Mullen off to promising start, but how long will Florida rebuild take?
Today marks the beginning of Week 2 of the Dan Mullen era, but what a difference a change in leadership is already making in Gainesville.
We’ll forgive you if you haven’t noticed, given the SEC was busy making history this weekend, becoming the first conference to place two teams in the College Football Playoff.
Mullen’s energy has been infectious since he Gator-chomped his way off of a plane, stopping to shake every hand and posing for a host of pictures with his wife Megan and their two beautiful children. From there, Mullen held an impressive opening press conference where, with Steve Spurrier among the Gator greats in the audience, he embraced Florida’s past while gushing about his enthusiasm to guide the program into the future.
He then locked up a staff that could help him hit the road recruiting in December, including John Hevesy and Billy Gonzales — assistants from the Urban Meyer glory days — plus Florida recruiting ace Ja’Juan Seider and respected defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. That group wasted little time last week, visiting five-star Georgia quarterback commit Justin Fields, who will have a ton to think about after true freshman Jake Fromm’s marvelous performance in the SEC Championship Game, as well as former commit Jacob Copeland and current commits Richard Gouraige and Matt Corral, among others.
Mullen wasn’t done, however.
In addition to recruiting, he continued to express his enthusiasm for his new job with a series of phone calls to prominent Florida fans and boosters — an important gesture of respect Jim McElwain consistently flouted — and in a video to fans he posted directly to Twitter.
Finally, Mullen capped a great opening week with a fiery appearance on College Gameday, which led to this tweet from longtime college football writer Dennis Dodd:
Man, I want to play for Dan Mullen right now. Spoke to him for 15 minutes last night. He's fired up.
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) December 2, 2017
All told, Gators fans couldn’t ask for much more from their new head coach in Week 1, and industry insiders expect the momentum to continue. Tom Luginbill said last week: “No hire will protect a current recruiting class and perhaps build on it better than Dan Mullen, who knows the terrain and the job.”
It has been a perfect start, a much needed-breath of fresh air after arguably the program’s worst season since 1979.
Mullen understands Florida’s unique culture, has a successful track record in the SEC at a place where it is difficult to succeed, is a smart recruiter (see 3-star gems like Dak Prescott and 2-star finds like Nick Fitzgerald) and has a peerless resume tutoring quarterbacks. In short, Gators fans should be enthusiastic about their new coach, and ought to give him time to build the program back into the annual national contender it was when he left Gainesville for Starkville following Florida’s last national championship, in 2008. Gators fans need only look at a program like Clemson to see what happens when patience awaits a coach who is a smart recruiter and understands the culture.
Gators fans would do well to look at Dabo's Clemson build. Fans were patient b/c sense was they had a guy who understood the culture, combined it with facility upgrades & smart recruiting. Boom. Big reason the Mullen hire has a good feel. Checks those boxes.
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) December 3, 2017
But alas, Gators fans are notoriously impatient. How long will they give Mullen to rebuild Florida’s program? Or, to reframe the question slightly differently: How long should it be until Florida contends again?
The short answer is it shouldn’t take too long, but there are some prerequisites and complications.
First, the obvious.
Improve at quarterback
Feleipe Franks was statistically the second-worst quarterback in the SEC in 2017, averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt and grading out only two points higher than the worst, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, who beat him in Gainesville in October. Among Power 5 teams, only Illinois, Texas A&M and lowly Kansas were worse at the quarterback position.
Florida won’t contend in the SEC absent either a wholesale transformation from Feleipe Franks or a recruiting coup of either Fields or trying to flip Ohio State commit Emory Jones.
Retain bulk of Credit Card Nine, including Callaway
Among the nine Florida players who spent the entire 2017 season suspended thanks to their role in a fraudulent credit card scam, running back Jordan Scarlett is the most talented player expected to return. If he does return, his presence gives Mullen a four-headed stable of talented options at running back, including budding star Malik Davis, who was probably the brightest light in Florida’s dark season.
Florida will also benefit from the return of linebackers James Houston and Ventrell Miller, whose absence was sorely felt at a position where the Gators lacked both speed and depth in 2017. Miller is a sideline-to-sideline coverage linebacker, which the Gators didn’t have this past year.
As for Antonio Callaway, some Gator fans don’t want him around. They might get their wish, as many expect Callaway to simply accept that he won’t be drafted and try to latch onto an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent next season. Callaway would forfeit millions if he takes that route, but in the end it doesn’t matter much how you make the NFL — what matters is making a roster, and no one doubts Callaway’s prodigious on-field talent, which scouts have compared glowingly with Antonio Brown.
But in the end, if Callaway wants to return, Florida should embrace him. After all, in the end, he has served a year suspension for the only non-marijuana related incident he has been guilty of. He paid the price for his mistakes. Mullen said after taking the job the slate would be clean, and clean slates should include Callaway too.
Recruit well, especially at DT and LB
Jim McElwain flipped the playmaking talent on the Gators roster but his recruiting classes were, like his predecessor Will Muschamp, too often imbalanced. While Muschamp’s classes were too lopsided toward defense, McElwain’s best recruits almost always played offense.
As a result, the Gators are thin at defensive tackle and linebacker, two spots that are critical in implementing Grantham’s 3-4 system.
The linebackers in particular are an eyesore. David Reese is a marvelous run-stopping linebacker, but he’s too slow to cover on third down. Vosean Joseph is a big hitter, but still figuring things out schematically. Jeremiah Moon, a 4-star recruit, has been average on a good day, and Florida coaches preferred playing nickel or going with walk-on Christian Garcia to him in most situations. Getting Miller and Houston back will help, but the Gators need numbers at this spot.
One thing that could help the linebackers as a stopgap could be convincing Cece Jefferson to stay for his senior year and build on a November where he was essentially unblockable. Jefferson would be a great standup backer in the 3-4, and Grantham could move him around a bunch to get mismatches. But that’s not a likely victory for Mullen and with All-American caliber tackle Taven Bryan almost certainly headed to the NFL draft, Florida will lose its best defensive tackle as well.
Deal with an ascendant Georgia
The Bulldogs just won the SEC with an imperfect roster that included a true freshman quarterback and, despite the media praise, a limited number of perimeter playmakers.
With no in-state player to challenge Georgia’s status as the preeminent program in one of the states with the richest talent bases (sorry, Georgia Tech), there’s little to suggest coach Kirby Smart won’t continue to recruit like a madman and address the depth and playmaking flaws this roster does have.
Yes, Georgia graduates 31 seniors, including program legend Nick Chubb and the team’s best playmaker, Sony Michel. And yes, junior linebacker and Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith will be gone too.
But Georgia isn’t going anywhere, and much like Dabo Swinney and Clemson had to fell Florida State to truly assume a role among the nation’s elite, so too will Dan Mullen and Florida need to compete with the Bulldogs. After this year’s 42-7 thrashing, it’s safe to say that moment might be a couple of years away.
Will Florida fans be patient enough to see their fortunes turn? After eight years in the wilderness, they should be.