I have been developing the concept of the “scheduled down year” for a while now. The idea is that a head coach will see a dip in team performance in either his third or fourth season, depending on the initial conditions, for reasons that are largely out of his control.
It’s not hard to find examples of this phenomenon happening. It was noticing a lot of guys having worse records in their third, or less often fourth, seasons. Urban Meyer’s third team went 9-4 in a four-year run when his squads otherwise went 13-1. Will Muschamp’s 4-8 campaign was his third. The last time Nick Saban lost more than two games in a season was his fourth one in Tuscaloosa. Les Miles had one in his fourth at LSU, as did Jim Tressel at Ohio State. Look around, and you’ll find them everywhere.
They don’t always happen; Pete Carroll didn’t have one at USC, nor did Meyer at OSU. I’ve periodically worked to figure out the causes, and two big ones stand out:
1. The new coach’s transitional class is small and experiences high attrition, leaving extra roster holes
2. Most of the best players who signed with the old coach have left through graduation, transfer, or NFL declarations
A corollary to the second is that if the prior coach was fired, he probably had a hot seat period leading up to it. As a result, the final recruiting class of the outgoing coach might be on the iffy side too due to speculation about his future. Also when it comes to fourth-year situations, top players from the transitional class had the chance to go pro by then. That case blends the effect of the two.
Here is how Mullen’s situation stacks up against these factors.
Only half of the 20 signees are still on the 2021 roster. Emory Jones, Richard Gouraige, and Jacob Copeland are for-sure starters. Dameon Pierce, Amari Burney, and Trey Dean have started in the past but figure to be in position battles to varying degrees — less so for Pierce and Dean than for Burney. Andrew Chatfield is a solid rotation guy, and David Reese, Dante Lang, and Griffin McDowell have yet to contribute much outside special teams. That makes three solid starters, three on the starter/reserve edge, and one backup contributor.
A quick comparison would be to look at the 2017 class and the 2020 season. There were six solid starters (Tedarrell Slaton, Zach Carter, Marco Wilson, Kadarius Toney, Kyree Campbell, Ventrell Miller), three kind of co-starters in the safety rotation (Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner), and three regular rotation guys (Malik Davis, Kemore Gamble, James Houston).
Or, look at the 2016 class and the 2019 season. There were nine starters (Lamical Perine, Tyrie Cleveland, Brett Heggie, David Reese), or co-starters (Feleipe Franks/Kyle Trask; Josh Hammond/Freddie Swain; Jeawon Taylor in the safety rotation), and a regular rotation guy (Jeremiah Moon).
Both of those prior classes were larger to begin with, but they also had double-digit guys seeing the field regularly in the players’ fourth years. The 2018 class will be well under that this year.
A team doesn’t necessarily have to have a large stable of fourth-year contributors to excel, but guys of that age and experience should be team leaders and impact-makers. Florida will be down in numbers on that front, raising a red flag in regards to the scheduled down year.
Top players leaving
One player from the 2016 recruiting class and five players from the 2017 class just went in the NFL Draft, and the two 2018 class members who contributed the most so far went pro and were picked. It sounds like there may be some trouble here too, but it’s not all bad news.
From the 2017 class, Carter and Miller are on the first and second team preseason All-SEC teams, respectively. Davis, Gamble, and (when healthy) Moon will appear regularly. UF also has several high school class of 2016 guys using their COVID eligibility mulligans who transferred in recently (Antonio Valentino, Daquan Newkirk, Stewart Reese) or not-so-recently (Jean Delance). Rick Wells is a fellow ’16 guy who’s been with UF all along who may finally get appreciable playing time as well.
Only some of those guys have any real NFL hopes, but whether they do or not, they’re important nonetheless. Valentino and Newkirk allow the Gators to have a real defensive tackle rotation with zero such guys from the transitional class around; Reese and Delance at least have played tons of snaps and keep the numbers up given the uneven OL recruiting and glacial development pace of many recent signees.
UF hasn’t relied upon that many post-fourth-year players in recent seasons. On top of that, half of the four fifth-year seniors who played a lot last year (other than punter Jacob Finn) are actually back thanks to the pandemic exemptions. The Gators have more post-fourth-year seniors who will contribute than they normally do, even if there are one or two you’d like to have seen younger guys beat out by now.
Yes, the transitional class being low on numbers will negatively affect the team this year. No, not every NFL-caliber player from the McElwain days is gone, and transfers have filled in some gaps along the way. So, I think the ruling is that this will not be a full-on scheduled down year.
If anything, it was last year’s defense that played like it was in a scheduled down year.
Attrition and transitional class issues led to thinness on the defensive line, and UF was caught without the top-tier edge pass rusher that it usually has like Jachai Polite in 2018 or Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga in 2019. Middle linebacker had one cornerstone in Miller and a rotation of older guys who weren’t going to blossom into stars (Burney, Houston) or younger ones who weren’t quite ready yet (Mohamoud Diabate, occasionally Ty’Ron Hopper). The entire secondary had a rough year, and several players from the 2018-19 recruiting classes who might’ve been able to push the older players were long since in the attrition bucket.
If UF does fall off for reasons beyond the very understandable ones like losing a Heisman finalist quarterback and generational tight end, it will be because those 2018-19 classes function like a bad last class for an old coach and a transitional one for a new coach.
Of the 25 signees in the 2019 class, four didn’t qualify. Only one of them, Diwun Black, made it back to UF for this year after going elsewhere. Five of the 21 who made it in at the time have already transferred out. Even though only Chris Steele among them would be a potential starter this season, those are still spots that in theory could’ve gone to other players who might’ve been contributors.
We’re down to 17 now, but wait, there’s more. The only defensive tackle has had an injury-plagued career so far. Only one of the five OLs to qualify has any hope of major playing time this fall (Ethan White), and only one other has an expectation to battle for a spot anywhere else (Michael Tarquin). One of the Buck linebackers hasn’t really pushed for playing time either, both receivers are still largely unknowns, and one of the two remaining corners (Jaydon Hill) will have to fend off true freshman Jason Marshall for a starting spot.
Barring injuries, the ’19 class in its third year will top out at maybe eleven contributors of varying degrees: Black, Khris Bogle, Diabate, Kaiir Elam, Hill, Hopper, Ja’Markis Weston, White, Trent Whittemore, Nay’Quan Wright, and Keon Zipperer. Remember that the 2016 class had ten and the 2017 class had 12 in their fourth years after some number of players from them went pro early. The 2021 team realistically has at most 18 real contributors — including backup rotation guys, not just starters — from its third and fourth-year ranks. That’s a low figure at less than half of a two-deep, and it’s reminiscent of scheduled down years.
There also is the matter that the ’19 class isn’t yet helping much in the places where the 2018 class was weak. Mullen’s transitional group produced just one contributor each at receiver, middle linebacker, and offensive line, and we can say by now it produced nothing at defensive tackle. The subsequent class has also produced just one contributor so far at OL and MLB and none at WR or DT, though there’s still time for players like Hopper, Tarquin, and the two wideouts. We’re already seeing younger players like Xavier Henderson, Joshua Braun, Gervon Dexter, and Jalen Lee get snaps ahead of their elders at their respective positions, though.
Will it be a true scheduled down year? By the strictest definition, no. It may feel like third-year scheduled down year anyway, despite it being Mullen’s fourth season, because of the attrition and relative lack of development from the 2018 and 2019 classes.