The flurry of action by the Florida Gators in early February was not limited to the work put into fashioning a marvelous National Signing Day, it turns out.
In the three days immediately following Signing Day, Florida reportedly and officially hired Ja’Juan Seider away from West Virginia, reportedly and officially lost Torrian Gray to the NFL, and officially hired USF assistant Corey Bell and North Texas assistant Brad Davis.
Seemingly, those hires made Florida’s 2017 coaching staff complete in short order — surprising alacrity, given how deliberate Jim McElwain’s efforts to fill out that staff had seemed since the end of the 2016 regular season. Florida has lost defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, offensive line coach Mike Summers, and Gray since then, leaving the Gators with six coaches on staff and three openings — one on offense, two on defense — and one coordinator-level title to fill.
The former two openings did not get filled promptly. Randy Shannon getting promoted to defensive coordinator after the Gators shut down Iowa in the Outback Bowl covered the coordinator-level title, but only shifted his responsibilities, leaving Florida down one coach from mid-December to National Signing Day, despite an effort to bring then-Alabama offensive analyst Mike Locksley to Gainesville. Summers leaving when he did — and Florida not immediately hiring a coach to replace him — left Florida down two full-time coaches for the final three weeks of the 2017 recruiting cycle.
The Gators were not without a full complement of recruiters, of course. They temporarily elevated defensive quality control coach Mark DeBastiani to linebackers coach in the wake of Collins departing and Shannon coaching safeties during bowl practices, and deployed vital director of player personnel Drew Hughes on the road for the third time in as many recruiting cycles. (Hughes also recruited on the road for Florida in the wake of Will Muschamp’s firing in late 2014, before the post-National Signing Day hiring of Kerry Dixon as Florida’s wide receivers coach in 2015, and after the firing of Kirk Callahan in 2016.)
But the Gators fan base grew restless as days and weeks went by without coaches being hired to give McElwain a full staff. McElwain’s hesitation to hire replacements was often chalked up to him wanting to wait until after National Signing Day and/or the NFL playoffs to tap excellent coaches after the completion of their duties at their current jobs, rather than acting in haste and settling for the best candidates available at the moment, rather than the best candidates.
Florida hiring three assistant coaches who had college jobs in the 2017 recruiting cycle certainly tracks with the theory of waiting for the right candidates to become available. Seider and Bell, especially, were integral parts of their programs’ recruiting classes — Seider was West Virginia’s recruiting coordinator, while Bell was actually integral to classes assembled by both Florida Atlantic and USF, working as Charlie Partridge’s assistant director of player personnel for the Owls, then as the newly-hired Charlie Strong’s recruiting coordinator with the Bulls — and would have been exceedingly difficult to pry away from those teams with just weeks to go until National Signing Day.
And Seider and Bell both have great reputations as South Florida recruiters: Each is a South Florida native — Seider from Belle Glade, Bell from Miami — who worked extensively at high schools in the area before moving up to the college ranks and mining his old stomping grounds for talent. If Florida was holding off on hiring coaches in an effort to add superb recruiters — an oft-floated stratagem — then bringing on Seider and Bell is a vindication of that tactic.
But hiring Davis, a relative unknown, makes far less sense on its face. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Davis went to Oklahoma, where he played sparingly for the Sooners as they reached their highest heights under Bob Stoops before breaking into the starting offensive line as a senior in 2002. After a brief period as a high school coach following his graduation from Oklahoma, Davis embarked on a peripatetic coaching career that has taken him to two non-Division I colleges in Nebraska, to Texas A&M and North Carolina as a graduate assistant, and to James Madison, Portland State, East Carolina, and North Texas as an assistant coach.
Davis is an impressive speaker, and his upward mobility speaks to his ability to convince other football coaches to hire him, but he simply does not — yet — have the results on the field at the FBS level to suggest his hiring is an upgrade as a coach. North Texas ranked an atrocious No. 115 in Adjusted Line Yards in 2016, its one year under Davis, and while that was technically an improvement from ranking No. 116 the year prior, the line posted a marginally lower stat in 2016 despite that higher ranking. North Texas was next to last in Conference USA in rushing offense, and tied for last in sacks allowed, with 43.
In addition, Florida played North Texas last fall — and though that was likely far from an in-person audition for Davis, it would have gone disastrously if it was. The Mean Green lost 13 yards on 28 rushes — including seven sacks that cost 53 yards — in their worst outing of the season as a rushing offense, and Florida’s best as a run defense.
In his prior stop at East Carolina, Davis arguably did an even worse job. The Pirates fell from No. 42 in Adjusted Line Yards in 2014 to No. 112 under Davis in 2015, and from third to ninth in rushing offense in the American Athletic Conference — and that line was laden with seniors and had two second-team All-AAC performers on it.
