How Jim McElwain can get strong with in-state recruiting
Midway through the 2015 season the Florida Gators were the hottest team in the nation and one of the hottest on the recruiting trail. Jim McElwain’s squad, fresh off a 28-point win against Ole Miss and an 18-point win at Missouri, were 6-0 and ranked in the top 10.
Then Will Grier was suspended for a year after a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs (Grier eventually decided to transfer). Backup quarterback Treon Harris took over, and while the Gators got to 10-1, their offensive woes caught up with them as they lost their final three games by a combined score of 97-24.
As Florida faltered down the stretch, its recruiting class went stagnant.
The moves the Gators were expected to make to secure a top 3-5 class (Scout.com had the Gators’ class ranked No. 1 before Christmas) never happened, and instead of a strong close, the Gators won some and lost some on signing day while watching rivals Florida State, Alabama and to a lesser extent Georgia and Tennessee clean up with signing-day commitments.
Florida did flip Tyrie Cleveland from Houston — and landing the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver fills a major need. They also flipped three-star cornerback Joseph Putu from Arkansas, which annoyed Bret Bielema to no end. They also lost defensive tackle Shavar Manuel to Florida State and three-star cornerback Aaron Robinson to Alabama.
The class finished 13th overall in the 247Sports Composite Rankings, one spot ahead of Tennessee and six spots below Georgia. They were sixth in the SEC.
During his post-signing day press conference McElwain said he and his staff will have to work harder to recruit Florida. He said he was happy the program got players from different parts of the state but the Gators only signed two players in the top 10 (four-star cornerback Chauncey Gardner and four-star quarterback Feleipe Franks).
So what can McElwain do differently going forward?
Was it a case of lost momentum down the stretch, bad luck or both?
Where is Florida struggling in the state? Here are a few answers.
For starters, the 2016 wasn’t bad
A top 15 class is no reason to panic for Gator nation. Yes it could have been better. Yes losing Manuel and Robinson while missing out on Kristian Fulton, Lyndell Wilson, Brian Burns and others on signing day was rough. But the Gators had 12 early enrollees and filled most of their pressing needs with this class so there’s reason to be optimistic.
The Grier suspension hurt momentum
Even though Florida won four of its next five games without Grier, losing him hurt recruiting momentum with some prospects. As a redshirt freshman Grier showed enough promise through six games that the idea of playing 2-3 more years with an experienced quarterback was very appealing to the top in-state wide receiver prospects like Nate Craig-Myers and Tre Nixon.
The Gators can’t lose the I-4 corridor
Florida State has had increased success recruiting in the stretch from Orlando to Tampa because it has had more consistency in their coaching staff. Assistants Lawrence Dawsey, Rick Trickett and Odell Haggins have been recruiting that area together for the past seven years.
They have built trust with the coaching staffs and have knowledge of the top current prospects as well as the underclassmen and pre-high schoolers who will be coming up through the ranks.
McElwain dismissed assistant Kirk Callahan, who had a decent reputation in Tampa and is the son of Sean Callahan, the head coach at state power Armwood High School right outside of Tampa.
However, that connection didn’t help the Gators land Byron Cowart last year.
To replace Callahan, McElwain hired Virginia Tech defensive back coach Torrian Gray, who is from Lakeland, Fla. The hope is Gray can come in and re-establish Florida as a destination for the top kids in the area.
The Gators must strengthen their strengths
Losing a four-star wide receiver like Tre Nixon to Ole Miss is a surprise because the Melbourne area is one of the Gators’ strongest support areas in the state. It’s unfathomable to think that Florida wouldn’t sign the top prospect in that area.
Same with Craig-Myers and 2015 recruits like Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, both of whom went to Clemson.
Those are four players who absolutely should be wearing Gator blue and orange right now.
Jacksonville is another area that Florida is especially strong in but must re-establish its presence. Losing players like former five-star recruit Kevin Tolliver shouldn’t happen.
Blake Vinson, a 2017 offensive tackle prospect who will rise up the boards in the next 3-4 months is at North Marion High School — 20 minutes from Gainesville. He is committed to Clemson. These things can’t happen.
The Gators win when they are strong in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. They’ve got to get stronger there.
Some of it is bad luck
Hard work is nice and all, but sometimes you have to be lucky.
Florida hasn’t been lucky. Polk County usually has been a strong Gator spot, but not lately.
Florida State assistant Odell Haggins has gotten top prospects like Karlos Williams, Derwin James, Baveon Johnson and Ja’von Harrison over the past five years. Florida was unlucky in many of these cases as those kids had ties to FSU through family or were just big fans.
Ja’len Parks, a 2017 four-star defensive tackle, plays eight miles from Gainesville at Newberry High School and he’s a strong FSU commitment because his dad went to FSU and Haggins is one of his best friends.
Bad luck. It happens. But it gets worse. Parks’ teammate and best friend is four-star defensive tackle Cory Durden. He’s an FSU lean. Newberry doesn’t get prospects like Parks and Durden very often, if ever again, and while it’s OK to lose one to the rival due to circumstances out of its control if Florida loses two top players 10 minutes from the campus it’s a problem.
And it’s the sort of problem that will make McElwain consider significant staff changes at the end of the 2017 recruiting cycle.
10 in-state stars Florida needs to be heavily involved with:
|4||Cyrus Fagan||S||Daytona Beach|
|4||Colin Wilson||RB||Green Cove Springs|
Notes: Wade is committed to Ohio State. Green has committed to Florida State. Vinson has committed to Clemson.