With the first day of the 2018 Early Signing Period all but over and 20 prospects now signees confirmed by the Florida Gators to be coming to Gainesville as part of the 2019 Florida recruiting class, it is time to take a first look at what constitute the strengths and weaknesses of this class.
Meeting needs, mostly
This is not the flashiest Florida recruiting class ever, and its lack of a five-star prospect — or a truly exciting skill position talent, outside of maybe quarterback Jalon Jones — is something that we will get to very quickly when discussing weaknesses. But for the most part, Florida excelled at identifying and meeting needs.
The Gators probably needed just one QB in this class, and brought Jones into the fold very early. They needed one or two running backs, and persuaded Nay’Quan Wright to be part of the class without ever having to truly worry that he would waver as the Gators continued to pursue Trey Sanders. Florida is losing almost a literal ton of humanity from its 2018 offensive line, so it continued to restock its trench corps with maybe its single largest offensive line haul in the era of recruiting rankings.
On defense, Florida had similar needs to meet at linebacker and cornerback — and it has done so, with three linebackers and two corners already signed, and its three most likely signees between now and National Signing Day play those positions.
About the only glaring need that is insufficiently met and still looks like a trouble spot is defensive tackle, where Jaelin Humphries is the lone Florida signee at a position that could have justifiably been allocated three or four scholarships in this class. But Florida does have time to find another player or two there, and might also be able to cast a net for graduate or regular transfers who might sooner see the field than a true freshman.
And that is really the only obvious unmet need, so long as you consider adding two corners and being the favorite for a third at least par for addressing turnover that is still a year off.
That alone makes this class a significantly safer one than some of the higher-profile Florida classes from earlier this decade, prior to the downturn on the field that Dan Mullen is still recruiting against, and it should be a foundation for building more balanced classes in the years to come.
Quality and quantity
One of the bad tendencies Florida demonstrated during the three cycles that former defensive coordinator Randy Shannon oversaw in Gainesville was taking too many flyers on under-the-radar prospects. That panned out in some cases — Vosean Joseph has outplayed his ranking, as has Donovan Stiner — but it has left Florida with names on its roster that do not make its depth chart, too, and those players do less to help the Gators chase titles than better players would.
This class strikes me as one with fewer players that would fit that category, and more that could meaningfully contribute. Instead of reaching for a safety, Florida stayed true to a local prospect, Trent Whittemore, who now looks like he will play wide receiver at the collegiate level; instead of trying to squint some in-state prospects into good linebackers, Florida smartly went out of state, grabbing players from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to build its class at the position. There are no real reaches among the offensive line signees despite Florida inking seven linemen, just enough players who will have the chance to develop that the Gators could lose two or three to attrition and still end up with the framework for a starting unit down the road.
Florida has 12 players within the national top 312, per 247Sports, and eight signees outside of it. (Those three aforementioned non-signees, Diwun Black, Kaiir Elam, and Chris Steele — a commit and two leans, respectively — are all top-150 players.) Of those eight lower-rated players, three are wide receivers, and thus play a position where Florida has depth that should sustain it through 2019 and allow freshmen to redshirt; the other five could all safely redshirt in 2019, too. There are few instant-impact types in this class, sure, but a) Florida did not need those players in this class, as the skeleton of its 2019 roster is a 2018 roster that was chock-full of underclassmen and b) Florida could yet add more such players between now and National Signing Day.
And so Florida did not put together a 28-player class just for the sake of it, and did not take players now that are locks to transfer in two years, leaving room to add three players from one high school in the span of 10 minutes and still have space to add more players in this class and the next — one that, thanks to the Gators surging on the field and Mullen building relationships, promises more at this stage than this class did last December.
It is not that hard to have a mixture of good players and needed depth in a recruiting class — and not as hard as the last two Florida coaches made it seem, it turns out.
Building a pipeline
To be clear: The mantra in this tweet is a dangerous one for Florida to be repeating.
This is our state. #GoGators #LakelandGators pic.twitter.com/R3EilC9NU9— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) December 19, 2018
Asserting this sort of dominance is all well and good if you are ascendant and your rivals are descending — as is currently the case for Florida — but college football flips the ascendant to the ash heap and the descending to dominance all the time. And, also, Florida arguably did not exactly clean up the best Florida prospects this year: It has signed just two of the top 20 prospects in the Sunshine State this year — Nos. 18 and 19 — which is as many as Clemson and Penn State will extract from Florida, and one fewer than Alabama is getting.
But those two top-20 players could well be joined by a third in Elam, and Florida missing on the three IMG Academy players who were the top three prospects in the state just means it failed at a difficult task like Florida State and Miami also failed. (Arguably, Miami biffed things worse with this IMG trio: While Nolan Smith was one of many top-tier IMG products to originally hail from outside Florida, Trey Sanders and Evan Neal were South Florida kids who just switched sides of the state ... and Miami was never involved with Sanders and never really threatened to pull Neal from the clutches of Alabama in the way Florida did with Sanders.)
