Chris Steele’s decision to leave the University of Florida on Thursday sent shock waves through the fan base and media. It has been well noted that Steele was the highest rated recruit in the Mullen era, and his decision to transfer is the cherry-on-top of a rough couple weeks for Florida’s off season.
Since the details have been reported, members of the media and fan base, along with rival fan bases, have labeled the Steele situation as a disaster, and have questioned Mullen’s decision-making. Some have even speculated if Mullen will ever be able to recruit and keep elite talent.
These takes are all too convenient and based on what is most likely incomplete information. The real tragedy in this situation is not that a heralded recruit has left UF – it’s that many in the fan base are so starved to return to the Florida Glory Days that they are ready to shut down the program at the first sign of trouble. All of these reactions for a head coach who took a broken 4-7 team to 10-3 with stark improvement in all facets of the game in his first year.
When we examine the Steele situation more closely, it is quite clear that not all the facts have been reported. We know that Steele voiced his concerns about rooming with Jalon Jones as early as January. We know that the staff heard his concerns and assured him he would have a new roommate after the spring semester. We know that Jones was accused of sexual battery on two women in early April, and was essentially removed from the team after completing his final exams. One week later, Steele is in the transfer portal.
Many have criticized the staff’s handling of the situation and several articles have been written about the optics surrounding a top recruit’s transfer only one semester into the program. Admittedly, the optics are not great, but what should Mullen and his staff have done differently? Should they have switched the highly-recruited 5* talent with a lower ranked prospect? It was not that long ago that Florida fans were lamenting over team chemistry and the tendency of McElwain and staff to show favoritism. One could also argue that Steele should have been moved following Jones’s sexual battery incident. I am not sure how practical that solution was given that it occurred with less than a month remaining in the semester, and the staff chose to remove Jones from the program entirely (despite not being charged with any crime).
Much has also been made of Mullen’s shot at Georgia regarding freshmen transferring immediately after entering the program. Although rival fans will never see it this way, Mullen’s comments do not really apply to Jones’ or Steele’s situations. Mullen said:
“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.”
Pay close attention to everything that follows “because.”
In the case of Jones: was he unaware that the Gator Standard included attending class and tutoring sessions, and staying out of trouble with the law? Does anyone really think that Mullen told a project quarterback (calling Jones an elite prospect is very generous) that he would receive significant playing time this Spring? The answer to both questions is a resounding NO.
In the case of Steele: was he sold on a dream that he would be starting from day one? It’s quite possible, but Mullen has publicly stated multiple times that he wants players who love competition and earn their playing time. Even if Mullen sold him on that dream, Steele was given every opportunity to compete with the 1’s during Spring practice. He immediately supplanted C.J. McWilliams and Brian Edwards on the depth chart, and Trey Dean was being moved to the Star position. Edwards was also recently arrested for domestic battery and his future with the team is unclear. Steele was well-positioned to receive significant playing time this Fall, albeit behind starters Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson.
And that, coupled with being 2,500 miles away from home, is what I believe is at the root cause of this decision. As has been noted, Steele was a highly sought-after prospect. He expects to spend 3 years in school before declaring for the NFL Draft and collecting a handsome signing bonus. All of that is great, but Steele is sadly mistaken if he believed he was going to be handed the starting role over what might be the best cornerback duo in college football, even if Wilson is coming off an ACL injury.
I am also very skeptical of Steele’s behavior on social media. On April 13, after the police report with Jones, his father tweeted “Man, the love my son gets @Floridagators is incredible! @CoachDanMullen is awesome.” Since the announcement, Steele has not exactly gone quietly, retweeting every article labeling the situation a disaster. All this after Dan Mullen flew out to meet with him and his family in Los Angeles. If that is not 5* treatment, I don’t know what is.
The reality is this: Chris Steele had the opportunity to develop under one of the best DB coaches in America, in a program that is undoubtedly on the rise, and for a coach that cares deeply about his players and the Florida Gator Standard. Whatever his actual reason may be, he has chosen to leave the program presumably to play closer to his family on the west coast. The roommate narrative with Jalon Jones just happens to be an awfully convenient excuse to petition the NCAA for immediate playing time. That does not make Dan Mullen’s handling of this situation a disaster.
Again, the optics are admittedly bad, but rival fans are going to spin this every negative way possible. The cure for those optics is one thing: WINNING. The optics were bad when Justin Fields transferred from Georgia, and the optics were bad when Dexter Lawrence was suspended for PEDs before the national title game. Those problems are solved by winning.
The University of Florida will continue its upward trend back to football relevance under Dan Mullen. Sure, the program could use some positive momentum, but it’s May. The 2019 Gators will have a veteran defense, a confident quarterback, and a favorable schedule, not to mention a top 10 head coach. A 10-2 season with a win over Georgia will make this “disaster” go away.
Go Gators and Beat Miami!
Written by William Norris. You can follow William on Twitter at @William_Norris3.
Photo via: GatorCountry/David Bowie.