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Florida Gators’ recruiting class looks better than its ranking

Justin Shorter, Lorenzo Lingard could be the defining newcomers for 2020. Include transfers, and Florida’s class is more like sixth than eighth.
Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter (6) attempts to catch a pass as Pittsburgh defensive back Jazzee Stocker (7) defends this past season.
Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter (6) attempts to catch a pass as Pittsburgh defensive back Jazzee Stocker (7) defends this past season. [ BARRY REEGER | AP ]
Published Feb. 5, 2020
Updated Feb. 5, 2020

GAINESVILLE — Through traditional measures, Florida had a quiet end to the traditional signing day Wednesday.

The Gators signed only two high school recruits: four-star receiver Xzavier Henderson from Miami Columbus and four-star defensive end Princely Umanmielen from Manor, Texas. Message boards and social media were unhappy over the way Florida closed, especially with elite Deland safety Avantae Williams choosing Miami over the Gators.

But recruiting classes can no longer be evaluated solely on rankings and signing day coups; the transfer portal has changed the way schools treat signing day and fill their rosters. Through that lens, the Gators finished with a crop that looks better than their No. 8 ranking.

Related: National signing day: Florida, FSU, Miami live updates

Unless the Gators get an 11th hour addition, they’ll finish the class without a high school running back after watching four-star target Ashaad Clayton stick with Colorado and blue-chip prospect Jahmyr Gibbs sign with Georgia Tech. But they might have added someone even more talented a few weeks ago when former five-star Miami signee Lorenzo Lingard arrived through the portal.

“We needed to take one running back in this recruiting class,” coach Dan Mullen said, “and we decided early on he was the guy.”

Mullen added another top-tier guy through the portal Wednesday with an even higher ceiling: former Penn State receiver Justin Shorter.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound athlete was the country’s No. 8 overall recruit in the 2018 class and 247Sports’ No. 21 overall receiver prospect in any class since 2000. The only Florida receiver who ranked higher on that list is Percy Harvin.

Both Shorter and Lingard are boom-or-bust prospects. They undoubtedly have great potential, but neither has the production to match after two college seasons.

Miami running back Lorenzo Lingard (1) runs past FIU defenders during a 2018 game.
Miami running back Lorenzo Lingard (1) runs past FIU defenders during a 2018 game. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Lingard carried the ball only 17 times in eight games at Miami, totaling 136 yards and two scores. At Penn State, Shorter caught 15 passes for 157 yards. His next college touchdown will be his first, and he left the Nittany Lions before the end of the regular season.

The Gators evaluated both by starting with their high school film to see where they’d rank if they were traditional 2020 recruits. Both of them would have been high on their boards.

“And then you’d go and try to watch some college film and see … is it the stuff that we saw in high school, are we still seeing that type of player in college?” Mullen said.

Apparently they saw enough to make them both worth the risk and worth roster spots that could have gone to high schoolers.

Related: Dan Mullen gets his first five-star recruit at Florida

Not that Mullen’s traditional recruiting class was bad. Its eighth-place finish is one spot better than 2019 and gives the Gators back-to-back top-10 classes for the first time since rattling off three in a row from 2012-14.

The problem is that Florida still finished only sixth in the SEC and was beaten soundly by East rival Georgia, signed the nation’s top class for the second time in three years.

The talent gap between Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs and Mullen’s Gators doesn’t look as daunting when you consider transfers. Add Lingard, Shorter and ex-Texas receiver Jordan Pouncey (whose addition was announced in December) to Florida’s 2020 recruiting rankings, and the Gators would rank sixth nationally, just ahead of Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.

Of the hundreds of players who have entered the portal for 2020, only six were five-star recruits in high school, according to 247Sports’ database. Mullen nabbed three of them, including ex-Georgia linebacker Brenton Cox.

Building a roster reliant on transfers is risky. Just ask Manny Diaz, whose army of portal alumni went 6-7 at Miami.

Related: It’s time for the Florida Gators to start challenging for championships

But Mullen has a recent track record of filling spots with carefully chosen transfers. Florida’s leading receiver in 2019 was Van Jefferson, who started his career at Ole Miss. Florida’s top returning receiver is Trevon Grimes, a former blue-chip signee at Ohio State.

Maybe Shorter is next. If that happens, then Florida’s group of 2020 newcomers will look like a hit — no matter what the final recruiting rankings say.