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National signing day: Florida Gators’ class is better, but is it good enough?

Florida is on track for its best class since 2013. But is it closing the gap on Georgia, LSU and Ohio State?
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen is happy with this year's signing day haul. “I certainly think we expect to go compete for championships and we're building the roster to be able to go do that.” [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

GAINESVILLE — The early signing class Florida landed Wednesday was a lot like the rest of Dan Mullen’s program: Better than it used to be and a notch above last year but not yet in the upper echelon.

“We're not quite there yet,” Mullen said, “but we're not very far off.”

The 20 high school prospects Florida landed Wednesday (plus Texas transfer Jordan Pouncey) show the progress Mullen’s Gators have made on the recruiting trail — the one major question surrounding Mullen before his hire.

On Day 1 of last year’s early signing period, UF had the nation’s No. 16 class with zero top-100 recruits. The Gators ended Wednesday ranked No. 8 with a pair of top-100 prospects (Lake Wales defensive lineman Gervon Dexter and the Gatorade state player of the year, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas linebacker Derek Wingo).

If UF’s rank holds through February, it’ll be the Gators’ best class since 2013 and the first time the Gators have had back-to-back top-10 hauls since 2013-14.

Related: Florida Gators signee Jonathan Odom: This class will bring a national championship to UF

ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill puts a premium on four positions: offensive line, defensive line, cornerback and quarterback. The Gators added a four-star offensive tackle (former Georgia commit Joshua Braun), four blue-chip defensive linemen (including former Middleton High standout Johnnie Brown now at Sebring), two of the country’s top 10 corners and another blue-chip early enrollee quarterback (Gainesville Eastside’s Anthony Richardson).

Johnnie Brown was a force at Middleton High before transferring to Sebring for his final year. [ANDRES LEIVA | Tampa Bay Times]

“I think they’ve really hit the ground running in this cycle,” Luginbill said.

The unanswered question: Did the Gators run fast enough to make up ground on Georgia in the SEC East and championship contenders like Ohio State and LSU?

Maybe.

The five national champions of the College Football Playoff era averaged 48 blue-chip signees during the three classes preceding their title run. This year’s CFP participants have averaged 44.5.

Florida added 13 Wednesday. That boosts its total to 43 over the past three years with chances to add more over the next two days and on the traditional signing day in February.

But there were obvious misses to this incomplete class. Mullen still hasn’t signed a five-star prospect to Florida; the only one on the roster is linebacker Brenton Cox, a transfer from Georgia.

The Gators whiffed on their running back targets including five-star athlete Demarkcus Bowman (who spurned the Lakeland-to-Gainesville pipeline to sign with Clemson) and four-star prospect E.J. Smith, the Stanford-bound son of Florida and NFL legend Emmitt Smith.

They only signed one receiver (Dunnellon’s Ja’Quavion Fraziars) and will need to bolster the position in February or through the transfer portal. And the Gators did all of their prospect flipping in the last week to create an uneventful Wednesday.

“Not a lot of shocks,” Mullen said. “Not a lot of surprises.”

Related: National signing day: Where Florida Gators, FSU and Miami stand

The surprises happened elsewhere. Like Georgia, which landed four-star receiver Arian Smith from Lakeland. And Ohio State, which picked up four-star quarterback CJ Stroud. And LSU, which got a pair of four-star announcements (including offensive lineman Marcus Dumervil, a Gators target from St. Thomas Aquinas).

The Gators are chasing all three on the field. All three signed higher rated classes Wednesday.

Not that Mullen cares much about class rankings. Because he trusts his staff’s evaluations, he’s more interested in the fact that his Gators have a top-10 team this season than another top-10 recruiting class.

But recruiting stars, as imperfect as they are, matter. They represent the talent necessary to knock off Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs or Ed Orgeron’s Tigers — the two teams that kept Florida away from a title this season.

“I certainly think we expect to go compete for championships,” Mullen said, “and we're building the roster to be able to go do that.”

Wednesday was another step in the right direction. We’ll see in the coming years just how big that step was.

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

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