GAINESVILLE — When Florida hired Dan Mullen as football coach last month, he checked several boxes for the Gators’ reeling program.
Proven ability to revive a program mired in mediocrity and take it to new heights? Check.
Understanding of Florida’s fans, heated expectations and culture? Check.
Offensive mind with a proven, decorated resume as a coordinator and head coach? Check.
One of the top five resumes as a quarterback developer in college football, having coached and developed the likes of Alex Smith, Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald, among others? Check.
But one question lingered for many Mullen skeptics as the Gators new head coach took the podium Nov. 27 in Gainesville.
Could he consistently recruit at the elite level needed to restore Florida football to prominence?
Many didn’t know. Mullen faced inherent limits in recruiting at Mississippi State, where the Bulldogs not only compete against LSU, Auburn Texas A&M and Alabama in the SEC West, and are in a state which does not have a talent base as rich as many of their SEC brethren. There just wasn’t enough empirical evidence, in classes ranked anywhere from 15th to 40th nationally, as to whether Mullen had the chops to haul in elite talent.
Certainly, Mullen knew when he took the Florida job he could consistently draw more top-echelon, blue-chip talent to Gainesville than he ever did at Mississippi State. The pull of the Florida brand, even after a decade mostly spent lost in the wilderness, is strong. But the improvement in brand alone wouldn’t guarantee blue-chip dividends for Mullen and the Gators. Brand alone didn’t save Jim McElwain’s first two classes, and it never helped Will Muschamp attract enough offensive talent to Gainesville.
If Mullen didn’t correct Florida’s talent problem, he wouldn’t close the gap on Alabama, in-state rival Florida State or SEC East rival Georgia.
So, the questions remained, no matter how hard Mullen hit the trail over the last few weeks and no matter how often he said the right things.
Recruit daily or die.
That’s the reality of college football in the era of social media, mega-million-dollar conference television networks, facilities arms races and a playoff structure all designed to keep the elite rich and the have-nots on the outside gazing longingly in.
The good news for Gators fans?
Mullen aced his first recruiting test Wednesday, during college football’s first initial early-signing day.
The Gators hauled in eight blue-chip recruits (4 stars or more), according to the 247Sports recruiting service. They hauled in 15 players overall, including multiple late flips from other programs. That bunch includes 4-star cornerback John Huggins, who decommitted from Florida State following Jimbo Fisher’s departure; 4-star offensive tackle Chris Bleich, who decommitted from UCLA after the Bruins’ coaching change; the nation’s No. 1-rated kicker, Evan McPherson, who flipped from Mississippi State, and former Tennessee defensive back commit Trey Dean, who picked the Gators over a late-charging Alabama.
Mullen also won significant head-to-head battles with elite programs.
In addition to besting the Crimson Tide for Dean’s signature, Florida held off Miami for John Huggins, a late push from Georgia for hard-hitting safety Randy Russell out of Miami Carol City, and multiple late suitors for one of the nation’s best tight end prospects, Kyle Pitts.
Mullen and his staff pounded the pavement, to be sure, but also identified talented players they felt they could flip and recruited them hard. Mullen’s early staff choices also look smart, as they were critical in both retaining the pieces of the class already in place and adding new talent. Florida’s director of player personnel, Drew Hughes, helped get the new faces on campus quietly and efficiently. Meanwhile, Mullen’s decision to keep Ja’Juan Seider was vital in retaining talented Georgia running back Dameon Pierce and Charlton Warren’s hiring from the Butch Jones staff at Tennessee netted Trey Dean.
Also, Mullen brought Todd Grantham from Starkville to help Florida retain much-needed speedy sideline-to-sideline 4-star linebacker David Reese and rangy 4-star safety Amari Burney.
And all that is before the gem of the class, consensus top-five quarterback Emory Jones, enters the picture.
Jones, a 4-star dual-threat from tiny Franklin, Ga., who was originally committed to Urban Meyer and Ohio State, gives Mullen a perfect fit for his offense and a quarterback to build his Florida program around.
Jones also gives Mullen an early recruiting win over new FSU coach Willie Taggart, who pushed hard until the final hour for Jones’ signature Wednesday morning. In the end, sources close to Jones told me that, for Jones, it came down to familiarity with Mullen and Florida quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, who he had known for multiple years. Mullen’s track record of preparing college quarterbacks for the NFL also mattered.
That was the unknown for Taggart and his staff at FSU, and in the end, according to the source, it was a bridge too far for the Seminoles. For Florida fans who have lost a number of critical, down-to-the-wire recruiting battles with FSU this decade (Dalvin Cook, Deondre Francois, Brian Burns, etc.), this recruiting win was sweet.
Jones has work to do — he needs to improve his accuracy and ability to hit secondary reads — but he’s a strong deep passer with a wrist-snap quick release, and he’s a serious threat with his legs. His poise, leadership and ability to win with his arm or legs reminds many scouts of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, and if Jones is close to Hurts, Florida immediately upgrades at the position.
The Gators still have significant needs, especially on the offensive line, where McElwain never completely recovered after Will Muschamp left the unit so depleted Florida couldn’t even hold a spring game in 2015. But with six weeks to identify, target and sign what’s left on Florida’s board, everything about the first Early Signing Day suggests February’s traditional Signing Day will be a success for Mullen and the Gators as well.