And Florida, unlike FSU and Miami, fashioned a pipeline out of its in-state recruiting, landing all three top-250 players from Lakeland just as the Dreadnaughts are about to start a run of excellence that will include some highly-touted players — like 2020 running back Demarkcus Bowman, for instance. FSU landed six top-30 Floridians, all from different counties, despite netting two IMG players; the two top-30 commits on the Miami ledger are from Jacksonville and Hollywood, with a third likely to come from Fort Lauderdale.
Only time will tell if Florida making inroads at Lakeland actually paves the way for future success there. But I think loading up at a powerhouse high school generally has more of a multiplier in recruiting than taking one player from a school or region in a cycle, and am bullish on the chances that Florida has established something fruitful.
Whiffs at defensive tackle
Maybe the least effective position on the field for Florida this fall was defensive tackle, a spot where the Gators lacked both a truly great player and good depth. So Florida should have been able to sell playing time to DTs in this class, right?
Wrong, apparently. The Gators are going to leave the Early Signing Period with just Georgia four-star Jaelin Humphries — a good player, but not a sensational one — as their entire DT crop.
You can fault geography for some of that. Florida does not have a top-10 DT in this cycle, and the No. 11 and 12 DTs, while both Floridians, are both undersized players who profile as poor fits for what Florida needs at the position. Florida has also held out hope that it could convince Nathan Pickering, who committed to Mississippi State long ago enough that his pledge was to Mullen, to flip to the Gators, but has thus far had no luck in that regard.
But Florida also got in on Utahn Siaki Ika far too late to overtake LSU in the race for his signature, did not pry away any of the several defensive ends who might project better at tackle in the FSU recruiting class, and did not take a flyer for depth at the position — one where a lack of bodies actually does justify a flyer now and then.
Perhaps one or more of the seven Florida offensive line signees ends up playing defensive tackle. Perhaps Florida has an ace up its sleeve for the time between now and February. But for now, it looks like DT is the hole in this class — and, on the field, that can lead to some literal big holes.
Relatively low wattage
There is no five-star player in this Florida recruiting class, and there is likely to be no five-star player in this Florida recruiting class. If that is the case, then Florida will go four full cycles without a clear five-star signee since nabbing Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson in the 2015 cycle, with only Antonneous Clayton — and Trevon Grimes, a transfer — arguably shading the line since.
Five-star prospects are obviously not surefire stars at the collegiate level — and in the cases of Ivey and Jefferson, who were both been considered borderline busts at junctures in their Florida careers, five-star status clearly did not even confer a straight path to panning out.
But having a five-star prospect in a class can give that class something to orbit around, and someone for fans to latch onto. And while five-star players are not all alike, some of them are instant-impact types whose instant impacts make it easier for coaches to point to a player succeeding and say to future recruits, “Come be what he is.” (To be fair, there are four-stars like this, too — but Florida also lacks one of them in this class at present, to my eye.)
Florida did not get that player in this class, failing to persuade Sanders to follow his brother to Gainesville, ending up as a hat on a table for Kayvon Thibodeaux, and not making the cut for any other such prospect under Mullen. (Former Florida commit Frank Ladson, meanwhile, became a five-star wideout — and is headed to Clemson.)
That should change going forward, as Florida is well-positioned for more than a few instant-impact types in the 2020 and 2021 classes, and already has a five-star player — defensive end Bryce Langston — committed for the latter.
For 2019, though, Florida will be looking for big plays mostly from players who were already making them, and freshmen from its 2018 class, rather than any budding stars in this crop.
An incomplete at corner
And at the one position where Florida might yet end up with instant-impact types for this 2019 class, the Gators would seem to have players in the way: Corners Elam and Steele would rocket to the top of the list of Gators most likely to play early if they end up signing with Florida down the road, but Florida also has three corners — Trey Dean, C.J. Henderson, and Marco Wilson — inked into its CB1 through CB3 spots.
That is likely only a very small part of why Elam and Steele have held off on making commitments to Florida. But the gap between having them signed now and getting them signed by National Signing Day is the same as the gap between Florida fully meeting its needs at corner and falling short — and maybe the gap between having full-on stars in this class and having to squint ones into existence.
It is hard not to like where Florida sits for both players as of now. Steele was thought of as a near lock to sign with Florida entering this week, and his delay of his commitment may have more to do with the difficulty of signing today and somehow keeping that secret until a planned reveal at an all-star game in early January; Elam, who was a Georgia lean for much of the cycle, has seemingly soured on the Dawgs since the departure of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker for Colorado. The Crystal Balls for both players are populated at least in plurality with Florida picks.
But Florida landing just one of the two would leave this class with just one clear heir to Henderson and Wilson — mortal locks to enter the 2020 NFL Draft — and somehow missing on both would make cornerback the absolute top priority for the 2020 cycle.
I do not think, to be clear, that Florida will whiff in that fashion, and would guess that landing both is more likely than landing one, which in turn is more likely than landing neither. Until their National Letters of Intent — or Elam and Steele, in the flesh — are in Gainesville, though, it is impossible to give Florida an unqualified passing grade at corner.