Early Signing Period: 5 takeaways from Florida's best recruiting class under Dan Mullen
Florida had a quiet early signing day, but the Gators remain well-positioned to land what is clearly the program’s best recruiting class yet under Dan Mullen. Following the first day of the Early Signing Period, Florida has signed 21 players in a class that ranks 8th nationally and 6th in the SEC, per the 247 composite.
Florida isn’t done and will have a handful of important targets that extend into the January recruiting window, including 4-star safety Avantae Williams and 4-star wide receiver Xzavier Henderson. Signing even 1 of those 2 coveted players would catapult the Gators into an even higher national rank. Regardless of what happens in January, however, Wednesday’s haul all but assures Florida of its best recruiting finish under Mullen, with difference-makers on both sides of the football.
Here are 5 of the biggest takeaways from Florida’s Early Signing Period.
1. No big close, but that’s OK
Florida didn’t finish with the flourish that it has the previous 2 years under Mullen, but the good news is this time, they didn’t really need to.
The Gators missed on 4 targets who considered the Gators seriously and announced on Wednesday. EJ Smith, the son of Gators legend Emmitt Smith, went to Stanford. Defensive linemen Timothy Smith and Donell Harris, both considered potential Gators flips, stuck with prior commitments, to Alabama and Texas A&M, respectively. Finally, 3-star wide receiver Sam Brown, a former UCF commit, opted to sign with West Virginia despite late pushes from the Gators, Ole Miss and home state Georgia.
Those “misses” sting in the media frenzy moment of signing day, but in the end, the great news is that every player expected to sign with Florida or committed to Florida Wednesday did so, including the jewel of the class, DL Gervon Dexter, the nation’s No. 31 prospect who picked Florida over Georgia and Alabama.
2. Sunshine State resurgence
Florida remains one of the most fertile recruiting bases in the country and as the flagship university in the state, Florida should always make Sunshine State talent the centerpiece of its recruiting strategy. For too long this decade, Florida didn’t do that effectively, and its performance on the field suffered as a result.
This recruiting class might be the watershed moment where that misfortune and malpractice changes.
Mullen and the Gators didn’t clean up, but for the first time in many years, the Gators got the lion’s share of the state’s best talent.
By the close of Wednesday, 10 of the top 50 players in Florida, according to the 247 Composite rankings, signed with the Gators.
If current trends hold, Florida could sign as many as 12 of the state’s top 50 players, by far the largest number of any program in the country. Even if the number ends up at a more realistic 11, that would equal the combined number of Top 50 in-state players signed by rivals Florida State (6) and Miami (5) and would provide an outstanding nucleus to Florida’s best class yet under Mullen.
Beyond the blue chips (4- or 5-star players) in the class, a total of 16 of Florida’s signees or commitments are from Florida, the largest such number for a Florida class since 2012.
This is a testament to the program’s improved success and a smart shift in Mullen’s recruiting strategy in Florida.
Initially, Florida recruited California heavily, trying to show the program still had a “national footprint.” That’s a fine message optics-wise — but the best strategy at Florida has always been to infuse the roster with homegrown talent and fill in the gaps with elite players from elsewhere. More than any other Florida class under Mullen, this one does that, which is why this class, on paper, is Florida’s best in nearly a decade.
Florida’s recruiting efforts under Mullen also appear to be evidence that results matter.
Especially in-state, Florida has been able to sell that it is the dominant program in the state, having reached back-to-back New Year’s 6 bowls and this season, having earned victories over Florida State and Miami.
Multiple Florida recruits told SDS that what impressed them most about Florida was the fact the staff had turned around the program so fast. Dexter wasn’t shy about sharing why he stuck with the Gators despite a relentless full-court press from Kirby Smart and Georgia.
“I love what Florida is building, the brand of defense, all that. Georgia and Alabama kept pushing and pushing but in the end, I can win at Florida and I’m from Florida. Why would I leave my home,” Dexter said.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 18, 2019
Another factor multiple recruits cited was relationships. Florida’s staff has been recruiting many of these players since they were sophomores. Cultivating relationships with families and high school coaches matters in recruiting and Mullen and the Gators are just beginning to reap the rewards that come with staying power.
3. The defensive line haul is one of the best in the country
This class has outstanding balance on both lines of scrimmage, with 3 offensive linemen and 5 blue-chip defensive linemen in the fold.
Florida needed improved talent and depth up front, and Mullen and the staff delivered in the 2020 class.
Dexter leads the way, but every one of Florida’s defensive line prospects carries a 4-star rating and the Gators cleaned up at defensive tackle in particular, where in addition to Dexter they inked Johnnie Brown, Jalen Lee of New Orleans, who flipped from LSU, and Lamar Goods.
That fills a huge program need, and gives the Gators the type of defensive line depth they’ll need to compete for championships moving forward.
4. QB Anthony Richardson has a chance to be special
When Georgia landed the commitment of Jacksonville product Carson Beck this past spring in a very public recruitment that saw Beck acknowledge he “used” Florida to get Georgia’s attention, the prevailing narrative was that Mullen and Florida had been whipped by Smart on the recruiting trail again.
I’m sure Smart and Georgia like Beck, but the narrative certainly has changed as Florida’s quarterback signee, Anthony Richardson has shot past Beck in the composite recruiting rankings.
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 18, 2019
Already enrolled at Florida and practicing for the bowl games, Richardson has wowed teammates and coaches alike with his live arm, speed and leadership qualities. Like redshirt freshman Emory Jones, Richardson is an ideal fit for Mullen’s version of the spread offense and along with returning starter Kyle Trask, Florida’s quarterback room remains deep and strong even with the departure of longtime starter Feleipe Franks.
5. The wide receiver haul is underwhelming and concerning
The only true area of concern in this class is at wide receiver.
Florida is losing a quartet of seniors — Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Joshua Hammond — who have impacted winning at the program in every possible way.
Replacing any one of them would be a challenge, and replacing all 4 at once is a genuine concern heading into 2020. The Gators need only look at arch-rival Georgia to get an idea of how difficult it is to replace that much production in the passing game and that much leadership off the field.
Freshmen don’t often enter a program and lead immediately, but Florida’s significant personnel losses at wide receiver made signing a talented group a big priority in this class.
Florida did sign one blue-chipper in Jaquavion Fraziers, and Florida remains in position to sign another 4-star in Leonard Manuel, should he qualify academically.
But the Gators’ receiving haul is incomplete and uncertain.
Florida pursued and whiffed on 3-star receiver Sam Brown, leaving Florida with only 1 wide receiver signed.
Undoubtedly, the Gators will do all they can to get Manuel into school, but if that fails, Florida will need to hit the transfer portal hard to improve their depth at receiver next season.
Florida’s numbers shortage makes the pursuit of Xzavier Henderson, the high 4-star brother of CJ Henderson, all the more important over the next month. While some in the Gators program remain optimistic about their chances in that battle, many outside the program believe Clemson is the clear leader, with Alabama also in pursuit.
Should Florida lose the battle for Henderson, the fair questions swirling around the recruiting prowess of wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales will only grow louder. Gonzales is a masterful position coach but couldn’t parlay the best passing offense at Florida in a decade and a historically favorable recruiting map at the position into recruits. That’s a problem — and one Florida may need to address sooner rather than later.
Cover photo via @GatorsFB