Jim McElwain has Florida off to a surprising 8–1 start this season. But the first-year coach is also finding early success on the recruiting trail.
Florida entered the final stage of the 2015 recruiting cycle in a precarious position. The Gators were coming off of a season in which they got blown out by Alabama on the road, Missouri at home, lost four of their final seven regular season games and stumbled to a 6–5 record before an uninspiring bowl win. After months of frenzied hot-seat speculation, coach Will Muschamp was fired.
To say that this environment—which also included in-state rival Florida State dusting off another unblemished run through the ACC—made recruiting difficult would be an understatement. Florida was stuck trying to persuade talented prospects with far more appealing alternatives to hop aboard what looked like a sinking ship.
Yet not only did new coach Jim McElwain get recruits to say yes while he was piecing together a coaching staff. He beat out big-time heavyweights for blue-chippers. On Feb. 2, 2015, Florida picked up a commitment Jordan Scarlett, a four-star running back from St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High. Two days later, on National Signing Day, the Gators struck gold, landing four-star running back Jordan Cronkrite, five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson and five-star offensive tackle Martez Ivey.
McElwain ultimately failed to sign the nation’s top overall prospect, Byron Cowart, but the star defensive end later admitted to AL.com that he “probably would have went to Florida” had Muschamp not been hired as Auburn’s defensive coordinator after the Gators showed him the door. “I think it’s pretty remarkable what Mac and those guys did with just such a short time, to really close as well as they did,” says Blake Alderman, a recruiting analyst for Rivals affiliate InsideTheGators.com.
It was especially encouraging that Florida won over those other recruits in early February, before McElwain had a chance to prove his coaching chops in Gainesville. Nine games into his tenure, the program’s recruiting outlook is far brighter than expected because McElwain has the Gators way ahead of schedule on the field. Saturday’s victory over Vanderbilt clinched the SEC East, pushed the No. 10 Gators’ record to 8-1 and could result in a bump in the next edition of the College Football Playoff rankings.
That success has helped Florida build a 2016 recruiting class that currently counts commitments from 21 players and ranks 13th in the country, according to Rivals.com. The group includes six four-star prospects, including wide receiver Freddie Swain; the nation’s No. 5-ranked cornerback, Chauncey Gardner; and top-ranked weakside defensive end Antonneous Clayton. “With the season [McElwain has] had, he’s really kind of caught a lot of eyes as far as recruits go,” Alderman says.
There’s reason to believe the Gators will add more top-flight talent in the coming months, too.
Five-star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, five-star outside linebacker Lyndell “Mack” Wilson, five-star wide receiver Nate Craig-Meyers and four-star wide receivers Binjimen Victor and Tre Nixon are among the recruits believed to be considering Florida as their college destinations. The Gators could also attempt to “flip” the commitments of several other prospects, such as Auburn wide receiver pledge Elijah Stove and Miami wide receiver pledge Sam Bruce.
Lawrence, who attends Wake Forest (N.C.) High, has described Florida as his “childhood favorite team” and took an official visit to Gainesville in September. Tampa Catholic (Fla.) High’s Craig-Meyers is the half-brother of Gators commit Jayvaughn Meyers. Victor, from Coconut Creek (Fla.) High, told Rivals.com this month that Florida is “surprising me this year.” And St. Thomas Aquinas’s Bruce is committed to Miami but possibly could be swayed now that the Hurricanes are looking for a new coach after firing Al Golden.
The average star rating of Florida’s 2016 class (3.24 per Rivals.com) lags behind that of seven other SEC programs: Alabama (3.61), Georgia (3.59), LSU (3.53), Auburn (3.43), Ole Miss (3.42), Texas A&M (3.31) and Tennessee (3.29). Yet given that 14 of the Gators’ commits rated three stars or lower pledged by early August—before McElwain could exhibit Florida’s on-field progress—it’s reasonable to expect the Gators will increase that figure before signing day.
“I think when you look at their commitments, and some of the ones that maybe aren’t as impressive, those were guys that they kind of took early on in the process,” says Zach Abolverdi, who covers Florida’s football recruiting for The Gainesville Sun. “I think that because they had yet to play, because the staff had yet to coach any games and show what the product is like on the field, maybe they didn’t have that interest from some of those big-time recruits early on in this cycle.”
He adds, “But now, you see Florida getting a lot of interest from the top prospects, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a top-five class with some of the targets that they still have left on the board.”
One development of particular interest in Florida’s 2016 class is its attempt to address its quarterback situation. The Gators did not sign a QB in their ’15 class after four-star dual threat Sheriron Jones decommitted in December and they failed to flip both Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. Florida already secured a commitment from one ’16 signal caller, two-star Kyle Trask, but the program would like to add another player at the position in this cycle.
While the top quarterbacks in the class of 2016 all verbally committed to programs months ago, reports suggest Florida is pursuing four-star LSU pledge Feleipe Franks, four-star Maryland pledge Dwayne Haskins Jr. and five-star Georgia pledge Jacob Eason. The top-ranked pro-style passer in the country, according to Rivals.com, Eason created headlines last week after—wait for it—he followed Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on Twitter.
If Florida were to flip one of those recruits, he may have the opportunity to compete for playing time right away. Barring a successful appeal, Will Grier’s NCAA suspension will force him to miss the first six games of the 2016 season. With Vanderbilt graduate transfer Josh Grady moving on after this year, that would leave only current starter Treon Harris, an effective runner but limited thrower; Luke Del Rio, a former walk-on at Alabama who served as a backup at Oregon State; and Trask early in ’16. Adding an A-lister like Eason, Franks or Haskins would provide more stability at quarterback in McElwain’s second season—or, at the very least, create more competition for Harris.
Even if Florida can’t convince an elite signal-caller to join its 2016 class, it already has a four-star quarterback lined up for ’17 in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Jake Allen. So while McElwain may not reel in a skilled triggerman for his offense this February, there is no shortage of talent in the pipeline.
In any case, the Gators’ uptick on offense this season (they currently rank 46th in Football Outsiders’ offensive S&P + Ratings after finishing 72nd under Muschamp in 2014)—excepting Saturday’s woeful effort against the Commodores—is not going unnoticed. “I think that the success they’re having is really catching a lot of eyes and I think it’s going to continue to help them out as they go into December and January when recruiting really heats up,” Alderman says.
Whereas a year ago there was uncertainty over how Florida would hold together and attempt to add to its 2015 recruiting class amid mounting concerns over Muschamp’s future, the Gators enter the final stretch of this year’s regular season on solid ground. McElwain has done remarkable work in his first year on the job—he’s a prime contender for national coach of the year awards—and there is optimism about the program’s trajectory following a stretch of mediocrity. More on-field success will only enhance the program’s recruiting, and vice-versa.
In a state stuffed to the gills with Division I-caliber players, the right coach can stack double-digit-win seasons and top-five recruiting classes. Whether Florida can establish that consistency under McElwain remains to be seen. Early returns, though, suggest he is positioning the Gators for lasting success in the SEC.