A closer look at Florida's slow recruiting start, and why it's complicated
Dan Mullen hasn’t even taken the podium at his first SEC Media Days as Florida’s head coach, let alone coached his first game, and already there is noise in the system in Gainesville.
Fans and writers alike are on edge about Florida’s sluggish start to the 2018-2019 recruiting cycle, with many already moving past “on edge” and into full-on “panic mode.” Rival fans have taken to calling Florida “3-Star U,” with one notable podcaster comparing the notoriously poor recruiter Jim McElwain favorably to the affable, engaging Mullen.
Mullen makes Mac look like Bear Bryant on the trail.
— Kev (@561_Kev) July 7, 2018
There were rumblings from as early as the spring, when Florida hosted several big names without securing commitments or future official visits. The rumblings became louder in late June, when longtime Mullen 4-star DE target Nathan Pickering opted to commit to the in-state Mississippi State Bulldogs instead of the Gators, despite a lengthy recruiting relationship with the Florida coaching staff.
The rumbles turned to roars last week, when a pair of consensus 4-stars long considered Florida leans — Jahleel Billingsley (Alabama) and DB Chris Steele (USC) — committed elsewhere. The Gators also lost former 4-star WR commit John Dunmore, the Hollywood (Fla.) Chaminade product, who committed to Penn State. Another 4-star WR, Mycah Pittman, appears set to buck his mother’s wishes and pick Oregon over Florida.
There’s no question that’s a tough few weeks for the Gators, who currently sit at No. 31 in the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings for 2019 (behind Duke!). But is it a cause for panic? And what exactly is behind Florida’s slow recruiting start?
Fan is short for “fanatic,” and reason and facts aren’t often considered when it’s easier to just pile on the panic bandwagon and criticize the new Florida coaching staff, who are tasked with rebuilding a program that for the second time in less than a decade has a broken culture to go along with personnel issues.
But even fanatics aren’t entitled to their own facts, and the facts of Florida recruiting are these.
First, it isn’t all doom-and-gloom.
Mullen signed the best transition class in Florida history last fall, rescuing a class ranked in the 20s with a host of signing day commitments, including coveted 4-star QB Emory Jones, who chose Florida over rival Florida State, and 4-star WR Jacob Copeland, who ended years of Gator recruiting futility in Pensacola by picking Florida over Alabama.
Mullen’s 2019 class, with 4 top 300 players currently committed, also rates comparably, at this point in the cycle (early July), to Gus Malzahn’s second class at Auburn (4 top 300 commits), Mark Richt’s second class at Miami (4 top 300 commits), and Willie Taggart’s second class at Florida State (5 top 300 commits). It is also twice as good, as of July 11, as Jim McElwain’s second class was at this point (2 top 300 commits), which seems to suggest that at the very least, Mullen isn’t making McElwain look like “Bear Bryant on the trail.” And while Mullen’s second class certainly behind Urban Meyer’s second class at Florida as of July (10 top 300 commits), it isn’t terribly behind Kirby Smart’s pace (6 top 300 commits), although it is entirely fair to suggest that Florida needs a quality Friday Night Lights event this July to bolster the class, stem the negative flow of publicity and build momentum for the fall.
Further, while the losses of players like Steele, Pittman and Dunmore seem permanent, Pickering and Billingsley are among the players who have openly indicated they’ll take recruiting visits, giving Florida at least a chance at recouping those losses. And even with Dunmore gone, there are a host of analysts projecting 4-star WR Elijah Higgins, a 6-2 221-pound NFL prototype, will commit to Florida before the end of the month.
Second, Mullen is also dealing with a host of structural challenges his rivals simply don’t face.
To begin with, he inherited a program that has had two 4-win seasons in four years, and hasn’t fielded an offense ranked in the top 50 nationally since most recruits were in elementary school. The Gators stitched together two 10-win seasons this decade, but did so on the shoulders of elite defenses, and even in the seasons when Will Muschamp recruited well, Florida’s classes tended to be unbalanced, with a high-number of blue chips (4- or 5-stars) on defense, not offense.
-- Power 5 assistant coach on Dan Mullen's recruiting ability
Florida’s roster contains 36 blue-chip recruits, only 3 of whom were consensus 5-star players. That’s more blue-chips than at SEC East rivals South Carolina (23) and Tennessee (34), but it’s well-behind Georgia (61) and FSU (56). Much of that is due to unbalanced classes under Muschamp and the general aloofness of McElwain, who deferred much of Florida’s recruiting process to associate head coach Randy Shannon. But some of it is about success on the field too, according to one longtime SEC assistant.
