Is there a college football program in America right now more happy to dive into summer school and summer strength and conditioning workouts than Florida?
The Gators flourished in Year 1 under Dan Mullen, who flipped the broken, toxic culture left behind by Jim McElwain and put together an impressive 10-win season that was capped with a dominant, demon-exorcising rout of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Along the way, Mullen shifted the balance of power in the state by crushing in-state rival FSU 41-14 last November and building on that by inking the program’s first top-ten recruiting class in five years this winter.
The Gators entered the spring with momentum, the darlings of spring prediction pieces and dark horse Playoff betting alike.
But less than two weeks after Florida closed a promising spring practice, adversity hit.
First, assistant director of player personnel Otis Yelverton was arrested on allegations of domestic stalking.
Then, stories broke that 4-star quarterback and early enrollee Jalon Jones was the subject of multiple sexual battery investigations. Though Jones was never charged, he entered the transfer portal April 30, just two days before the police reports related to the sexual battery allegations became public.
Days later, 5-star running back Demarkcus Bowman of Lakeland committed to Clemson over Florida, despite attending perhaps the most Gator-friendly high school football factory in the country. Long considered a Gators lean, especially after his high school teammates and fellow blue-chippers Keon Zipperer, Lloyd Summerall and good friend Deyavie Hammond committed to Florida, Bowman’s decision to buck the pipeline was and is a blow to a program that has not landed a consensus 5-star recruit since Cece Jefferson and Martez Ivey signed in 2015. These are the types of battles Florida needs to win if they want to compete for national championships long-term.
On May 6, Florida defensive back Brian Edwards was arrested on a domestic battery charge. His case remains pending.
Finally, Florida lost the jewel of its 2019 recruiting class, 4-star CB Chris Steele, to a transfer in early May. Steele, who by most accounts was excellent in the spring, would have provided much-needed depth at cornerback, where Florida has All-American caliber starters in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson but a dearth of options behind them.
The circumstances of Steele’s transfer remain the subject of tense debate, with some, including me, defending the player’s choice as financially and personally understandable and many others questioning the player’s motives and intentions.
Steele’s assigned roommate was Jalen Jones, and by association, Steele’s name appeared in police reports related to the Jones sexual battery investigations. UPD confirmed to SDS that Steele was never considered a suspect or implicated in any way as complicit in these alleged crimes.
Inside the Steele camp, the family was understandably upset about Steele being implicated in an alleged sex crime by association. Per a report by Zach Abolverdi of the Gainesville Sun, the family maintained that Steele had worries about Jones as early as January and requested that someone on staff make a roommate change, only to have Florida advise it would only make the change in the summer.
On the one hand, it doesn’t seem hard to accommodate a player’s (or any student’s) roommate change requests.
On the other hand, due to student privacy laws, Florida was always limited in terms of what it could say to respond to the story that Steele transferred largely because of a staff failure. Couple that reality with the fact that there were longstanding whispers about Steele potentially being homesick, as well as seemingly friendly tweets between Steele and Jones well after January, and you have even more questions.
Of course, Steele ultimately transferred to Eugene, Oregon, which is nearly 900 miles from his hometown in Los Angeles. With USC and UCLA beating on Steele’s door during recruiting, it makes the “homesick” narrative a tough sell. To put it in perspective, a similarly homesick person who missed Gainesville would need to decide that Dover, Delaware, was a good place to relocate to do what Steele did by picking the Ducks.
To Mullen’s credit, he, along with his wife Megan Mullen, flew across the country to speak to Steele’s family before the story broke nationally. Whether that trip was to apologize, make it right, ask Steele to stay or simply to talk we’ll probably never know. But it certainly reflects the longstanding reputation Mullen has earned in the business as a coach who cares deeply for his players.
Mullen’s successful rehabilitation project of eventual Miss State All-American Jeffrey Simmons, or his reaching out to a recently retired, searching,anxiety-ridden Percy Harvin are two examples. Mullen’s own remarks to the press on the Steele situation also reflect this concern, even if he didn’t dive into the details of the transfer.
