If you’re looking for clues about the future of the Gators during the most important offseason of Dan Mullen’s tenure, you aren’t going to find them Wednesday; Florida has added no high school prospects during an uneventful national signing day.
Instead, wait a few days for Super Bowl 55, when three of his former players will be playing for the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. A fourth (Willie Gay) would be, too, had he not required knee surgery.
Each of the three participants tells us something about Mullen as a coach and recruiter, starting with star defensive tackle Chris Jones.
“Dan Mullen’s my guy,” Jones said this week.
For good reason. It’s hard to say where Jones would be without Mullen.
In the spring of 2012, Jones was a talented basketball player who was still growing into football. He did not, according to Mullen, have a recruiting profile on Rivals or 247Sports.
“No one knew about him,” Mullen said.
Mullen’s Mississippi State staff did — only because he required his staff to stop by every high school in the state to make sure they weren’t overlooking anyone. It’s a philosophy he has continued at Florida.
When Mullen’s longtime assistant, John Hevesy, heard about this raw athlete during his visit to Houston (Miss.) High, he was intrigued enough to stick around for practice. He returned at the end of spring and asked if any other recruiters had come through.
Nope. Just him.
When Mullen told that before a speaking engagement in 2018, he said Jones’ parents weren’t sure whether they were meeting the basketball or football coach. No matter. Jones committed to Mullen’s Bulldogs. A week later, 247Sports made him a three-star recruit.
As Jones starred in high school, his profile grew. He exploded into a five-star prospect and participated in the Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field.
Offers flew in from Alabama, Florida and LSU. Mullen fended them all off to land Jones — a sign he could land the elite talent necessary to compete for SEC and national championships.
But that recruiting coup was only half the battle; Jones was still a work in progress when he joined Mullen’s Bulldogs in 2013.
“I was very raw coming out of high school,” Jones said. “Dan Mullen and his staff kind of developed me along the way and prepared me for the league.”
Now he’s a two-time Pro Bowler with a shot at earning his second straight Super Bowl ring.
What Mullen called “one of the great recruiting stories” shows what he and his staff can do when they’re at their best: Evaluate local talent well, sign top prospects and polish them into stars.
Mullen’s other two participants Sunday show different, grittier parts of his coaching profile.
He (and every other coach) missed on offensive lineman Martinas Rankin, who left high school in Mendenhall, Miss., without a Division I-A offer. Rankin went to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and blossomed into a coveted junior college recruit.
Although juco prospects can be risky — there’s a reason they didn’t land at a major program — Mullen isn’t afraid to add them if they fill a need and can play quickly. Rankin did, developing into an all-SEC lineman who could see significant playing time on Kansas City’s injury-riddled offensive line. Perhaps UF can get similar production from its 2021 juco signee, four-star recruit Diwun Black, especially given the Gators’ depleted linebacking corps.
Mullen’s other Kansas City contributor, punter Tommy Townsend, is easy to overlook. But Mullen stresses special teams more than most other head coaches, and his results show why.
Mullen’s last punter at Mississippi State (Logan Cooke) was drafted by the Jaguars in 2018 and is one of the best in franchise history. At UF, Mullen immediately replaced one NFL-bound punter (Johnny Townsend) with another, his younger brother, Tommy.
Now Mullen must reload, again, after losing one of the nation’s top punters, Jacob Finn, to the transfer portal. Neither Mullen nor the Gators should be concerned.
His track record, as you’ll see Sunday, is Super.
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