The seeds for Mullen’s firing were planted in his 2019 recruiting class

All head coaches struggle to have good initial recruiting classes unless they’re an internal hire on a program that’s in good shape, like Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma or Ryan Day at Ohio State. We call these initial hauls “transitional classes”, and they tend to be small and lightly regarded.

It’s a coach’s first class after a full recruiting cycle that really sets the tone for their tenures. Those classes not only have to do the normal work of building for the future and providing a handful of instant-impact players, but they also have to make up for the shortcomings of the transitional class.

Having a good first full class isn’t sufficient to ensure success — just ask Ron Zook, who had a splendid 2003 class — but it’s hard to succeed without one. Urban Meyer’s 2006 class is legendary for a reason and laid the foundation for the team’s 26-2 record across 2008-09. When The Athletic re-ranked the 2016 classes, Jim McElwain’s clocked in third overall behind Clemson and Alabama. It formed the core of Dan Mullen’s first two teams that each won 10+ games and finished in the top ten.

Will Muschamp found plenty of good performers in his 2012 class, but it was unbalanced and its shortcomings affected the team for years. The only quarterback in it was Skyler Mornhinweg, and the only receiver in it was Raph Andrades. If Mac didn’t manage to land Antonio Callaway in his transitional class, wideout would’ve been in dire straits once Demarcus Robinson went pro. The ’12 class also only landed two offensive linemen, one of who washed out of the program after off-field legal troubles. The line was in bad shape once Mac arrived in part because the other lineman, D.J. Humphries, left early for the NFL.

Mullen’s first full class in 2019 nominally had a top-ten rank. If you look at the two major recruiting sites, you’ll still see it ninth in the 247 Sports Composite and eighth at Rivals. However, the class was never as good as its ranking suggested, and it contained the seeds of Mullen’s stunningly quick downfall.

The quarterback of the class, Jalon Jones, transferred to Jackson State after just one semester following accusations of sexual assault from two different women. I don’t anticipate that he’d have pushed for playing time behind center this year anyway given Mullen’s loyalty to Emory Jones, and frankly, his throwing motion in his high school highlights is hard to watch. He is lightning quick, though, so might’ve switched to a receiver role where Florida could’ve used more speed this year. Regardless, his actions justified his early exit from the program.

The highest-rated player from the class was Chris Steele, and he also left after one semester. He was unhappy about his dorm situation being Jalon Jones’s roommate, and the coaches didn’t address his concerns in a way he liked. Following Jaydon Hill’s season-ending injury before the season, UF has been rotating freshmen at corner opposite Kaiir Elam where another third-year, highly talented player would’ve been very nice to have. Chester Kimbrough also could’ve had a chance at playing corner or Star, but he transferred to Michigan State.

Steele and Jones weren’t the only ones not to make it to preseason camp in 2019. Three players didn’t qualify for school, and a fourth, Bahamas native Wardrick Wilson, couldn’t enroll on time due to a federal visa issue. Two of the four, Wilson and Deyavie Hammond, were offensive linemen, and O-line has been a position of concern for parts of the year. Tackle is especially a spot of concern depth-wise, and Wilson was one in high school.

Once you deduct the players who didn’t make it to the fall semester, the 2019 class was almost the same in size and ratings to the prior year’s transitional class. Its shortcomings don’t end there, though.

As previously mentioned, UF has felt a lack of top-end playmakers at receiver this year. Of the three receiver signees in 2019, Trent Whittemore has played well when healthy. Ja’Markis Weston, a diamond-in-the-rough type from tiny Clewiston, has proven to be a project despite having what Mullen described as maybe the most speed on the team. Dionte Marks transferred prior to the 2020 season and has played sparingly at UCF this year.

Linebacker has been an issue too. Once Ventrell Miller went down, the answer was to plug in an edge rushing Buck linebacker from the 2017 class in Jeremiah Moon because UF has precious few non-Buck linebackers. Jesiah Pierre from the ’19 class might’ve been an option, but he transferred to Texas Tech after last season.

Florida had to import three graduate transfers at defensive tackle this season, and they’ve been fine but not stellar. It’s hard to find stellar players in the portal since teams tend to do what they must to keep their top players. Mullen didn’t sign any true defensive tackles in his transitional class and followed it up with just one in 2019. That one, Jaelin Humphries, has been plagued by rotten injury luck so far in his career.

To be clear, the whole class has not been a wash. Elam, Hill, Whittemore, Nay’Quan Wright, Keon Zipperer, Mohamoud Diabate, and Khris Bogle have contributed for years. Ethan White, the lowest-rated player in the class, was a real find by the coaching staff, as was the similarly rated Kinglsey Eguakun. Ty’Ron Hopper has turned promise into great results this season.

However, a lot of the trouble spots for this year’s team correlate directly to the trouble spots from the 2019 class. And the thing is, I can’t say that the team would’ve been substantially better absent the attrition. Steele starts for USC and Kimbrough starts for Michigan State, but Pierre and Marks were reserves for their respective teams. Jones started a few games for Jackson State before getting benched. Hammond is still in JUCO. Henderson signed with Jacksonville State, where he never played, before transferring to Blinn College, where he’s not on the roster. Wilson eventually got an offer from Old Dominion but doesn’t appear to be on a roster anywhere after the visa issue set back his career.

So maybe these guys outside of Steele and Kimbrough wouldn’t be playing much anyway, though you never know how their development trajectory changed by virtue of not being at Florida. Still, it doesn’t exactly speak well of the class that many of the ones who left haven’t done a whole lot elsewhere yet.

Whoever comes next at UF has a big job to do to salvage the 2022 class, which was already low on commits before the inevitable decommits that came from Mullen’s firing. As important as that is, it’s even more so to get organized quickly to make sure the 2023 class is a true difference maker. If it ends up as disappointing as Mullen’s 2019 class was, it’ll be a time bomb within the program that’ll go off around years three or four.

No one wants to be back in this spot of searching for a new head coach in three or four years, so having a blowout ’23 class is a real necessity.

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