If it’s June, it must be time for Gator fans to worry about Dan Mullen’s recruiting.
I kid, of course, but only by a little. Last year at this time, it was fretting over losing Chris Steele to USC and whether it was worth it at all to go after California recruits. The story had a good ending in that Steele ended up forsaking the bowl-missing Trojans and signing with Florida in December. Well, the recruiting story had that as a good ending. Steele’s overall journey with UF didn’t have such a nice bow tied upon it.
Right now, I’ve noticed some worries in the Gator Country forums and elsewhere that the 2020 recruiting class is still lagging the usual suspects, including annual opponents Georgia and LSU and in-state rival Miami.
As it stood on Friday when I wrote this newsletter, Florida had the seventh-ranked class in the 247 Sports Composite. That’s an industry average that takes into account all of the major recruiting services.
That’s a top ten class, but it’s not top five. UF is behind those three schools I just mentioned above. Furthermore the Gators have 13 commitments, which is a healthy number for this time of year. The teams sandwiching Florida, No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 8 Ohio State each have fewer commitments. UF doesn’t have much room to surge based on catching up to the sheer number of recruits that other teams have.
More important is the average rating of the class. Schools sign bigger or smaller classes each year depending on how many spots they have available, so the average is arguably the better indicator of class quality.
UF’s average is 90.08, which is in the low 4-star range. That puts the class at 13th overall, behind some tiny classes such as Texas and Stanford with six commits each.
Looking through the lens of average rank and some other details, the frustration becomes clear. Consider the school out west. FSU has 12 commits and a 90.71 average with eight 4-stars and four 3-stars. Florida’s average is lower with six 4-stars and seven 3-stars. This, despite the Gators blowing out the Seminoles en route to a ten-win season with FSU going 7-6 and 5-7 in the past two seasons.
Plus, Florida doesn’t have a 5-star prospect lined up. Martez Ivey and Cece Jefferson are still the last of those to sign in Gainesville. The Gators do at least have commitments from two of the top ten recruits in the state, tied with defending national champ Clemson’s two for the most, with a real shot at a third.
Looking at the class itself, the three lowest-rated prospects are an in-line tight end and two offensive linemen. Those are positions where value can be had routinely at the 3-star level. Offensive line is a tough position for scouts to evaluate, and UF’s big OL haul from last year means it doesn’t necessarily have to have any 2020 signees play right away. They can afford to sign what they have committed, which are huge dudes who will need some time in the Savage system to become game-ready. Plus, recruiting services don’t rate tight ends highly if they don’t put up big receiving numbers.
All of this is to say that the class is not necessarily in bad shape. Given Mullen’s track record of closing, the class is in position to end up in a good place if he can do it again. Mullen got three 4-star commitments on the later signing day in 2018, nabbed the Lakeland trio on early signing day for the 2019 cycle, and added the two top-rated recruits besides Steele on the later signing in February.
Even so, Florida has been losing some big recruiting battles and suffering some decommitments lately. That, unfortunately, will happen. It’s also not clear to me that Mullen will ever do significantly better as a recruiter than what he’s doing now.
As an OC Mullen had a reputation of being almost antisocial, preferring to work on film and game plans to dealing with other people. He had to learn how to overcome that in Starkville, but it wasn’t a smooth upward trajectory.
When Hugh Freeze and his revival preacher act got things going — by violating a lot of NCAA rules, as we’d later find out — Mullen felt enough pressure to match that he began tweeting out Bible verses. Mullen is a believer but isn’t one to talk about religion. It seemed fake at the time, and he eventually quit doing it because it’s just not him (and because Freeze got canned after being revealed to be a fraud on top of a cheat).
Mullen seemed to find something that works for him with fancy athletic shoes — Adidas Yeezy models at MSU and Jordans now at UF — but those only take you so far. He also has a staff full of guys like John Hevesy and Greg Knox who are fantastic developmental coaches who aren’t known for lighting up the recruiting trail. That means they get more out of who they sign, but they may never consistently win battles over elite recruiters like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart, and Ed Orgeron.
After all, Mullen can only be who he is, and there is plenty of evidence that his personality isn’t universally appealing. There are those stories from his assistant days that I mentioned above. Additionally, there are the myriad interviews he took for other head coaching jobs while trying to get out of Starkville that always ended in whispers that he blew the interview. It’s telling that the way he finally escaped was by returning to a school where he’d previously coached with an AD who had previously worked with him.
I don’t know what Florida’s recruiting ceiling is exactly right now. There have been some highly publicized shakeups in the recruiting office that need to be straightened out before we know for sure. However with Mullen sticking largely with the guys who got him to where he’s at, top ten but not top five is probably about where UF can reasonably land.
Fewer than 40 players from a single team regularly see meaningful snaps in a given game, and Mullen has shown an ability to outcoach Orgeron at the least. Florida isn’t automatically relegated to also-ran status with Mullen and his posse in charge. However it may be that the only way for fans to see and end to their summer recruiting anxieties with this program and this staff is simply to let them go.