Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter
Well, that was something. The Florida Gators concluded one of the strongest closes in recent memory, locking up the No. 10 class on 2017 National Signing Day just a week after reaching a low point from which it appeared the program would be unable to bounce back.
The first thing to know about what transpired over the last week ending with Wednesday’s furious finish: It was not easy. Not by any measure. Florida’s recruiting class ebbed and flowed seemingly with each passing hour, and the fact that it wound up the way it did is somewhat extraordinary.
Before we break it all down, though, let’s get a key point out of the way. Just as it can be easy to cast an opinion in advance of an event’s conclusion, it is equally simple to offer one in hindsight.
Eight days ago on Jan. 25, the Gators lost one of their top prospects for 2017 when four-star defensive back Elijah Blades decommitted from Florida seven months after making his pledge and just a week before signing day. The Gators, which were already teetering, plummeted to No. 31 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings and were in battles with surging programs for nearly all of their remaining targets.
Earlier that day, four-star offensive tackle Kai-Leon Herbert, who was supposed to take an official visit to Florida the coming weekend, promptly canceled his visit and committed to Miami. He had previously said that the Gators not having an offensive line coach — one of two vacant on-field staff positions entering signing day — played a role in his decision-making process. It was that same day, by the way, that ESPN announced UF would not be one of the 16 schools it would send a reporter to on signing day, despite the fact that the network was camping out at seven other SEC programs, including Kentucky.
Days passed with no notable positive momentum for Florida. In fact, suddenly the Gators had not only lost Blades and seen Herbert commit to a rival, they learned that the Hurricanes were using a false message board-created fabrication about an NCAA violation to negatively recruit against them. A pair of defensive backs set to choose between Florida and Miami — four-star Christopher Henderson (Miami, FL) and three-star Brian Edwards (Miramar, FL) — were said to be suddenly leaning towards UM due to this tactic, and it appeared from the outside as if UF was scrambling. And maybe it was doing just that.
But a funny thing happened on the way to signing day. The Gators, as the kids say, clapped back. Whether it was because Florida was tired of being pushed around, sick of being painted with a brush of a program still trending downward, or just more capable and in a better position than experts believed, the clouds did not gather but instead parted.
Here’s how it all went down.
1. They pressed to gain momentum: With their last set of official visits taking place over the weekend, the Gators knew that they needed to create some buzz and swing momentum in a positive direction. That started with the commitment of three-star linebacker Nick Smith (Orlando, FL), who while not a big name made a pledge to the program the same day the Miami talk hit a crescendo. But Florida made it clear to prospects who may have preferred to wait that they could do themselves and the program a solid by making their intentions known early. Hours after Smith’s decision, four-star DB Brad Stewart (New Orleans, LA), the 153rd ranked player in the Class of 2017, made his call for UF. One day after that, three-star DB Donvoan Stiner (Bellaire, TX) committed. On their own, not grand slams, but Stewart filling in for Blades and the Gators adding two other players made it clear that they would at least be competitive down the stretch.
2. They overcame the negativity: Florida could have sat on its hands, as it’s done in the past, and taken the brunt of criticism without much response. And while it did not make any public statements — talking about recruiting even in a general sense is always a difficult proposition — UF ensured it received some positive press for its responses to two difficult situations: the negative recruiting by Miami and decision by administration not to accept four-star wide receiver James Robinson (Lakeland, FL). With the former, the Gators privately shared what was going on behind closed doors. With the later, those that reported on the administration’s decision on Robinson to recruiting writers made sure to note the lengths McElwain was going to try and help a prospect suddenly down on his luck.
3. They locked up the planned signees: Florida obviously made a strong impression on four-star defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe (Hampton, VA) during his official visit and made its case clear to the prospect, who committed hours before signing day. The Gators also saw early commitments come in Wednesday from four-star lineman Tedarrell Slaton (Fort Lauderdale, FL) and two-star linebacker Lacedrick Brunson (Miami, FL); they were long-time leaders for Slaton and a tremendous opportunity for Bruson, who would have otherwise been headed to FIU. Ensuring that your guys wind up as your guys can often be as important as pulling off a last-minute flip or major coup.
4. They were relentless: Following up on No. 2, Florida decided not to allow Miami to get the best of it for recruits that were previously strong leans towards the Gators and had an opportunity to play immediately for arguably the best team in the nation at producing NFL-ready talent out of the defensive backfield. Florida stayed on Henderson and Edwards, not just personally but publicly. The Gators made a concerted effort via social media to tout their success in the secondary and even had current and former players sharing that information in a repeated manner over the last few days. Multiple South Florida recruiting sources told OnlyGators.com that both Henderson and Edwards were flip-flopping on whether to commit to UF or UM not just daily but hourly. To see Florida land both in short order, completely making up for the Blades decommitment, would have been enough to say the program did a tremendous job completing its class.
“I always get a kick out of [negative recruiting]. It’s something we will never do. It’s something that we just don’t believe in,” McElwain said. “Here is the interesting stuff. Some of that catches fire and then all of a sudden the truth comes out. Who looks like the idiot? The guy who reported it, right?
