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With less than a week to go until 2017 National Signing Day, the only thing to say about the Florida Gators is that head coach Jim McElwain is in a precarious position with his most important recruiting class to date.
On Wednesday night, Florida saw one of its top remaining targets, four-star offensive lineman Kai-Leon Herbert (Fort Lauderdale, FL) cancel his official visit (scheduled for Saturday) and instead commit to Miami. Just moments later, the Gators lost their second-highest rated commitment for 2017 in four-star cornerback Elijah Blades (Pasadena, CA), who named a top five that includes Florida though most expect him to wind up at Nebraska or USC.
The loss of Blades dropped UF’s recruiting class down to 31st in the 247Sports team rankings. That’s also 11th in the SEC — behind South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas — and obviously in back of both in-state rivals in Florida State and Miami. Losing out on Herbert, a top 250 player, also gave the Gators less ammunition to take a massive step forward in the next few days.
When originally setting out to write this story, the plan was for it to have a relatively optimistic angle despite everything working against Florida this recruiting cycle. In fact, OnlyGators.com had been given positive signs from those close to the program that the Gators were set to finish up 2017 strong and perhaps even surprise some detractors come National Signing Day. That has changed over the last 48 hours.
So with less than a week to go until the big day, let’s take a fair and honest look at where Florida stands — no alternative facts allowed — as it looks up on nearly every major program in the nation.
1. The Gators are short-handed, and it does matter: Don’t think Florida being down two coaches makes a difference on the recruiting trail? Let’s ask Herbert. “I just want to know who the [Gators] offensive line coach will be,” he said days before cancelling his visit. “That’s the big thing in my recruitment. … [In Miami] all the coaches were there always with me. It was an all-star team.” Despite McElwain promising that he would fill the staff position vacated by Geoff Collins‘ departure to Temple in a timely matter with a strong recruiter after the new year, the job remains empty. This is largely due to Alabama offensive analyst Mike Locksley spurning Florida after being promoted to co-offensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide, but that was because McElwain decided to wait weeks until after the title game for Lockley to become available. And the staff vacancies doubled when offensive line coach Mike Summers left for Louisville, suddenly leaving UF in a terrible situation personnel wise.
2. Acting slow hurts in every way: One big issue with Gators recruiting these days is Florida “getting in late” on recruits. In other words, UF is either not identifying talent early enough or paying enough attention to quality players or pressing for commitments when the Gators are at the top of a prospect’s leaderboard. Recruits are not feeling the same connection to Florida as they do with other schools, particularly in state, which is one reason why Florida State and Miami are poised to embarrass UF this cycle. This molasses-like approach has also affected Florida’s coaching searches, too, which in turn also hurts recruiting.
3. The staff has its own issues: One thing Florida did not lose when Summers departed was a strong recruiter. But there are others on staff that also lack that talent — we’ll get into that more after signing day is over — which is leaving the Gators even more short-handed in terms of effective recruiters they can trust on the road to lock up top prospects. It’s not a surprise that offensive issues have some down on the Gators, and a top-10 class (while it would have been nice) was not necessarily expected. But Florida is not top 10, top 20 or top 30 right now — and that’s insane. The Gators, which after the 2017 NFL Draft will have placed four defensive backs in the first round over the last two years are struggling to lock up top-flight secondary prospects. That’s insane, too. Florida has playing time to offer all over the field, particularly on defense, and is not able to convince stud recruits to fill those roles.
This list has taken a hit over the last week, but these are the best prospects on the Gators’ recruiting board that are either likely, probable or potential commitments.
Four-star lineman Tedarrell Slaton (Fort Lauderdale, FL): Next to Robinson (see below), Slaton is seen as the most likely player to commit to the Gators on signing day. Ranked 69th in the nation, he can play on either side of the ball is the top-rated prospect who could potentially commit to Florida.
Four-star wide receiver James Robinson (Lakeland, FL): The No. 114 overall player in the nation, Robinson is expected to commit to Florida and would be the Gators’ top-ranked playmaker.
