star level.

I know a lot of people don’t like to look at star ratings, as they’re just opinions of various scouts. However, recruiting rankings do hold up overall. Former 5-star recruits are more likely to become All-Americans than 4-stars, which are substantially more likely to become All-Americans than 3-stars, which are vastly more likely to become All-Americans than 2-stars.

So, it matters that Mullen so far is building a class that rates better than McElwain’s and Meyer’s underwhelming transitional classes. If he is able to sign more blue chips than non-blue chips as he completes the class, he’ll put himself ahead of two of his recent predecessors.

There already has been a spot of attrition, with December signee Randy Russell’s career being over now due to a heart condition. As you can see above, attrition is a huge concern with transitional classes. A large part of how the 2018 haul will be judged will come down to how many of the players finish their careers in Gainesville.

It’s worth remembering that transitional classes don’t have to be mediocre or worse. Ron Zook’s transitional 2002 class included the likes of Ciatrick Fason, DeShawn Wynn, Randy Hand, Jemalle Cornelius, Reggie Lewis, Ray McDonald, Brian Crum, and Jermaine and Tremaine McCollum. Fason was a 1,000-yard rusher, Hand was a multi-year starter, and the rest made memorable contributions to the 2006 national championship effort.

For what it’s worth, Mullen did a great job developing his 2009 transitional class at Mississippi State. It ended up producing a number of NFL players in Fletcher Cox, Pernell McPhee, Gabe Jackson, Darius Slay, Josh Boyd, Johnthan Banks, Chris White, and Cameron Lawrence, plus All-SEC selections Chad Bumphis, LaDarius Perkins, and Nickoe Whitley.

If Mullen can close well with mostly blue-chip prospects and can develop the class like he did his first in Starkville, Florida will be in great shape going forward. Both are big ifs, though, and you especially shouldn’t count on the latter. Transitional classes are tough to get right, and by no means is there any way to guarantee success.