Pessimism and an overall sense of foreboding were fair states of mind to have as the Florida Gators approached 2015 National Signing Day.
That’s what happens when a former top-of-the-mountain team goes 11-10 over two seasons, its fired head coach (a top-notch recruiter) joins a conference rival going head-to-head with his former team on the recruiting front, and the skeleton signing class said coach left behind was ravaged by decommitments from its four best players over the final months of the season.
But something changed 48 hours before National Signing Day. That lingering pessimism turned to optimism as it started becoming apparent to recruiting analysts that pairs of four-star running backs and five-star linemen were likely to commit to Florida. It was very possible that the Gators’ run of gaining commitments from talented and somewhat underrated three-star prospects would not be the best their signing class had to offer but rather a solid foundation for what would occur over the ensuing two days.
The ultimate result was Florida jumping an astounding 45 spots in the 247Sports Composite rankings – from No. 66 to No. 21 – by the time signing day was over. The leap was – by far – the biggest in the nation with similarly-struggling Michigan the only program that could even compare. Despite its big-name coach and the enormous amount of press suddenly surrounding the team, the Wolverines only moved up 33 spots to No. 38 overall.
Auburn, Ohio State and UCLA all closed strong but none faced the obstacles that Florida and new head coach Jim McElwain did, which is why it is important to take a look at how the Gators came out of the 2015 recruiting cycle with their collective head held high.
Pre-signing day commitments: Not every pledge came through for Florida on the biggest recruiting day of the year. Starting with linebacker Rayshad Jackson on Jan. 25, the Gators added seven three-star commitments in a span of nine days, boosting its class size from an underwhelming eight to a respectable 15. UF focused on talented and underrated in-state players that may have been overlooked – defensive end Jabari Zuniga, offensive lineman Richerd Desir-Jones – and surrounded them with some big bodies – OL Fredrick Johnson, DE Luke Ancrum – as well as some tremendous athletes without a solidified position – Kylan Johnson, Chris Williamson.
“We felt decent all the way along and felt really good about the kind of kid that we brought in here,” McElwain said. “We strive for guys beyond just the playing ability that were a fit for the University of Florida, that fit the character modes, that fit a lot of the things – the leadership modes that we are looking for as we built this class. And with that, as you take a look at the kids that chose to be Gators, I think that that’s something that really stands out as well.”
Scarlett letter: Sure, the paperwork did not come in for two days, but the verbal commitment of four-star running back Jordan Scarlett (Fort Lauderdale, FL) last Monday gave Florida its highest-rated pledge and some much-needed momentum as it attempted to close out the cycle with some muscle. It was also the eighth of nine commitments for the program in as many days leading into National Signing Day. “That was huge,” said McElwain last Wednesday. “And Jordan was a guy that we targeted when we first got here and that was one of the first places we went down because we felt that’s the type of back that would really fit here at the University of Florida. And as all these guys, I’m just really excited that they chose to be part of our family.”
Stopping the bleeding with a bang: No matter how well things looked to be going for the Gators heading into signing day, it did not start off positively for Florida. Though almost all of the players that chose Auburn over UF were expected to do so, the string of four-straight commitments to AU was not a great start to the day. Then five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey, a prospect at a position where UF’s roster lacked depth and the No. 2 overall player in the nation, took center stage and committed to the Gators. That’s when the ball truly started rolling. “Tez, as you know, that’s one of those that was a huge position and need for us, and I think that really gave us some great momentum,” recounted McElwain.
Lowering the boom: Throughout the 2015 recruiting cycle, Florida targeted a trio of in-state five-star prospects, all of which ranked among the top 10 players in the nation. UF lost one (DE Byron Cowart) early Wednesday morning and locked up another (Ivey) early in the afternoon, but the Gators were far from satisfied as DE CeCe Jefferson – whose recruitment appeared to take numerous twists and turns – had not yet announced. When Jefferson got his five minutes live on ESPN and was able to deliver Florida’s second prominent commitment of the day, the tide officially turned. No longer were the Gators trying to salvage a recruiting class; they accomplished their goal.
Building a fence, reestablishing territory: Of the 14 players that committed to Florida after the dead period, 10 were in-state prospects with six coming from South Florida. The addition of linebackers coach Randy Shannon paid immediate dividends for the Gators, which grabbed two top prospects from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale (Scarlett, Desir-Jones), added four players from Miami and another from West Palm Beach. Among the prospects pulled out of the 305 were four-star RB Jordan Cronkrite and three-star wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who McElwain described as a playmaker that he was looking forward to bringing aboard.
“Obviously Randy is a guy that everybody knows and has been down in that area for a long time. And yet, as we took all the coaches down different positions, I felt that we did a great job down there,” McElwain said. “It’s one that’s in an area, when Florida was really rolling, they were getting guys from, and they were getting the right kind of guys from there. And that’s an area that we’re going to continue to go back to.”
He added: “I’m not sure there’s a school in the country that doesn’t come to this state to recruit. That speaks volumes for the high school coaches, the type of players that are in this state, and you know, that’s something that we need to get back and really focus on as University of Florida is getting ourselves and making sure that we make it hard for those guys to leave the state.”
Adding athletes: According to McElwain, Johnson and Williamson are likely to find spots as defensive backs that also see time on special teams; he believes their experience as pass catchers will help them in that role. But they were not the only athletes the Gators brought into the fold as the last commitment of National Signing Day, four-star D’Anfernee McGriff, is a special player in his own right and an intriguing addition.