But that year’s crossing of paths with Florida, the Gators’ 31-24 home win over the Pirates, saw Davis’s unit do better work, at least in protecting the quarterback. Pirates passer Blake Kemp threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns on the Gators, and the Pirates’ 346 total yards through the air were the most Florida’s 2015 defense allowed. ECU lost 13 yards on 22 rushes — yes, Davis-led offensive lines have lost 13 rushing yards against Florida in each of the last two seasons, somehow — but only gave up three sacks on that night, despite Kemp and backup QB James Summers attempting a whopping 58 passes.
Davis did better work at James Madison and Portland State, seemingly, helping the Dukes and Vikings build foundations that have helped both programs be successful at the FCS level — but those teams’ greatest recent successes, like James Madison’s 2016 FCS title, have come after Davis was on staff. Davis assuredly helped those teams — he recruited and develop some of the linemen the Dukes used last year, undoubtedly — but it’s hard to know how exactly to credit a one-year stint by a coach for long-term improvements by his team, and while it’s possible a similar pattern will emerge in Davis’s wake at East Carolina and North Texas, it’s not visible yet.
And that’s the essential quandary with Davis. I have little trouble believing that the personable, poised person I see when Davis speaks in front of a crowd can also get a compelling message across to his players and to recruits, but his results on the field so far at the FBS level are at odds with his staggering upward mobility as a coach, and suggest that he compensates for those lackluster results as a recruiter.
The same theory — of skills as a recruiter more than compensating for deficiencies as a coach — may well be true of Bell. Or, at least, Florida may be hoping so, given that his Florida Atlantic secondaries ranged from unremarkable to atrocious.
The Owls went from No. 107 to No. 76 to No. 128 — dead last among FBS teams — in Defensive S&P+ over the last three years, and from No. 54 to No. 46 to No. 127 in Passing S&P+ over that span. Florida Atlantic allowed an absurd 9.1 yards per attempt in 2016, next to last nationally, and a 65.6 percent completion rate, good for third from the bottom. While the Owls did stymie Miami in 2016, holding Brad Kaaya to just 191 yards and two picks, they also gave up more than 380 passing yards three times, and allowed astronomical passer ratings of better than 200.00 on four occasions.
Take away Bell’s rep as a right-hand man for Shannon and a stellar recruiter of South Florida, and those numbers would hardly merit even passing consideration, right?
Seider, meanwhile, is the Gators’ lone new hire whose credentials are clearly burnished by his charges’ production.
West Virginia’s running game has steadily improved over Seider, with yards per carry and total rushing offense increasing over the last season in each of his four years in Morgantown. In 2016, despite losing All-Big 12 performer Wendell Smallwood to the NFL, the Mountaineers topped five yards per carry for the first time since Florida prep legend Noel Devine’s sophomore season in 2008, with junior Justin Crawford becoming Seider’s third 1,000-yard back and gaining more than seven yards per tote.
West Virginia was never a top-25 team in Rushing S&P+ with Seider on staff, but it ranked No. 32 with Smallwood as its star in 2015, and was No. 70 in 2016 — both better spots than the No. 73 and No. 86 perches that Florida occupied in those respective seasons.
Seider’s reputation has been largely made as an excellent recruiter, sure — but there are fruits of his labor to point to while making a case for him as a coach. With Bell and Davis, that is far more difficult, strongly implying that, whatever their Florida tenures end up producing on the field, their hirings were based on their abilities to produce on the trail.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially given that Florida’s recruiting is still likely not at the level necessary to compete for championships, and because all three coaches could very well improve on the work done by their predecessors at their positions. Davis will not have to do all that much to improve on the work done by Summers, which was little better or worse than adequate; Bell could easily be an upgrade on Gray, whose efforts were little-mentioned through the 2017 recruiting cycle despite Florida signing a slew of defensive backs; Seider may well now be Florida’s best recruiter on staff, period.
And while losing some of Shannon’s work in recruiting to the commitments of being a full-time defensive coordinator may be the biggest blow to Florida’s recruiting capacity of the offseason, Seider’s displacement of former running backs coach Tim Skipper to defense should help fortify that defensive staff. Likewise, teaming Seider with Bell to better cover South Florida in addition to — or instead of — Shannon could compensate for that shift in those vital counties.
If the hirings of Bell, Davis, and Seider complete Florida’s 2017 coaching staff, though — something that last week’s press conference introducing all three to media members signals — then whatever cavalry was coming for the Gators has arrived.
Entering his third season, McElwain has assembled his third staff, one that is significantly different from his first two. He and Florida fans will be hoping that it is his best.