“I think with Chris and his situation, we discussed with him and his family a lot of things that went into the decision he was going to make to go to school out on the West Coast,” Mullen said.
“Megan and I went to California to help him with what he was going through,” Mullen said to the media last week. “I wanted him to know that we were there to support him. We were there to support him if he wanted to come back to Florida. We were there supporting him helping him move on from that in the future.”
Whatever you think the reason for Steele’s departure is, it’s never good to lose the top player from your previous recruiting class before they even play a down.
From a football standpoint, it leaves the Gators thin at corner.
Yes, Jaydon Hill, who also roomed with Jalon Jones, is still on campus. Yes, help is on the way in the form of 2019 signees Chester Kimbrough and highly-coveted Kaiir Elam, who enrolled in Summer A last week. But neither player went through spring football, making it difficult to know until August camp just how ready they’ll be for action come the fall.
Nevertheless, the reality is Florida’s 2019 football outlook isn’t altered tremendously by the absence of one freshman cornerback. As noted, the Gators still have CJ Henderson, the top corner on Mel Kiper’s 2020 NFL Draft big board, and former All-SEC freshmen team member Marco Wilson will return to start. Trey Dean, a highly-touted corner who had a huge spring, will primarily play nickel but can move to corner in a pinch. And anyone who has ever seen a member of the Elam family play football will tell you it’s fair for the Gators to expect meaningful snaps from Elam.
There’s a fair argument, of course, that losing Steele hurts down the line, as soon as next year, when Henderson is gone and Wilson ponders whether to play his senior season. That’s true, but evaluating that also requires understanding that Florida upgraded its cornerback coach in the offseason when it brought in Torian Gray, and the Gray hire has already reaped recruiting dividends.
Just this weekend, Florida earned the commitment of 4-star Baton Rouge DB Joel Williams, who picked the Gators (and Gray, mainly) over hometown LSU. Florida also has the commitment of 4-star corner Avery Helm, out of Houston, in line for 2020. And Gray is hot on the path of additional help to keep the DBU reputation rolling.
Add in the weekend commitment of tight end Jonathan Odom, a talented Florida legacy and the son of former All-SEC Gator tackle Jason Odom, who was considered a LSU lean until late this month. Couple that with a successful recruiting event this past weekend and Mullen and the Gators appear to have put the adversity of a turbulent spring behind them as they roll toward the summer and an Aug. 24 date with rival Miami in a game that will kick off the 150th season of college football.
As we wrote when he was hired, Mullen was a great fit at Florida not only because of his connection to the program and understanding of Florida’s gargantuan expectations, but because of his ability to develop players and build a winning culture, on and off the football field.
When Mullen arrived, Florida had spent most the decade wandering college football’s wilderness, celebrating Outback Bowl wins and getting walloped by its in-state rival. Mullen flipped that script in a season, setting his sights — and the sleepy giant of a program’s — on the new kings in town, Georgia.
That game is still months away, but what’s closer now is a date with a Miami team and fan base that used Florida’s rocky May to puff out their chests and chirp about their season opening tilt in Orlando.
Florida losing a freshman corner was a weird “puff your chest out” moment for a Miami program not only searching for a starting quarterback but an identity under new head coach (and former Mullen assistant) Manny Diaz. But such is life in the heat-of-the-moment world of college football rivalries.
To be fair, on some campuses, you’d worry that a rocky offseason might negatively impact a team’s focus ahead of a vital opener. But judging by the way Florida’s players quickly filed in line behind their head coach in the aftermath of the Jones and Steele transfers, it’s clear Florida’s “us against the world” culture is healthy and intact.
Time will tell for sure.
But if there’s one truism that remains true, winning cures most everything. For Mullen and the Florida program, the Miami game is another opportunity to demonstrate their reborn dominance in the state of Florida. It’s another opportunity to show how far the program has come, from a development and culture standpoint, in just 20 months (come August) under Mullen.
The thinking here is that maybe Florida just came out of a fire tougher than ever.
That’s a testament to the man in charge.
But we’ll know more Aug. 24.