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Can Dan Mullen’s Florida Gators recruit at a championship level?

As national signing day approaches, is UF closing the gap with Georgia and Alabama?
MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen gets ready to walk onto the field during the game on September 8, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. At the half, the Gators were up 10 to 7.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen gets ready to walk onto the field during the game on September 8, 2018 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. At the half, the Gators were up 10 to 7.
Published Feb. 5

Dan Mullen turned Mississippi State around by maximizing solid rosters lacking in superstar recruits.

He succeeded in his first year at Florida by doing more of the same — turning good but not great recruiting classes into a No. 7 finish in the final AP Top 25.

Player development is important, but the players College Football Playoff contenders are developing are elite prospects. And UF hasn’t signed enough of them recently.

So as Mullen prepare to finish off his first full recruiting cycle at UF with Wednesday’s national signing day, are his Gators recruiting at the elite level necessary to start seriously challenging for championships?

“Not yet, but they’re getting there,” Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell said.

The Gators’ class ranking (No. 11, according to 247Sports’ composite index) is up five spots since the first day of the December signing period. That raw number is comparable to where UF has been over the last five years, but there are signs that UF’s talent is improving.

The Gators have already signed 13 blue-chip recruits and have commitments from two others. That’d be UF’s largest haul of four- or five-star prospects since 2013, when the Gators’ landed a top-three class that included future first-round picks Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal. With a strong close this week, UF could finish with its first top-10 class since 2014.

That’s the optimistic view in Gainesville. Here’s the pessimistic stance: A great signing day still wouldn’t do much to close the gap between UF and Alabama, or Clemson, or Georgia.

“If you’re going to compete with Alabama and Clemson and be a team that breaks through, you’ve got to be in the top five,” Farrell said. “They’ve still got some work to do.”

Even if UF lands a pair of top-100 south Florida recruits (receiver Mark-Antony Richards and cornerback Kaair Elam) the Gators still won’t have a five-star prospect on their roster. SEC East frontrunner Georgia has signed 11 over the last two classes. Rival LSU added three in December. The only incoming ’Bama recruit who isn’t a blue-chip talent is Will Reichard — the nation’s top kicker.

That means that while Mullen is trying to amass talent on his roster, the nation’s top programs keep stockpiling elite classes on top of elite classes.

Farrell said in-state recruiting is holding UF back. The Gators enter signing day with commitments or signatures from only two of the state’s top 30 recruits. That puts UF behind Florida State (six), Alabama (five), Georgia (four), Miami (three) and Clemson (three). UF doesn’t have a current player or incoming recruit from Bradenton football factory IMG Academy.

“A lot of the IMG kids are leaving the state,” Farrell said. “I think they need to get more of the high-level in-state kids to buy in.”

Maybe Mullen can start doing that, if he continues to win, said Larry Blustein, the dean of south Florida recruiting.

The opportunity is certainly there in a talent-rich state. Recruits want to play for a winner, and UF is coming off a successful 10-win season while the Hurricanes and Seminoles are struggling.

“Another year of success and another banner recruiting year like this, and they’ll be pushing (for championships,” Blustein said. “I think they’re one more good recruiting class away from being in that conversation.”

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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