GAINESVILLE — It was signing days such as Wednesday, devoid of five-stars and national hubbub, that prompts new Florida coach Dan Mullen to reflect on his 2011 signing class at Mississippi State.
He remembers that group — featuring eventual NFL draftees Dak Prescott, Preston Smith and Josh Robinson — being dragged through the Mississippi mud in at least one post-signing day analysis. Rivals ranked it 44th nationally.
"An article came out that said, 'Hey, Dan Mullen will not be the head coach very much longer if he signs guys like Dak Prescott to play quarterback, and Preston Smith to be a defensive end, and Josh Robinson as a running back,' " Mullen recalled.
"And they actually will go down as one of the best classes in the history of that school because we didn't get caught up in the rankings part of it."
Seven years later, Mullen stayed true to his own evaluations, not necessarily those of the national scouting sites.
Neither had much dirt to sling Wednesday on the latest batch of Gators.
"A good day for us today," Mullen said.
Bent on finding solid fits for his program in transition, even at the expense of potentially not having all 85 scholarships filled this fall, Mullen came away with a 19-player class (excluding two transfer receivers) ranked 14th by 247sports.
Six signed Wednesday, giving UF a late rankings lift. Among them were Pensacola Escambia four-star receiver Jacob Copeland and Cambridge Christian four-star offensive tackle Richard Gouraige, Under Armour All-Americans who signed within an hour of each other during an afternoon mini-surge for Mullen.
"It's close to home and the coaching staff is great," said Gouraige, who grew up a Gators fan. "I just love what's going on over there and we can make a big change."
Mullen also got a late signature from Clermont athlete Justin Watkins, currently ranked 28th in the ESPN 300. The only noticeable miss: Berkeley Prep five-star offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere. Widely expected to remain in-state, Petit-Frere instead signed with Mullen's former UF boss, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
"It wasn't about, 'Okay, we want to recruit this many guys at this position,'" Mullen said. " 'Hey, there's a spot here, but we're not gonna take somebody unless we feel they fit the program.' … There was that strategy."
Nonetheless, Mullen addressed pressing needs along the line of scrimmage (four offensive linemen) and at linebacker (Plantation American Heritage four-star prospect Andrew Chatfield), and landed some dazzling playmakers in Copeland and Watkins.
They join Under Armour All-America quarterback Emory Jones of LaGrange, Ga., among eight early enrollees who signed in December.
"(Copeland's) a mismatch problem on the field," said Mullen, who inherited an offense that ranked 101st nationally in passing (179.5 ypg) last season. "You can move him around, you can motion him in the backfield, give him the ball, throw him bubble screens, or throw it vertically down the field or work over the middle of the field on option routes.
"(Watkins) is an electric guy with the ball in his hands."
If transfer receivers Van Jefferson (Ole Miss) and Trevon Grimes (Ohio State) can gain eligibility for this season (no word yet on that), Florida suddenly possesses one of the most intriguing wideout units in the SEC.
Nearly as intriguing as this collective class, which even Mullen acknowledges can't be judged for another two or three years (see Prescott, Dak).
"You've got to trust your rankings and what your feeling on the players are," Mullen said. "But we also know the expectation here is to sign top recruiting classes and we need to do that in the future."
Staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.