“Kirby inherited a 10-win roster at Georgia, and schematically, they didn’t want to reinvent much offensively, which people forget,” the SEC assistant told me. “That meant Kirby could go and target certain areas where he felt upgrades were critical, notably on the offensive line and on the defensive perimeter. But Smart also knew Richt already had a roster that was close. It’s why he waited on that job. Dan gets a 4-win culture and probably an 8-win roster. Those challenges are almost entirely different, and that’s before you discuss scheme.”
Another challenge Florida faces is consistent coaching turnover, which impacts recruiting in two ways.
The first is the obvious one. It’s hard to play catchup against other staffs when they’ve cultivated longstanding relationships with kids. The usual rebuttal to this is that “other staffs in transition manage to do it.” But another longtime Power 5 assistant says it’s more complicated than that.
“At Florida, you want to recruit against everybody. You go into a living room and sell Florida, but you’re doing it in a place where Dabo (Swinney) has been, where (Nick) Saban has been, where Kirby Smart is or Clay Helton,” the Power 5 assistant told me last week. “That’s fine, but then even if you catch up relationship-wise, you’re behind culturally, you aren’t winning. So, the most interested kids may make you wait.”
The second challenge of consistent turnover is the more fascinating one, and far less talked about. Not all staffs want to recruit the same kids, especially when there is dramatic scheme change, which there certainly is at Florida as it moves away not just from McElwain’s pro-style offense to Mullen’s run-dominant spread, but also from Shannon’s vanilla 4-3 to Todd Grantham’s Pittsburgh 3-4.
That poses significant recruiting challenges that are compounded by the relationship issue, according to Florida-based national recruiting analyst Corey Long, who for over a decade has covered college football and recruiting for the New York Times, ESPN and Saturday Down South, among other publications.
“Mullen and this coaching staff have a plan and they are going after the players they are comfortable with and feel like they fit into the scheme and the culture,” Long told me last week. “Maybe they will look to fill the ‘top end’ of the class during the season and get some bigger names in before the first signing day, but for now, it’s about crafting their target list.”
Long is sympathetic to the criticism among some writers and fans alike, however, that Florida doesn’t seem to have a specific recruiting strategy established yet under Mullen. He says a good amount of that has to do with turnover.
“I think the problem with four coaches in just over eight years is they have four different players (they have targeted),” Long said. “Gator football was different under McElwain than it was under Muschamp and will be different under Mullen. McElwain’s staff, headed by Randy Shannon, was very active in South Florida whereas Mullen’s staff doesn’t seem to be recruiting as much there. So where will their in-state focus be? Tampa? Orlando? Jacksonville? The Panhandle? What about out of state? Are they strong in Georgia or better along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi JUCOs? They need to figure out where they can establish significant inroads at and start aggressively recruiting in those areas.”
Long’s point here is supported by the reality that Florida is one of only 8 Power 5 programs that have had four head coaches since 2010. The others? Pitt, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, Oregon, USC and Arkansas. Of those nine programs, only Florida, USC and Oregon are considered bluebloods, and both Oregon and USC hired their fourth coach (Cristobal and Helton, respectively) from within their prior staff. Of the nine, Pitt made the largest recruiting improvement from a transition class to second class, when Pat Narduzzi improved Pitt from 46th to 30th in 2016. The difference? Pitt won 8 football games under Narduzzi after a losing season under Paul Chryst.
Winning matters, according to the Power 5 assistant.
“Helton and (Mario) Cristobal already had ideas as to who they wanted to recruit, and an offer list they didn’t need to reshape. That allowed for immediate momentum. Helton had to win more games, but USC was never in a situation like Florida where they had multiple losing seasons. Mario is at a program that has been to a College Football Playoff Championship. He and (Willie Taggart) made the offer list. Mullen’s situation is a lot more like Dabo’s was at Clemson, even though Dabo came from (Tommy) Bowden’s staff. Dabo had a different idea about how he wanted Clemson to play football. Clemson hadn’t won a conference title in forever. They had to win. It took awhile to sell that to kids.”
Long is less sure.
“In the era of the Early Signing Day period, there’s not really wait-and-see,” Long said. “I just think there’s too much turnover and coaching changes in the past few years to establish a consistent pattern of recruiting. The target list in the 2019, 2020 and 2021 classes changed with the coaching change, so there are kids that the Shannon-led group of assistants were targeting over the next three years that Mullen’s staff has decided not to pursue and in turn they have a whole new group of targets, some brought over from their evaluations while at Mississippi State. That and the schematic changes just means they start from behind.”
Still, it’s Florida, the Power 5 assistant told me. Kids will respond if Florida plays better football.
“I don’t know if it happens in this class,” the assistant said. “But the way they are upgrading things, the whole package of tradition and facilities and the NFL pipeline and academics: maybe it’s a longer rebuild, like Clemson. But Dan will get it built, if they let him.”