Of the new FBS head coaches, Dan Mullen had arguably the best finish during the inaugural early signing period. Mullen cemented his name amongst the nation’s top recruiters, going toe-to-toe with elite coaches around the country to retrieve top talent.
In the two weeks leading up to one of the most coveted days in recruiting, Mullen and his staff acquired several premiere prospects for the Florida Gators 2018 class. Below Armchair examines the success Florida had before and during the early signing period.
The first domino
It all began with Mainland defensive back John Huggins (6-0, 190-pounds), as he elected to shut down his recruitment process the Sunday following his official visit to Gainesville. Huggins quickly became a priority for the Gators coaching staff following his de-commitment from Florida State. Huggins’ length, size and versatility drew the attention Mullens, and adding him helps create depth at a fragile position.
Mullen reiterated multiple times about the ‘flexibility’ of players within the personnel and how such versatility can disrupt schemes and create mismatches. Whether that means lining up at safety, nickel, dime linebacker or corner, it devises problems for opponents.
“John [Huggins] is the same way — corner, safety. That’s what we want. Guys that can do that, have the length on the outside and the speed of a corner but also the physicality of a safety to be able to move around,” Mullen said during the signing day press conference.
Ole Miss transfer wide receiver Van Jefferson added another piece to the off-season pickups when he committed to the Florida Gators program Monday afternoon. Jefferson technically is not a part of the recruiting class due to him transferring. During two playing seasons at Ole Miss, Jefferson hauled in 91 passes for 999 yards and four touchdowns. Brandon Powell, who will not return next season, is the only Gators wideout to come close to those numbers the previous two seasons, reeling in 87 catches for 793 yards and five touchdowns.
The explosion and route running skill set of Jefferson’s will tremendously help the struggling receiver unit. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound wideout received a ton of attention from the Gators staff once he decided to transfer, as wide receiver is a position group that must improve in order for Mullen to develop his offense.
Following the commitment from Jefferson, Pensacola, Fla., native Noah Banks pulled the trigger one day before the signing period. Banks became the third commitment in as many days.
The Junior College All-American offensive lineman became the third commitment under Mullen. With signing day looming, Florida’s 2018 class was beginning to show the potential to produce some waves around the recruiting world.
“The offensive linemen, you know, the one is — what we look for, you have an idea where guys play, but you also want position flexibility within the offensive line, you know, of guys that can play multiple positions. You talk with John [Hevesy], he wants to teach everybody to snap just so that everybody has an idea how to snap because if you can’t snap the ball, you’re going to look pretty silly in a hurry,” Mullen said regarding the ideal product of his offensive line.
Florida’s offensive line has been a prime concern for the Gators 2018 recruiting class. With instability on the line and left tackle Martez Ivey presumably leaving for the NFL, voids need to be filled.
The 6-foot-5, 307-pound product is now the second lineman signee. Florida will try to add two to three more bodies before the end of the 2018 cycle.
During the first day of the early signing period, Florida established itself back on the national stage in recruiting, winning battles over other powerful programs
The focal point for the 2018 cycle for the Gatrs has been landing an elite quarterback prospect. The previous overseers completed the task of signing their ideal pro-style signal caller in Matt Corral. However, with Mullen implementing a new offensive scheme, the staff immediately pursued a prototypical spread-offense quarterback.
Mullen offered scholarships to multiple dual-threat prospects, hoping to build relationships in a limited period of time.
“I think we missed a couple of opportunities that if we had more time, we would have been able to get some players that we just maybe ran out of time. Some guys that would have fit what we do and maybe would have loved to have been Gators, we just didn’t have time to have the relationship with them with a short window,” Mullen said.
Despite the crunched time, the Gators ultimately found their future quarterback in Emory Jones. The former Ohio State pledge spurned the Buckeyes the last month of his recruiting process, showing heavy interest in other schools. Alabama seemed to be the team to beat down the stretch with Ohio State backing off the dual-threat prospect.
Nonetheless, newly initiated head coach Dan Mullen was able to prove he belongs on the big stage, fighting off Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Willie Taggart to eventually land his top quarterback target.
A large part of the success in signing Jones was the familiarity Mullen had with the quarterback prior to arriving at Florida. While Mullen was at Mississippi State, Jones received his first NCAA scholarship offer from the Bulldogs.
“We were his first scholarship offer, and I told him, I was sitting in the house with he and his mom, and I said, God works in funny ways sometimes, that we were the first and we were the last [scholarship offer],” Mullen noted.
Mullen spoke about Jones being the future leader of the program. When quarterbacking at a prestigious institution, leadership qualities must reside within the position to assure the confidence in the football team.
“We want quarterbacks that have great leadership, but even if they don’t, I’m going to tell you if you walked an entire freshman class into a room and I said, okay, everybody, here’s a pen and paper, vote who’s going to be our one leader in this group, who’s the leader, nominate the leader, hand them to us. Without them knowing each other, they’re all going to vote for the quarterback,” Mullen said.
Jones has world class talent with both his arms and legs, which will provide him with an opportunity to compete for the starting job beginning in spring camp. In years pasts, the quarterback spot has not been the leadership role fans expect within the offense. The difference in this quarterback competition will be the intangibles each player can bring to the team both on and off the field.
Jones took most of the spotlight during the morning, but in the early afternoon Florida received their second signee of the early signing period. 4-star Hampton, Ga., product Trey Dean announced his commitment to the Gators.
Again, familiarity played a tremendous role in securing Dean’s pledge. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound prospect is cousins with former Florida defensive back Ahmad Black. The former Tennessee commit was also able to reunite with his old recruiter, Charlton Warren. Before being hired onto Mullen’s staff, Warren was the defensive backs coach at Tennessee and Dean’s primary recruiter.
Dean is the fourth addition to the Gators secondary. His versatility and long body attracted attention from the staff. Florida currently has four safeties committed in the 2018 class, and will most likely search for one to two corners down the stretch.
Florida didn’t create waves Wednesday by signing a large group of players, but they reeled in the exact pieces this coaching staff needed. Coach Mullen and his staff ended the hectic inaugural signing period with five additional commitments.
Relentless effort on the recruiting trail has paid off during limited time. Thirteen of the Gators fifteen prospects signing early is an excellent feat for a coaching staff continuing to transition.
With just under six weeks remaining until the February signing period, Mullen and the rest of the Florida staff is going to reboot and figure out their next list of prospects to target.