A year and a half after his hire, Florida coach Dan Mullen has hit his first major, unexpected speed bumps in Gainesville.
The looming loss of two blue-chip early enrollees and two blue-chip recruits, plus a backup defensive back’s battery arrest, all in one disastrous week and a half.
The first exit was by four-star quarterback Jalon Jones, who entered the NCAA’s transfer portal after being accused of sexual battery by two different women last month. Both complainants declined to pursue charges.
The second impending departure came Thursday when UF’s top 2019 signee, cornerback Chris Steele, entered the portal, too. Assuming he leaves — players, remember, can leave the portal and return to their original school — he’ll deprive the Gators of a top-50 overall recruit who spent time with the first-team defense in spring practice and was expected to be a key contributor as a true freshman this fall.
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Both were among the 17 blue-chip players UF signed in a recruiting class that closed well to finish No. 9 nationally. That rally continued the positive momentum for the Gators, who outperformed expectations with Mullen’s inaugural 10-win season and a Peach Bowl win over Michigan.
“I think that’s huge for the program,” Mullen said of his top-10 class on signing day, “and it just shows the direction that we’re headed as a program.”
The last two weeks have altered that direction. Remove Steele and Jones from UF’s recruiting crop, and the Gators finished a more ho-hum 14th — the same as they did in Mullen’s first recruiting class and three spots lower than they did in Jim McElwain’s final one.
READ MORE: Why did Jalon Jones play in Florida Gators’ spring game?
UF’s upcoming recruiting classes have also taken hits. In between the decisions by Jones and Steele, the Gators missed out on Lakeland five-star 2020 running back Demarkcus Bowman, who committed to Clemson instead. And a few hours after Steele’s decision became public, the No. 10 overall prospect in 2021, Ocala Vanguard defensive end Bryce Langston, decommitted from UF.
Add in defensive back Brian Edwards’ arrest on a complaint that he grabbed his girlfriend by the neck, and the bad news has been flowing in Gainesville.
Some attrition is inevitable, especially with the transfer portal. But the recent news doesn’t look good in light of what Mullen said about quick transfers in March (in what might have been a veiled shot about a certain five-star passer who transferred away from rival Georgia):
It’s pretty easy to want to be here. If you don’t want to be here, there’s a specific reason. I’d think we did a poor job recruiting if guys were coming in and then immediately walking out the door because it was something different than what they thought it would be and we lied to them during recruiting, or we sold them on a dream that wasn’t true.
So how worried should UF be about two guys coming in and then immediately walking out the door before ever playing a meaningful game?
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In the short term, not very. Even if the decisions by Jones and Steele are related — and I’ve heard conflicting things on that point — they don’t seem to be representative of a larger problem that could snowball this offseason.
But in the long term, there’s a reason for some concern.
SEC East rival Georgia had more talent than UF last season. Kirby Smart widened that gap by signing the nation’s No. 2 class with 20 blue-chip prospects, and the distance will grow again with the loss of Jones and Steele. The recent 2020 and 2021 misses are less severe because there’s still time to re-recruit those players, but they’re piling on.
The momentum Mullen built in his first year and a half in Gainesville has stalled after one of his rockiest week-and-a-half stretches so far.