5 recruiting battles Florida needs to win
Florida is in the home stretch of a vital second-year recruiting class under Dan Mullen, with the Gators looking to translate their surprisingly successful season on the football field into victories on the recruiting trail.
Perhaps the largest question facing Mullen and his staff when they arrived was whether they could recruit at the level required to be elite in today’s college football.
Everyone knew Mullen knew how to develop players. Likewise, Todd Grantham’s chops as a talent evaluator and developer aren’t in question.
Still, recruiting questions linger, even after what by any objective account was the best transition recruiting class in Florida history a year ago. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are good at developing players too, and in Smart’s case, his job at Georgia was less a rebuild than a reboot.
That complicates and toughens the task for Mullen. The truth is Florida hasn’t recruited well enough in recent years, especially late in the Will Muschamp era and throughout the Jim McElwain era. The Gators have to close the “blue-chip” gap if they hope to challenge Georgia and Alabama for SEC and college football supremacy.
This season, Florida played three teams (Georgia, FSU and LSU) alone that had more than 20 more blue-chip players (4- or 5-stars) and four programs (South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky) that were within 10 blue-chips of the Gators. Those numbers have to change for Florida to make a College Football Playoff, and Mullen, ever-confident in his own evaluations, is keenly aware of it.
That’s why the week ahead is massive for Mullen and his staff. Despite a terrific season on the field, the Gators sit only No. 21 nationally in recruiting, and worse yet, rank ninth in the SEC. Florida is also seven spots behind rival Florida State and already embattled head coach Willie Taggart, despite walloping the Noles by 27 points last month.
Nevertheless, the Gators are well-situated for a handful of blue-chip players and at least in the conversation for others ahead of Early Signing Period (Dec. 19-21). A strong haul this season will improve the class ranking. It will also replenish the roster in positions of dire need — especially defensively — and sets the table for a massive class under Mullen in year three, when the geography of the recruiting map, the departure of Urban Meyer, who continued to raid well known Florida pipeline schools for players, along with turbulence at Florida State and Miami, favors the Gators immensely.
Here are five recruits Florida will try to close on in an effort to call the 2019 recruiting cycle a true success, along with insight into their recruiting situation as Wednesday approaches. (Note: All rankings are from the 24/7 Composite).
Trey Sanders, RB (IMG Academy) 5-stars
The nation’s No. 5 overall player and No. 1 running back remains an Alabama lean with a week to go and the reality is Nick Saban rarely loses his man.
Still, the late buzz surrounding Georgia’s aggressive push for Sanders has died off and indications are Sanders will make one last visit to Gainesville just before his announcement.
Florida has done all it can here, and the Gators are hopeful that the chance to play with his brother, Gators LB Umstead Sanders, will be just enough to push Florida over the top.
The Pick: Alabama
Lloyd Summerall, DE (Lakeland) 4-stars
A back and forth recruiting battle between Florida and Miami, the Gators would appear to have the edge both in scheme (Summerall is perfect for Grantham’s Steelers 3-4) and family support (Did y’all see Big Daddy Summerall in the orange and blue?)
Manny Diaz’s departure for Temple puts a weird wrinkle in things, especially as the Canes appeared to be closing the gap in the last few weeks. Plus, Summerall will make his final official visit to Miami just before the Early Signing Period. In the end, scheme and stability should matter, but having the last at-bat matters in recruiting.
The Pick: Florida
Keon Zipperer, TE (Lakeland) 4-stars
A high-end 4-star talent from a state championship winning team, Zipperer has been a Florida priority for a year. Teammates and best friends with Summerall, there’s plenty to the idea that the two are a package deal as well, according to multiple sources who spoke with SDS for this column.
Like Summerall, Zipperer will visit Miami officially before Early Signing Period starts Wednesday, and whispers from his camp are that the Canes made up a ton of ground on the Gators over the past month, although that momentum has stemmed since Zipperer’s official to Florida last week.
The “other” hat on the table when Zipperer picks is Alabama. Zipperer did an official visit on the Capstone for the Iron Bowl and, according to sources, continues to hear from Alabama consistently. The Crimson Tide are underdogs here, but in the end, Alabama is Alabama.
This is one of the battles Florida simply must not lose.
The Pick: Florida
Kaiir Elam, DB (North Palm Beach) 4-stars
If the last name sounds familiar, it should.
His uncle, Matt Elam, was an All-American at Florida and his father, Abe, spent seven seasons in the National Football League after a successful collegiate career at Kent State.
Family ties alone won’t close the deal for Florida, however, and Kirby Smart has been relentless in his pursuit of the tall, rangy Elam who profiles either as a physical nickel or a safety that can cover a ton of ground.
Elam is a playmaker at a position where Florida has immense need, and the Gators need to hold off an out-of-state challenge from the Dawgs here. The departure of Mel Tucker might help, but Elam is likely to visit Georgia next month and all signs point to a Florida-Georgia battle that extends all the way to February signing day.
I think this is Florida’s most important recruiting battle.
The Pick: Florida
Chris Steele, CB (Bellflower, Calif.) 4-stars
The nation’s No. 6 corner is an eyelash short of being a 5-star and the former USC commit has been a favorite of Mullen and Florida’s staff since the moment they arrived in Gainesville.
Many people have questioned why, after years of hemorrhaging elite in-state recruits to Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and in-state rival FSU, the Gators would travel all the way to California to poach high-end talent.
But for Mullen, it’s about the message it sends when Florida lands a California star. Drawing that type of talent helps renew the perception that Florida is a national brand, a perception that has been missing much of this decade as Florida has been mired in mediocrity.
Steele, a fast, tall, playmaking corner, is experiment and priority one on that front, especially considering he’s an elite player at Florida’s number one position of need. He’ll pick between Florida, Oklahoma, USC, Oregon and South Carolina, and the Gators believe they hold a slight edge over the Sooners and Ducks at this time.
The Pick: Florida