The primary task for Dan Mullen as head coach of the Florida Gators is winning football games. And while he has done that to a degree no rational observer would call unsuccessful to date, he is going to have to continue doing that over the course of the next several years to keep churning out similarly successful years over his tenure.
The primary means of putting together a college football team that can win games is, as ever, recruiting. With Florida’s 2018 regular season over and its sprint to the Early Signing Period in full effect, that will be the focus for Mullen and his staff over the next two weeks.
Early returns from the first several steps of the sprint have been pretty good.
Florida flips two 2019 OL commits from Miami
First, on Sunday, it was three-star guard Kingsley Eguakun.
Then, early Monday evening, it was four-star tackle Michael Tarquin.
And so, in two days, Florida had flipped both of the offensive line commits in Miami’s 2019 recruiting class, simultaneously bolstering its own swelling crop of offensive line commits and dealing a serious blow to the Hurricanes.
Neither Eguakun nor Tarquin is a can’t-miss prospect, nor a given to contribute right away. Eguakun, who is finishing his high school career at Jacksonville’s Sandalwood High, has mobility and power in his highlights, but could probably stand to get stronger; Tarquin, who hails from Ocala and attends North Marion High, is listed at various weights under 300 pounds, and likely needs to bulk up to play tackle against SEC competition.
But offensive linemen are rarely can’t-miss types, nor first-year contributors, with those that do fall into those categories getting chased by every program worth its salt. And so the better approach to offensive line recruiting is, in my view, stockpiling players who could eventually be solid or better, with the intent of having enough of those players pan out to field strong lines year after year.
Florida now has six offensive linemen committed for its 2019 class — Eguakun, Tarquin, Maryland tackle William Harrod, Georgia guard Riley Simonds, Clearwater tackle Ethan White, and longtime Gators commit Wardrick Wilson — on the heels of taking four high school linemen in its 2018 class. (For comparison’s sake, Miami and FSU have one — combined.)
And that depth means that Florida will lose seniors Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson, and Tyler Jordan and possibly lose NFL Draft-eligible junior Jawaan Taylor from a 2018 line that congealed into an above-average unit under offensive line coach John Hevesy and yet still have 16 or 17 scholarship offensive linemen in 2019 before any other attrition. That is a healthy number, one that gives Florida a slew of options to evaluate each year and a bunch of different potential paths for its players individually and as a unit.
Florida having six linemen in this class also provides some insurance in case any commits end up having second thoughts. All four of Florida’s commits prior to this weekend would seem to have some reason for reconsideration, from Harrod suddenly having a chance to play for DMV legend Mike Locksley at Maryland to Wilson being the only one of the six to have committed to Florida prior to Mullen’s arrival, though none is regarded as overwhelmingly likely to remove himself from the class.
But Florida may not actually be done recruiting linemen in the 2019 class — it holds 100 percent of the Crystal Ball predictions for four-star Lakeland guard Deyavie Hammond, for example. And because it has stocked up on linemen, Florida has enough of a margin for error to absorb changes of heart, or injuries, or academic failings.
And while that margin for error is no guarantee of success, it is a buffer that makes success easier to reach.
Gators primed for fine finish
While Florida might now be done — or close to done, at least — with recruiting offensive linemen for the 2019 cycle, though, it is some distance from completing the rest of its class. But the Gators have an inside track to improving that class significantly over the next fortnight.
At cornerback, where Florida needs to stock up on players to prepare for the possibility — read: likelihood — of Draft-eligible juniors C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson entering the 2020 NFL Draft, the Gators appear to lead for South Florida standout Kaiir Elam, and to be trending for former USC commit Chris Steele.
At Lakeland High — a former Florida stronghold that produced many contributors to Florida’s 2008 national title team, like the Pouncey twins, Ahmad Black, and Chris Rainey — Florida appears to lead for not just Hammond but the four-star duo of defensive end Lloyd Summerall (Crystal Ball: 69% Florida) and tight end Keon Zipperer (Crystal Ball: 88% Florida).
On the defensive line, Florida still has a very good chance of bringing in former Virginia Tech commit Brandon Dorlus (Crystal Ball: 86% Florida) and a decent shot at flipping Florida State “commit” Derick Hunter (Crystal Ball: 22% Florida).
And on offense and defense, Florida still has moon-shot chances: Five-star running back Trey Sanders — a former and likely future Alabama commit whose brother Umstead is on Florida’s roster — remains a faint possibility (Crystal Ball: 10% Florida), and the Gators remain in pursuit of five-star California defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who made plans for an official visit to Gainesville earlier this week, and FSU commit Akeem Dent.
Reeling in just those corners and the Lakeland trio — all of whom seem individually like Florida leans of various valences at the moment — would give Florida a 23-person 2019 class that might sneak just inside the top 10 nationally, but would likely fall just outside it. Adding Dorlus, another Florida lean, would help incrementally, too.
Connecting on a moon shot would be an even bigger boost to the class.
But the point is that Florida, despite “only” having the nation’s No. 20 class at present, has some substantial room to grow. And given that Florida looks like the only team among the Sunshine State’s Big Three to be ascending at the moment, this next fortnight is a chance to strike while the iron is hot.
Florida adds 2020 ATH Fraziars, 2021 DE Langston
While Florida has only an outside shot at a top-10 class in the 2019 cycle, though, the 2020 and 2021 cycles represent chances for the Gators to assemble truly spectacular classes.
After the Saturday commitment of four-star athlete Jaquavion Fraziars, the Gators’ 2020 class now holds six commits and the No. 5 spot nationally. And after the Sunday commitment of five-star defensive end Bryce Langston — from Ocala’s Vanguard High — the Gators have four 2021 commits, good for the No. 2 class at this very early stage.
Those rankings, as you might expect, are extremely premature and based on tiny sample sizes. But one thing to glean from both cycles is prospect quality, which is very high for the Gators in both classes: Four of the Gators’ six 2020 recruits are four-star prospects, and three of the four 2021 ones are, with Langston being the lone top-10 2021 player (per the 247Sports Composite rankings) committed to a school.
But Florida is well-positioned to build on its successes on and off the field in those cycles.
The Gators are — obviously — re-establishing in-roads at Lakeland, which appears to be the state’s single most loaded school over the next two years. They employ some of the same coaches who helped Urban Meyer mine South Florida while he was in Gainesville at a time when Meyer himself is once again leaving coaching.
And maybe most importantly, Florida is also seemingly the Big Three’s best team at the moment, and will have a unique chance to convince many in-state prospects that Gainesville is a better destination than Coral Gables in next fall’s season opener — which, as it is centrally located in Orlando and features a rare matchup between the Gators and Hurricanes, is sure to draw scores of prospects of all kinds.
That game seems more likely to set the course for the 2021 cycle than the 2020 cycle, as Miami has done a fantastic job putting key pieces of its 2020 class in place. (The ‘Canes hold five commitments from the top 18 2020 players in Florida, per 247Sports; Florida and FSU combined have just three commitments from the top 25.)
But if Florida were to blow out Miami in that game, and cast Mark Richt’s program in a new light, one imagines the fallout could be substantial.