A topic that came up on the two most recent episodes of Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody is how the December signing day has changed things for new coaches.
Hosts Steven Godfrey and Bud Elliott mainly talked about Willie Taggart and Jeremy Pruitt, each of whom were hired in the first coaching cycle with the early signing day. Each made mistakes in their staffing choices, particularly at offensive coordinator. Godfrey reported that Walt Bell was a terrible fit from the start at FSU, and his arguable downgrade of a move in becoming UMass head coach after last season was a, “if you don’t jump, we’ll push you” situation. Tennessee also saw its OC Tyson Helton leave for a questionable Group of 5 job at Western Kentucky after an uneven showing in 2018.
Taggart and Pruitt had to assemble their staffs in a hurry since they had less than a month between their hiring and the first signing day. It’s hard to recruit offensive players without an offensive coordinator in place, especially for a defensive coach like Pruitt.
For comparison, Will Muschamp was hired in the normal time frame but didn’t hire Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator until early January. His case shows that getting extra time can still result in a mistake, but he didn’t have to pull the trigger on a hire within days of taking the job.
This is a new wrinkle to the calculus of judging first-year coaches. Transitional recruiting classes have always been of questionable quality since coaches have to quickly decide who are fits among the current commits who don’t immediately bail and then who to pursue to fill out the grouping. First-years staffs are now called into question by rushed hiring processes too.
Godfrey and Elliott mused whether all coaches get a Year 0 — meaning a complete mulligan for their first season — because of the early signing day possibly forcing bad hires. They didn’t commit to it, which is smart since the trend in college football has never been toward more patience with coaches.
It is worth noting that Florida also hired a head coach in the first year of the early signing day. UF experienced no such staffing problems.
After all, Dan Mullen had a core group of longtime loyal assistants in Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy, and Greg Knox to bring with him. He also is his own offensive coordinator, and he got DC Todd Grantham to follow him to Gainesville before November ended. Shorter-term assistants Ron English and Christian Robinson (promoted from GA at MSU to LBs coach at UF) followed Mullen too, while former Mullen assistant at MSU and QB at Utah Brian Johnson also signed on.
The only brand-new hires to Mullen were Charlton Warren and Sal Sunseri. Perhaps not coincidentally, they’re also the only coaches to leave after 2018. Although, Warren moved on to his fifth job in six seasons, while Sunseri went back to Alabama to coach with his son who’s a new GA there. Neither of those circumstances speak poorly on Mullen as a boss.
So, Florida managed to avoid the staffing strife as seen at Florida State and Tennessee, undoubtedly among other programs that changed coaches in 2018, thanks to hiring a guy who engenders loyalty from quality assistants.
The questions about recruiting in a short period of time persist, though, with them arising anew last week.
One departure from the 2018 class is on the mundane side, with Malik Langham transferring this offseason to Vandy to seek more playing time. That’s on the early side to do so, but it happens.
More concerning are the cases of Justin Watkins and John Huggins. Watkins was dismissed from the program after his second arrest in the 2018 offseason, the first coming from an altercation with a woman and the second coming from violence against his girlfriend. Last week it came to light that Huggins missed five games last year following an allegation from a woman serving as his tutor that he put his hands on her neck to choke her. She also alleged that previously he’d pulled her hair after saying “Do you know what you’re supposed to do with this?” It was reported over the weekend that Huggins has been dismissed from the team.
Looking at the players’ histories on 247 Sports, Mullen’s Mississippi State staff did not recruit either of them enough to generate any records if it recruited them at all. Huggins got an offer from Mullen on December 5, 2017 and signed two weeks later; Watkins first visited UF with Mullen in charge on January 19 and signed in February. If Mullen and his guys really hadn’t recruited them hard before then, that’s not a lot of time to evaluate them as people on top of their athletic ability.
To be clear, there is no way around having to make snap decisions in a coach’s first recruiting class. It’s also not like these guys were pariahs that power schools were avoiding. Both Watkins and Huggins had offers from prominent programs including FSU and Miami for both, and Jim McElwain’s staff had been recruiting Watkins to Florida.
It’s possible that the compressed timeline led Mullen to sign players he may have screened out for character concerns with more time. Then again, he signed Jalon Jones in the 2019 class, and he is already gone after allegations of violence against women by him. He committed to Mullen’s Mississippi State in 2017 and flipped to Florida in April 2018. That was a long relationship, particularly compared to Mullen’s pursuit of Watkins and Huggins.
Again, other top programs were after Jones. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer extended offers too, though whether they were fully committable offers I don’t know.
Mullen handled the Watkins and Jones cases well by showing them the door quickly; there are still some questions about his handling of Huggins despite the dismissal. There are also real questions about Mullen’s character screening process after having three of his recruits in two years accused of violence against women. The compressed recruiting timeline could be a mitigating factor in the cases of Watkins and Huggins.
Mullen has nine years of track record at Mississippi State, and he did not have this many problems there. He did famously take 5-star defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who in high school was seen on tape punching a woman who had attacked his sister. Simmons never got in trouble in Starkville and made the SEC Academic Honor Roll twice, so he made the most of his second chance. The scrutiny around Mullen and his staff, and then-MSU and current-UF athletic director Scott Stricklin too, surrounded the question of whether Simmons should’ve gotten a second chance at as high a perch as an SEC program straight out of high school. Beyond that complicated situation, there was nothing at Mullen’s Mississippi State that compares to what’s happened at Florida the last 20 months.
Every program will at some points sign players who commit acts of violence. Football is a violent sport, and it attracts people with those tendencies. Coaches can’t see into the hearts of recruits and know which ones will save it exclusively for the field and which will let it spill over off of it. Having so many incidents in such a short time is a real concern for the Florida program.
It’s also worth remembering the compressed timeline for the 2018 recruiting class and Mullen’s longer history as a head coach. It’s not time to hit the panic button, but Mullen does need to see to it that the recent pattern doesn’t continue.