Four-star defensive back Christopher Henderson (Miami, FL): The Gators have long been considered the leader for the nation’s No. 134 player, but recent rumblings have the Hurricanes trending to swoop away their former commitment. This would be a big loss for UF and now appears to be a likely one.
Four-star defensive back Brad Stewart (New Orleans, LA): LSU got in late on the hometown prospect and country’s 153rd ranked player, allowing Florida to keep an assumed lead in his recruitment.
Four-star defensive lineman Elijah Conliffe (Hampton, VA): UF was late to offer Conliffe but apparently impressed him during an official visit last Saturday. The Gators have an immediate need for a player like him, and this would be McElwain’s biggest recruiting win (outside of a possible Henderson commitment) if he can get Conliffe to choose Florida over Tennessee.
Three-star linebacker Nick Smith (Orlando, FL): There’s nothing to sneeze at here with Smith, a supremely talented player who many believe is under-ranked. In fact, he appears to be a relative sure-thing for the Gators after canceling his final official visit after taking a trip to Gainesville, Florida.
Four-star linebacker Levi Jones (Austin, TX): Jones is actually the second-highest ranked player on this list at No. 92, but he’s the least likely to commit, which is why he’s at the end of this section. McElwain landing Jones would be a massive victory, and the recruit named Florida his leader at one point, but he seems headed to Florida State.
Four-star defensive tackles Breyon and Brandon Gaddy (Virginia Beach, VA): Both Maryland commitments, the Gaddys officially visit UF on Friday and should find out at that time whether Florida believes it can get them into school from an academic standpoint. If the Gators are able to clear them, a flip is considered by many to be likely.
Four-star defensive tackle Cam Spence (Washington, D.C.): Also committed to Maryland, Spence took his lone visit elsewhere in the month of January to Florida and subsequently canceled a scheduled visit to Louisville. He plans to announce a final decision on signing day.
Three-star defensive back Donovan Stiner (Bellaire, TX): Stiner received a last-minute offer from the Gators and plans to visit UF over the weekend. Florida is casting a wider net with Blades decommitted, and should it bring in Stiner, it would mark the second straight year that UF would have snatched away one of Houston’s top three commitments.
Four-star defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt (Decatur, GA): Florida and South Carolina are both trying to sway Wyatt from his Georgia commitment, and though the Gators do get the last visit, most expect him to wind up with one of the other two programs with Wyatt most likely remaining with the Bulldogs.
Three-star offensive lineman Zalontae Hillery (Brunswick, GA): A Miami pledge, Hillery has decided to give Florida his last visit this weekend. Summers having left for Louisville may have affected his thought process of a flip being a possibility.
Here are some other prospects on the Gators’ recruiting board that are either three-star recruits, have outstanding issues or are only takes if Florida misses on other higher-ranked players.
Three-star running back Adarius Lemons (Clearwater, FL): A two-time Florida commit and former four-star prospect, Lemons had a rough year due to a variety of off-field issues but has made it clear on social media that all he wants to do is play for the Gators. If he is cleared academically — or even if he’s close — Florida will likely accept him in its class.
Three-star defensive back Eric Stokes (Covington, GA): Florida has not pressed hard on Stokes, but with Blades decommitting, he could be a late add to the class. Stokes is also considering Georgia and Ole Miss, both of which he will have visited after taking a trip to Gainesville.
Three-star defensive back Brian Edwards (Hollywood, FL): Most expect Miami to land Edwards, but if the Canes take Henderson from the Gators, it may wind up being a swap with the lower-rated prospect seeing a better chance to play at Florida.
Three-star defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell (Augusta, GA): The Gators appear to have backed off Truesdell as of late, but if Florida misses on the most of the players listed above at his position, he could be a take on signing day.
Florida is technically a finalist for five-star defensive tackle LaBryan Ray (Madison, AL) and four-star wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (Montgomery, AL), but as you can tell by their hometowns, both are expected to commit to Alabama.
All rankings referenced in this story are via the 247Sports Composite