GAINESVILLE — The situation Gators coach Billy Napier walked into Monday for Florida’s pro day felt a lot like the one his predecessor experienced in the same indoor practice facility four years ago.
The contingent of pro scouts was relatively small and devoid of big names. That’s partially due to the fact that it was happening during the NFL meetings in Palm Beach, but it’s also because UF’s crop of pro prospects is unimpressive (based on the Gators’ historical standards). That’s something Napier must fix in a way now-former coach Dan Mullen did not.
What Mullen oversaw at UF’s indoor practice facility in 2018 was not great. The Gators had only one first-rounder, defensive lineman Taven Bryan (the No. 29 pick to the Jaguars). None of the other four drafted (Duke Dawson, Antonio Callaway, Johnny Townsend and Marcell Harris) remain on NFL rosters. That’s not good enough.
Teams that expect to compete for championships need a lot of high-end draft picks, a deep class or (ideally) both. That means they’re doing a good job of landing/evaluating top talent and developing them — something elite recruits notice when they make their signing-day decisions.
“We want to get it to where we have a bunch of NFL players working out there on pro day…” Mullen said before his first one at UF in 2018. “I’m all in.”
The results, however, do not necessarily reflect that. Mullen deserves some credit for last year’s draft class (first-round picks Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, plus the Bucs’ second-rounder, Kyle Trask). But Pitts was the only one Mullen signed, and he was already committed to UF when Mullen arrived.
Mullen also added Evan McPherson, who is now starring for the Bengals. But if a kicker is one of UF’s top current pros, that’s an indictment on the previous coaching staffs.
Maybe some of the players who worked out Monday will change that. Kaiir Elam posted a 37 ½-inch vertical leap that would have tied Chris Steele (a former Mullen signee who transferred to USC) for fourth among cornerbacks at the scouting combine. Perhaps that performance was enough to make Elam a first-round pick.
Defensive lineman Zachary Carter, a potential Day 2 prospect, looked trimmer. The Hillsborough High alumnus kept his weight at 285 pounds but has dropped his body fat from 25 percent to 18 percent.
“I just want to come out here and show that I’m one of the top defensive linemen in the draft,” Carter said.
UF has other intriguing players, too. Dameon Pierce impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl and is one of ESPN’s top 10 running backs. Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis had unofficial results in the vertical leap (39-½ inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 7 inches) that would have ranked among the four best by running backs at the combine.
But the group collectively does not live up to what Mullen called the Gator Standard. UF had four players invited to the combine. Alabama had 11. Georgia had 14.
There were, however, two encouraging signs Monday, starting with the player throwing to Elam, Pierce and Davis: quarterback Anthony Richardson. He isn’t eligible for the draft, but if he stays healthy and fulfills his potential, NFL teams will be flocking here next year to evaluate him as a first-round pick. That’s a major advantage Napier had that Mullen did not.
So, too, were the buzzing saws and banging hammers that served as background noise. When their construction is complete later this year on the football training center, Napier will have a major development to sell recruits, plus an $85 million building that will make the program run more efficiently. It won’t lead to more future pros and onfield production by itself, but it won’t hurt, either.
Those two signs — plus Napier’s reputation as a strong recruiter — are indicators that things might be changing around a UF program that should regularly be one of the most talented in the country. If not? The results aren’t likely to change, either.
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