Florida’s defense ahead of offense in Mullen’s talent overhaul

Last week, I went over how Florida’s defense is set for 2020 thanks to its versatility. Part of how the defense can be successfully versatile all over is that there has been a distinct talent infusion there since Dan Mullen took over the program.

In Mullen’s 2018 transitional class, he signed 11 offensive and seven defensive players with one who could’ve played either way. That one was Justin Watkins, who was dismissed from the program over the ensuing summer, so we never got a firm answer on his eventual playing spot.

Regardless, some number of players have left that class, from Randy Russell being medically disqualified right away to Lucas Krull deciding to transfer after the 2019 season. Attrition from transitional classes is normal and expected.

What’s left from that year’s class is eight offensive and just four defensive players. All four defenders were blue chip (four stars or higher) prospects in the 247 Composite, and all four have versatility. Amari Burney has played star and linebacker; Trey Dean will play his third different defensive backfield position at safety this year. David Reese can line up almost anywhere, and Andrew Chatfield could appear in multiple places up front.

The 2019 class had even more attrition in absolute numbers; it’s been catalogued extensively elsewhere. There are nine offensive and defensive players each still in Gainesville, and seven of the nine defenders are blue chippers.

Five of the six top-rated players in the class were on defense, and several have made their names known. Kaiir Elam has already nailed down a starting spot. Khris Bogle and Mohamoud Diabate played increasing numbers of snaps as the season went along last year and will be major fixtures this year. Ty’Ron Hopper and Lloyd Summerall redshirted behind many veterans last year, but fall reports have Hopper at least slated for playing time in passing situations thanks to his speed.

The remaining blue chip guys were Jaelin Humphries and Jaydon Hill. Humphries redshirted after battling injuries, but Hill played at times and will appear in the secondary rotation this year.

Then in 2020, Florida loaded up on defensive players. The signing class consisted of 16 defenders against just seven offensive players, driven by an expected exodus of veteran defensive linemen and secondary players. Just one linebacker came in with the class; the rest were up front or out back.

All but three of the defensive players were blue chips; one did not qualify, leaving Florida with 12 blue chip defenders from the class. This time four of the six highest-rated players were on defense, including Mullen’s first 5-star signee Gervon Dexter.

Add it all up, and Mullen’s three classes to enroll have added 23 former blue chip players to this year’s defense. Toss in some key transfers over the years to plug holes — multi-year starter Adam Shuler, last year’s star player Jonathan Greenard, this year’s projected starter Brenton Cox — and there’s been a real jump in talent on that side of the ball.

For comparison, Mullen’s initial 2018 team had just 11 blue chip holdovers from Jim McElwain’s tenure. Granted, the “blue chip” designation leaves out players like David Reese II, Jabari Zuniga, Vosean Joseph, Jachai Polite, Ventrell Miller, and James Houston, but put them in and the number still lags the blue chip talent Mullen has now.

But wait, what are we to make of the apparent discrepancy between offense and defense?

There are just 14 blue chip recruits from the 2018-20 classes still with the team now. It’s an improvement over the 11 that Mullen inherited on his 2018 team, but not by as much. What’s going on?

For one, Mullen’s Florida has taken in more transfers on offense. There have been six inward offensive transfers, double the three on defense.

Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes bolstered the receiving corps in 2018, and four transfers have entered the offense since last season ended: Lorenzo Lingard, Justin Shorter, Jordan Pouncey, and Stewart Reese. Reese is the only one who wasn’t a blue chip recruit out of high school, but he’s started for three years in the SEC. Having more transfers means not needing as many recruits.

But just as adding McElwain’s superlative 3-star defenders didn’t make up the full gap above, neither does adding transfers to the offensive ledger make up the distance between the rise in offensive and defensive talent under Mullen (especially since Jefferson has graduated).

That 2019 attrition has something to do with it, as four blue chip signees on offense are elsewhere either due to dismissal, not qualifying, or even a federal visa issue. One of the non-qualifiers, Deyavie Hammond, is committed to come next year from JUCO, albeit as a 3-star prospect now.

The rest, I think, is the thing that drives some recruiting watchers batty: Mullen and staff trust their own evaluations more than anyone else. By that, I mean they decide to take commitments from relatively lowly rated players by UF’s past standards.

The two places it’s happened the most is wide receiver and offensive line. It’s not that they won’t take highly rated guys there. Jacob Copeland, Richard Gouraige, and Xzavier Henderson were all closer to being 5-stars than 3-stars coming out of high school. But they will take guys with mid 3-star ratings that past Florida staffs may or may not have gone after. So far it’s working out a little, but there’s more proof to be had in the years to come.

And indeed, explosiveness has been lacking so far under Mullen. The place you’d expect to see superior talent winning out is in generating lots of chunk plays. The Gators got a little better in that regard last year, but not enough to keep up with an elite offense like LSU’s or carve up an elite defense like Georgia’s.

The top three commits in the 2021 class as of right now are still defenders, but the next four are on offense. Three of the four are blue chip wide receivers. The more Mullen succeeds, the more attractive a destination Florida becomes.

In the immediate future of this year and maybe next year too, the defense will probably remain ahead of the offense as it has been most years in the last decade. That’s fine since both units were good last year, but the defense will probably get to true national title caliber before the offense. A generational, transformative quarterback may accelerate the offense’s pace, but UF’s defense is still the bedrock of the team for now.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2