- If recruiting class rankings are to be believed, the Gators are making gains on offense. How long until they have a unit to pair with their elite defense and scare the rest of the SEC?
Florida’s formula for success in the Jim McElwain era has boiled down to being very good on one side of the ball and just good enough on the other. During his two seasons in charge, the Gators have ranked fourth (2016) and seventh (’15) in the country on defense, according to Football Outsiders’ S&P + ratings. Offensively, they’ve finished 88th (’16) and 73rd (’15). The formula may not shift all that much this season, even if Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire or promising youngster Feleipe Franks provides a spark at quarterback, but Florida is working to acquire the players it needs to tilt the offense-defense imbalance in its favor.
A flood of commitments over the last few weeks has pushed the Gators’ 2018 recruiting class to No. 7 in the national rankings, according to the 247Sports Composite. That ranks second in the SEC, behind only No. 6 Tennessee, which counts 20 pledges to Florida’s 17 but a worse average player rating (89.10 to 89.88). The Gators’ surge positions them to make a run at compiling their most esteemed class since Urban Meyer was in Gainesville, and it keeps them ahead of one in-state rival in this cycle (Florida State, at No. 10) while narrowing the gap with another (Miami, at No. 2). It also gives Florida a major recruiting tailwind at the outset of the upcoming season to follow a rousing close to National Signing Day 2017.
Considering Florida’s point-producing woes under McElwain to date, the wave of positive off-field headlines looks even more encouraging when you start sorting through the details. Seven of the 10 class of 2018 prospects who’ve picked the Gators since the middle of July project to line up on offense: Four-star Bainbridge (Ga.) High running back Dameon Pierce, four-star Escambia (Fla.) High wide receiver Jacob Copeland, three-star Booker T. Washington Senior (Fla.) High wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, four-star Archbishop Rummel (La.) High wide receiver JaMarr Chase, five-star Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High quarterback Matt Corral, four-star Archbishop Wood (Pa.) High tight end Kyle Pitts and four-star IMG (Fla.) Academy offensive guard Curtis Dunlap.
Corral is the biggest get of that group. When he committed to Florida last month, Corral was one of only two top-flight QB recruits on the board in the 2018 class who project to be enrolled by next fall, along with Harrison (Ga.) High’s Justin Fields. (Another, five-star Tanner McKee, plans to serve a two-year LDS mission.) The Gators beat out a pair of SEC recruiting juggernauts, Alabama and Georgia, for Corral after he decommitted from USC in June. Corral’s got a big arm and good pocket awareness, and at 6' 2", 196 pounds, he should hold up physically in a conference stuffed with vicious defensive lineman. Florida’s quarterback history since Tim Tebow left town is a Boulevard of Broken Blue-Chippers, but Corral could be the long-awaited answer.
The Gators should be well-supplied with offensive skill players for Corral to work with, too. In Chase and Copeland, Florida may have locked up the class of 2018’s top wide receiver tandem so far*, and its most recent commit, former Alabama verbal Pierce, is a battering ram who complements the shiftier Iverson Clement, a four-star athlete out of Rancocas Valley Regional (N.J.) High who pledged in April. Then there’s Pitts, about whom 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong wrote in mid-July that, although the 6' 5 1/2" 235-pounder is ranked 11th among tight ends in the class of 2018, “he has the traits to develop into the best of the best from this recruiting cycle.”
*With Alief Taylor (Tex.) High four-star Brennan Eagles and Lamar (Tex.) High four-star Al’vonte Woodard in tow, Texas has a legitimate gripe here.
Dunlap is the only offensive lineman Florida has on board so far for 2018, but the Gators should add to that position group with at least one of the following three in-state recruits, all of whom currently have a better than 60% shot to end up in orange and blue, according to predictions compiled in 247Sports’ Crystal Ball feature: Four-star Apopka High tackle William Barnes, four-star Cambridge Christian School tackle Richard Gouraige and four-star Berkeley Prep tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere.
There’s a lot to like about what Florida’s offense could become once these prospects get on campus and spend a year or two in the program, but it shouldn’t get lost that the situation really could improve in the short term. The Gators return 81% of their offensive production from last season, according to SB Nation. Either Zaire or Franks is capable of improving upon the quarterback play journeyman Luke Del Rio offered last season if they beat him out in a battle for the starting job, and wideouts Tyrie Cleveland and Dre Massey will give the winner of that battle two breakout candidates on the perimeter in addition to second-team preseason All-SEC honoree Antonio Callaway. Also, junior Jordan Scarlett is the SEC’s most underrated running back.
Incremental progress on offense this season probably won’t be enough for Florida to strive for anything more than another humbling loss in the SEC championship game, and division foes Georgia or Tennessee could deny the Gators an invitation to Atlanta. (Though Florida does get the Volunteers at The Swamp.) It will take a gigantic leap for the Gators to have the firepower make a serious run at Alabama for the conference’s College Football Playoff berth, assuming it only gets one. But after two years filled with facepalm-inducing, low-scoring eyesores, Florida should be able to get the wheels turning on an offensive renaissance, just in time to incorporate a young group of highly touted reinforcements.