GC VIP Stadium Road Audibles — 9/16/19 Edition

In 247 Sports’s explanation of its own rankings, this is the definition of a 3-star recruit:

“One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country. Many three-stars have significant pro potential.”

Their Composite, which combines the major services’ rankings and is the only thing I cite for recruiting rankings, works about the same way from a distributional standpoint. The same text can apply to the 3-stars in there.

Florida’s 2019 starting offensive line has four former 3-star recruits in it: Stone Forsythe, Brett Heggie, Nick Buchanan, and Chris Bleich. Coming out of high school, they were among the top ten percent of recruits as best as the major scouting sites could tell. Since then, we can say that Heggie at the least has significant pro potential.

They’ve underwhelmed as a unit so far, however. They’ve not played up to Florida’s on-field standards, and I’m not sure I’d even place them where last year’s starters were at the same time. In 2018 they had a 5-star in Martez Ivey and a 3-star in Jawaan Taylor who would go early in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Injuries prevented Ivey from fulfilling his rating, but the talent that got him that rating meant he had a high floor. Rarely did you ever come away from a game in four years thinking he had a terrible outing. Taylor was one of the 3-stars with significant pro potential, more than Heggie does if you ask me.

If you were to take those four 3-star guys from this year’s line and give them to a Group of 5 team, they could be program-changing. At Eastern Michigan or San Jose State, they’d make up most of the best line in school history. At a better G5 team like UCF, Boise State, Memphis, or BYU, most if not all of them would start. The all-time superlatives would probably be off the table, but they’d still be at the top line of the depth chart.

Of course, this is ultimately Florida we’re talking about. If you have to take anyone and say something like, “they’d totally be a starter at Memphis,” then you’re damning them with faint praise.

The fact is, the Gators don’t have a line up to their own standards. Not yet, anyway. There are some promising young guys like Richard Gouraige, Ethan White, Michael Tarquin, and (according to spring practice reports) Kingsley Eguakun. Only two of those are 4-star guys, though White is well on his way to fixing the weight and conditioning issues that kept him from getting a better score.

To be clear, a blue chip rating out of high school isn’t necessary for excellence. In addition to a recent example like Taylor, Mike Pouncey was a 3-star guy. But the Florida lines that were putting up gaudy numbers under Dan Mullen’s direction also had things like a somewhat underachieving 5-star Carl Johnson at guard. A 5-star who isn’t able to fulfill that ranking is probably still going to end up better than many 3-stars. I’d take Johnson over any UF offensive guards last year or this.

Ironically the only member of the starting five to sit the bench prior to garbage time is Jean Delance, who was a 4-star recruit when he signed with Texas out of high school. Gouriage, himself a former 4-star, played some of the second half against Kentucky at left tackle with Forsythe sliding over to right tackle for those snaps. A top rating is no guarantee of anything.

But as with so many things about post-2013 Florida, it really does come down to recruiting. Since the 2014 class, Florida has had to rely on 3-stars with pro potential in far more spots than you’d like to see. It can work as in the case of Taylor, but it can hold the team back.

Jachai Polite was amazing as a pass rusher but didn’t perform nearly as well against the run. David Reese is fantastic against a team that tries to run downhill at him as Kentucky did, but he’s a liability in lateral movement and will never catch someone with 5-star speed like UGA’s D’Andre Swift on stretch plays. Lamical Perine is good at everything but great at nothing. Last year’s offensive line could run block but struggled in pass protection. This year’s is the exact opposite of that.

I know this sounds harsh coming after an emotional win and with the team at 3-0. They’ll probably get to 4-0 against a hapless Tennessee this week. Beating Auburn isn’t out of the question with how up-and-down its freshman quarterback Bo Nix has been, Mullen seems to have LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s number, and anything can technically happen in one game in Jacksonville. I’ve seen enough Cocktail Parties to know the better team on paper doesn’t always win.

The fact is, the program is not as far away from where Mullen left the Mississippi State program as Gator fans would want. Last year was a cyclical high year in Starkville that Joe Moorhead squandered with poor quarterback evaluation and management and MSU still basically tied UF in S&P+. There was some high-end talent among those Bulldogs, but there were a lot of 3-stars with pro potential doing heavy lifting. The fact that Florida had a few more players with higher potential carried the day when the teams went head-to-head, and it means that the Gators have more to work with this year instead of looking at a cyclical retreat as the Bulldogs are currently going through.

I think a lot of fans allowed themselves to buy into the players’ assessment that this year’s Florida team has national title potential. If everything breaks right from here on out, they might get to the 11-1 regular season that is the first prerequisite for making the College Football Playoff. Given the breaks that have already gone against them, that seems highly unlikely. If they could get there in the best of all possible worlds, they’d have to scrap there like the 2006 team. They wouldn’t be blowing out a bunch of opponents like in 1996 or 2008.

It is much more plausible that the ceiling is ten regular season wins with a New Year’s 6 appearance, and getting there would beat out anything but 2012 in the post-Meyer era. I guess it might be a draw with 2015, which had no NY6 game but did include a division title.

Mullen has improved the recruiting over the McElwain era. Both of his classes have had more 4-star signees than 3-stars, and despite the attrition, the 2019 class’s 11 remaining 4-stars match McElwain’s best effort in 2017.

That’s the thing: he’s landed somewhere in between Meyer and McElwain. So have his teams, with them generally inhabiting the second half of the top ten. The program is better, but it’s not elite. The trajectory isn’t pointed at elite either. They’re not going to catch Bama or Clemson or Georgia with the way things have gone so far.

We’ll know a lot more in another year or two as Mullen’s recruits cycle up into starting roles. Along with apparently taking more academic risks with recruits, Mullen has brought a developmental attitude with him where players sit and learn for years rather than play a lot early.

Other than in the secondary where McElwain left a thin unit behind some headliners, most guys Mullen has signed haven’t played much. The ones who have are mixed. Kyle Pitts is a great passing target but is a random number generator at blocking. Bleich is in competition with Delance for weakest link on the line. The only one who’s removed all doubt about his true value at this point is Evan McPherson, though Pitts is on his way.

Again, I know this is a downer after an exciting win, but I also know I need all five fingers to count the number of near-turnovers Kyle Trask has already racked up this year. He looked legitimately great at times in the comeback, but it’s nothing but luck that he didn’t stunt the effort by giving Kentucky the ball.

Florida is a team that can overcome multiple terrible mistakes against a rebuilding Miami and a Kentucky down almost all its stars from last year, but it isn’t able to look good in the process. It ran out of margin for error with personnel weeks ago, and it’s now in the red without Feleipe Franks, CJ Henderson, and Kadarius Toney.

I’m the kind of person that wants to see the world as it is and not how I want it to be, and that’s what Florida football is in 2019.

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