“The guy is an athlete, needs a ball in his hands. There’s a lot of different spots, and the way you play different personnel groupings, he’s a guy that works in, and now all of a sudden, what is he? What spot is he at? [He helps] to add to the confusion for the defenses,” explained McElwain. “Any time you get an athlete of that caliber, there’s a lot of different places he can play, and you can see by his film the different spots and what a weapon he is when he has the ball in his hands. For us, getting a versatile guy, now all of a sudden really expands what you can do on offense.”
Help from within: Every recruiting cycle there is at least one long-time commitment who serves as an extra recruiter for the coaching staff, one who has unlimited contact with other prospects and can do a lot of good for a program. In the past, Trey Burton and Nick Washington have held down that role; in 2015, it was primarily three-star OL Tyler Jordan with some assistance from a pair of early enrollees in three-stars WR Kalif Jackson and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.
“I’ve got to tell you, Tyler, Kalif and Bhe-bhe, those young guys … were fantastic; they jumped right in. And Tyler in particular, he was real positive on his visit that he made up here and did a good job of kind of staying in touch, I think, with these guys in this class,” McELwain said. “But that’s really what it’s all about. They were recruiting teammates.” McElwain also offered an endorsement on Jordan’s playing ability. “The way he bends, he can bend. He’s got great feet and snap, and he’s also a guy, obviously, high intelligence and football IQ. His days are bright, bright, looking forward.”
Extra effort: The final month of recruiting is a full-court press from every coaching staff in the nation, but Florida’s coaches did not even have an opportunity to settle into their surroundings before hitting the trail and visiting as many prospects as possible. In fact, the Gators made a concerted effort to canvas areas, hone in on top targets and let their presence be known throughout the country as opposed to only visiting the five- and four-star recruits that they were likely long-shot flips over the final weeks of the process. “We weren’t the only ones in the country in that situation [of recruiting from behind]. It happens every year. The good thing, I guess, kind of was [I had] a little bit of experience going through it one time already,” McElwain said. “I think the key was getting out as soon as you can as many places as you can. Not always do you get to spend a ton of quality time, but at the same time, you’ve got to take advantage of the time you had out. So I know this: Our guys worked in overtime getting to as many places as we could, and I think our reception was really good, which helped us moving forward.”
Missing pieces: Florida got a passing grade for National Signing Day, an ‘A-’ considering the circumstances but a ‘C+’ any other year. Why? Well, the Gators did not sign a quarterback despite entering 2015 with a pair of second-year players (one with playing experience) as the only ones truly capable of leading the team to any success. “I feel really good about our quarterbacks. Obviously it was a position that you recruit every year. You don’t settle. You go out and try to get what there is. There may be some that are still out there as this kind of goes forward,” said McElwain, alluding to a potential transfer. Florida also failed to bring aboard a single top-tier wide receiver, linebacker or defensive back, the latter more understandable than the former to positions considering the robust amount of talent returning to the Gators’ secondary.
UF did a tremendous job fixing some depth issues on his offensive and defensive lines but simply missed on the edges. “We talked about the offensive line position; our goal was to try to hit in that five to six range in there, and I think we were pretty good hitting those numbers. That was something that we felt we needed to do, especially not because of the talent that we have but because of the lack of numbers that we had. And so I think that was really good and very important for us as we went out and then tried to create some balance in the other spots moving forward,” McElwain added.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Opening statement: “First and foremost, the momentum that we’ve gained has been fantastic. The doors that we’ve opened in this short period of time back in the places that we need to be successful at when we go out and recruit, and obviously that’s in the state of Florida first, and then bumping into that five-hour radius part as we go up into Georgia is something that we need to make sure that we work on and keep getting better at. … I think our guys worked their tail off getting out there and getting to as many places as we could, and you know, breaking some doors down. So that’s a real positive. The other thing is, I can’t go any further without mentioning how our team really embraced this recruiting season. These guys really were positive in everything that they did and that shows great things about the character of the guys we have in our program and the character of guys that we are looking to bring out.”
» The Gators did not fill all of their open scholarships, giving the team the ability to accept transfers or also hold those scholarships over for players in the class of 2016 that wish to enroll early.
» On the excitement of National Signing Day itself: “Every year this is a fun day, and it’s one of reflection; it’s one that you are really excited about the guys who chose to be part of your family. We welcome all of them with open arms, and yet we were able to get a lot of work done and evaluation on the next couple classes coming up, which is a normal workday for us this time of year. … What we’ll do is go out and have dinner as a staff and tell a few jokes and laugh a little bit and corroborate some stories that were out there and then we’ll get back at work in the morning to get ready to go for this spring ball.”
» On the concept of the verbal commitment not meaning as much anymore with so many players flipping: “There’s the best one. Think about this now. This is new. You’ve got a ‘silent verbal.’ [Laughing] Now just think about those names, OK? Hey, Coach, you’ve got a ‘silent verbal.’ I believe that’s an oxymoron, is it not? Yeah, OK, good. Some of the lingo that goes on. … I think you guys call them ‘commitments,’ I think maybe ‘reservations’ is probably the way to put it, right? It always goes down to signing day. It doesn’t matter. It’s been doing that forever. Now, obviously, there’s a lot more attention paid to it because just the social media that we’re on today. But it has been a lifelong deal; it just happens to be maybe a little more pizzazz today than it was years ago.”