“And yet, that’s OK. That’s all part of it. The one thing is, when you’re at a place like the University of Florida, you’re a target because everybody knows the ability and what can happen if this thing keeps growing. We’ll take a lot of targets. We’ll take some of that stuff, and yet our coaches won’t do that. We’re not going to stoop to that level because that’s not the level that is the Florida Gators. It’s that simple.
“It is what it is today. The ability to put anything you want out there, really nameless, and not be responsible for it, that happens. We got a good laugh out of it, too, when it was getting hit. The guys who obviously jumped back onboard that they were trying to sway, so …”
5. They took legitimate risks: The Gators having a class ranking ceiling of 13-15 was the right projection prior to signing day as it assumed that Florida would land Slaton, a cornerback and a couple other players. But the sole reason that the Gators sit at No. 10 on Wednesday evening is because they decided to swing at a couple high fastballs. The only thing left to determine is whether the result are home runs or pop outs. Do not misunderstand: Admitting Robinson was not a simple change of heart, and accepting three-star running back Adarius Lemons (Clearwater, FL) was not merely Florida waiting on a test score to come in.
The problems surrounding Robinson and Lemons have to do with more than a marijuana citation, school dismissal and/or academic issues. The Gators had to fundamentally change their own minds and come to a different conclusion regarding Robinson, and they had to decide that Lemons was worth helping. While the inner workings of these decisions are not known at this time, it appears obvious that McElwain flexed some muscle and took responsibility for these prospects. They were likely measured risks but risks nonetheless, ones that could pay off for Florida in the long run or be a cautionary tale on what not to do going forward.
McElwain notes that Florida did its research on the players’ backgrounds and said everyone has regrets in life but what’s important is taking responsibility and making an effort to atone and improve. “Here is the good thing: We get an opportunity to be involved in his life,” he said of Robinson. “We get an opportunity to help him move forward.”
But he also claimed “misinformation” about Robinson’s situation in particular, and while there may have been some, to say “it just blows me away” is at least an exaggeration on McElwain’s part as there were legitimate issues with Robinson as late as Monday. Regarding Lemons, McElwain said he was proud that he worked so hard and did whatever was possible to make sure getting into UF was at least feasible. He added on Robinson: “The most important thing is knowing he’s going to have a great support system here, as all our players do, to help him be successful and learn from different things that go on. He’s committed to that, as are a bunch of guys on our team.”
The Gators immediately begin the 2018 recruiting cycle with one commitment, three-star athlete Jalynn Williams (Saint Petersburg, FL), while looking up at in-state rivals Florida State (six) and Miami (seven) and 41 other teams. That does not matter much at such an early juncture, but the Gators must learn from their mistakes over the last three years.
Florida must identify top talent earlier, stay on prospects harder, improve their pitches and hire assistant coaches that can simply recruit better. McElwain has done a good job filling needs over the last two seasons, but it is time for him to go out and land a class of big fish. That’s what 2018 will be about, and the hires McElwain makes any day now should go a long way to indicating how that effort may go.
“Things are still trending so fastly upward I can’t believe it. We’re getting there with the facilities, which has been a huge asset for us as we continue to move forward collecting future Gators,” said McElwain.
On focusing on the state of Florida: “When we got here, one of the key areas we needed to do was to make sure we took care of areas that we felt were always big to the Gators. We started those inroads in that Tampa area. We spread throughout the state. We focused on the fact that we got a number of guys that were highly rated in the state of Florida, and those numbers will continue to rise as we move forward. That’s something that’s exciting. We’ve been able to get around to some other areas because of that Gator brand and open a lot of doors. That’s good.”
On whether being down two assistant coaches hurt recruiting: “The one thing we wanted to do is make sure we get the absolute right fit. The plan was there. We had the plan. That will happen here shortly. And yet the guys did an outstanding job that had the relationships with the guys already.”
On whether recruiting rankings are meaningful: “I think it’s great. It’s the time of year you get another chance to go out there and compete for a scoreboard, I guess. It is what it is. I don’t know where we’re going to finish. I know this: I sure like the guys we got.”
On how Florida can beat Alabama: “Get a bigger hammer. Steel-toed boots this time instead of tennis shoes. No, we’re looking forward to it. I know this: We’ve got a good football team. We’ve got a bunch of good players. We got a bunch of guys committed to something that, you know what, our first recruiting class now has been to Atlanta back-to-back years. I don’t know how many recruiting classes in the SEC have ever done that.”
McElwain said three-star athlete Kadarius Toney (Eight Mile, AL) will begin at quarterback in spring practice, as the early enrollee had been promised. However, McElwain did caution that Toney’s athleticism may very well lead to him playing wide receiver down the line.
On recruiting defensive backs: “If you’re afraid of competition, go somewhere else, right?”
McElwain said Florida held a “signing day” ceremony for the five early enrollees who did not get the chance to be on television or sign in front of their families and friends. “We had them put the hat on, sign the paper in front of our team. We had them give us their best dance moves. Boy, we got some bad dancers, by the way,” he said. “But it was good. It was a celebration for those guys just to be recognized, especially in front of their peers as incoming guys.”
On recruiting nomenclature: “‘Silent verbal.’ Huh? Silent and verbal. How do those fit? I’m learning, all right?”