With the dead period over, nine Florida Gators staff members hit the recruiting trail on Thursday to salvage the program’s 2015 class. Standing at just eight commitments with no four- or five-star pledges, Florida’s class has plenty of spots to fill – and the coaches have little time to get it done.
National Signing Day is set for Wednesday, Feb. 4, giving the Gators just three weeks to lock up 15-20 players. This is why it was imperative for Florida to bring on head coach Jim McElwain – and for McElwain, in turn, to get his coordinators hired – early in December so the program could get an early start on re-recruiting players.
According to McElwain, that foresight paid off.
“We’ve gotten great buzz, and yet, time will tell. Obviously the guys that we put in place have value to these recruits as they want to perfect their craft at their individual positions moving forward,” he said of his staff. “They’re good dudes, man. They’re a lot of fun to be around. They got energy and they care about kids and they care about being involved in young men’s lives, not just in football.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will both be integral in the Gators’ success, but associate head coach and co-coordinator Randy Shannon looks to be McElwain’s secret weapon.
A 20-year coaching veteran, Shannon has recruited as an assistant, coordinator and head coach. He is praised as a tremendous South Florida recruiter, but he quickly noted that he is “a lot more versatile than recruiting just South Florida” because “recruiting is recruiting” no matter where it is done.
“It’s about just understanding the dynamics of making sure you get the right fit. Sometimes great players may not be the right fit for your university – i.e. off-the-field problems, things you don’t know but you have to find out,” he explained.
“A lot of times, coaches will tell you what you want to hear, but you have to go around and find out from maybe a janitor in the hallway because some players, they like to screw around with janitors and give them a hard time. You go ask a janitor a question, he’ll tell you everything you need to know. Or you may walk the hallways and see a young lady walking and you just say. ‘Hey, have you seen James Johnson? Either two things she’s going to say -either, ‘Yeah, he’s over here,’ or she’s going to tell you everything you want to know that’s bad.
“You have to be careful how you recruit. In this time and age and with the way social media is, you have to recruit and find out everything you can about a young man because once a young man comes to your university, it’s representing you and your university and you have to find out those things.”
Defensive line coach Terrell Williams agreed, nothing that recruiting is all about building relationships and “it doesn’t matter if it’s in South Florida or Alaska. If you can recruit and you can build relationships, you should be able to go and get a player from anywhere.”
Coming from the NFL, Williams is confident that his professional experience will help recruit top prospects. But what he believes will be of greater use is his passion for not just recruiting but coaching the defensive line.
“You know what? You either can do it or you can’t. I was telling my wife when I got here on Monday, ‘I feel like I got life back in me now.’ I’m recruiting, calling coaches and dealing with that. Recruiting is something that you either like it or you don’t. I always followed recruiting. In the NFL, Saturdays are basically a free day, so I always watched games and I’d get on the Internet and study who the top guys are. I still paid attention to it. Those guys thought I was crazy, but that was me,” he explained.
“The one thing about pro football is there’s no recruiting involved. A lot of guys in college football are just recruiters. They may not be able to coach but they can recruit, so they just hang around. In pro football, you can either coach football or you can’t coach football. I feel like I’ve been successful enough to coach pro football and stay in pro football, and I’ve had great success at the college level. I feel like as a coach, I can do both, recruit and coach players.”
Shannon says the Gators are focused on players who (a) want to graduate and (b) play football. Defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan shared that sentiment. “We want to bring in the right kids is the whole plan,” he said. “We’ll do the right thing in terms of recruiting and getting players to fit the system we want.”
Callahan, who previously coached and recruited for UCF, said he is excited to be on the trail with a Florida tag on his chest because “that Gator logo does mean a lot” and gives coaches a “chance to get anybody you like.”
The son of Seffner Armwood High School head coach Sean Callahan, he will likely be tasked with recruiting the Tampa area, though coaches have not yet discussed their specific assignments at this time. “We do need to take back the state in terms of the best players in the country are here in Florida, right in our back yard,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m here, obviously to do that and go recruit with the connections and the resources down there that we have. We’re going to use them and get them up here to the Gators.”
Running backs coach Tim Skipper also believes the Florida brand, coupled with the passion of its new coaching staff, will make the Gators an easy sell over the next three weeks.
“The school sells itself – the community, everybody here, the tradition – it really does. That orange and blue, it means something. They see that Gator, that phone is going to get answered,” Skipper said.
“It’s been awesome. It’s been like a heat wave since we’ve got the staff together, and trying to get recruits. When I talk to a running back, there’s not many in the room. There’s a chance to come in and play pretty soon at a big-time university where they’ve had great ones like Emmitt Smith carry that ball. … We’re using that, playing to that and just the newness of the staff and the diversity of the staff and everything we have going, I think it’s an exciting time to be a Florida Gator.”
Florida is not without needs. The Gators are severely thin at offensive line, still need a quarterback in the class of 2015, have slots to fill at running back and could absolutely use some players in the defensive front seven.
There are not just open scholarships at Florida but opportunities to play right away, something offensive line coach Mike Summers believes will give the Gators an edge.
“We’re going to need some players ready to come in and be able to play. Wherever there are concerns, there’s also opportunities,” he said.
And for those that may hold up Florida’s facilities as a negative, Shannon believes that is quite overstated. Not only are the Gators’ facilities better than advertised, UF is on its way to building an indoor practice facility and there are likely plenty of other improvements in the works.
Either way, the Gators have plenty else to sell, Shannon said, which could make Florida a destination for uncommitted prospects – or commitments looking to flip – over the next three weeks.
“There is a lot to show the players,” he said. ” You know, Oregon has the uniforms; they got a unique situation [with Nike]. That’s Oregon, they got uniforms, it’s a selling point. Well, the thing that you look at with Florida, the selling point is our staff, people got to understand that.
“Young men, if you look at our staff, you have coaches that have coached NFL, have coached great quarterbacks, have coached great running backs, coached great linebackers, defensive backs. Our staff has done it all. When you put a bunch of guys together who have coached great players, then it becomes a lot easier.”
Easy recruiting would be nice for a change for the Gators, especially considering how difficult the process has been up to this point. Even averaging a commitment every two days would not fill up Florida’s class of 2015.
There should be no doubt, however, that the Gators’ coaching staff is doing whatever it can to not just gain commitments but get the right prospects on board as McElwain hopes to change Florida’s fortunes with Feb. 4 approaching.