- Jamie Newberg, RecruitingNation
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Even the best programs in the country sometimes run into a little trouble. How they navigate through the storms, however, is what separate the great programs from everyone else.
Case in point: the Florida Gators. Last season, the Gators seemed to be cruising toward a second straight national championship, but after a perfect regular season, the Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Following that, Gators coach Urban Meyer unexpectedly took a leave of absence, citing health issues. Amid the chaos, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong left to become the new coach at Louisville and brought Florida assistant coaches Kenny Carter (running back) and Vance Bedford (defensive backs) with him. Florida wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales bolted Gainesville for LSU.
Normally, this type of turmoil would take its toll on recruiting. After all, these events were unfolding during the heart of recruiting season -- December and January.
Despite the confusion with Meyer's coaching status and the turnover in his staff, it was as if Florida recruiting didn't skip a beat. While the Gators didn't land everyone they had in their sights, they still landed top prospects like defensive linemen Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam, cornerback Josh Shaw, wide receiver Chris Dunkley, offensive tackle Chaz Green and many others. Amazingly, 17 of Florida's 27 signees in its 2010 class were ESPNU 150 members, and the Gators finished with the top class in the land.
Credit Meyer and his staff for this. Meyer is one of the game's top coaches and recruiters, and his staff obviously builds relationships with the recruits. So much so, that last year when Meyer was taking his time off and rumors were swirling about his future with the program, there were few defections as Steve Addazio, who was named interim head coach in Meyer's absence, and the rest of the Florida coaches kept in contact with the recruits and were reassuring voices during a crazy time.
Another reason is, well, it's the Florida Gators. It's an A-list program that is on most recruits' wish list, and Florida happens to play in the top college football conference in the country. It also helped that the Gators were losing a ton of talent, so Florida could use playing time as a selling point to all the blue-chippers they were after.
Still, it's safe to say that Florida is in a state of transition. First, there are four new assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Second, you have to replace the winningest (27-5) senior class (25 seniors) in SEC football history, plus some talented juniors who left early for the NFL. Among those who are gone are quarterback Tim Tebow, wide receiver Riley Cooper, tight end Aaron Hernandez, offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey, defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Carlos Dunlap, linebacker Brandon Spikes, cornerback Joe Haden, safety Major Wright and return specialist Brandon James. All they did was win two national championships, two SEC titles and play in three BCS bowl games.
Like the class ahead of them, Florida will sell playing opportunity and keeping its winning tradition intact to the respective 2011 recruits.
Who the Gators have
The Gators are already off to a good start with 10 commitments. There are seven four-star players, six of whom are ESPNU 150 members, and four Under Armour All-Americans.
Four-star quarterback Jeff Driskel is the top-rated signal caller in the nation. Driskel, from Oviedo's (Fla.) Hagerty High School, has it all -- size (6-foot-4, 224 pounds), arm strength, accuracy and the ability to play under center or in shotgun. He can stand tall in the pocket and make a play on the move. There is no question that he will be groomed as the quarterback of the future in Gainesville after John Brantley.
The Gators have done a real nice job of getting help for their passing game, where they have already landed a trio of playmakers in A.C. Leonard, Javares McRoy, and Ja'Juan Story. Jacksonville University Christian standout Leonard is intriguing because he is such a dynamic athlete. At 6-3 and 232 pounds, look for him to cause fits for the opposition as a tight end in Florida's offense. Then you have an inside and outside receiver with McRoy and Story, respectively. McRoy, from Lakeland (Fla.) High School, is small (5-9, 165 pounds) but explosive, while Story, from Brooksville's (Fla.) Nature Coast, is 6-3, 190 pounds, rangy and dangerous on the outside.
Rounding out their offensive class so far are Hunter Joyer and Tommy Jordan. Tampa (Fla.) Catholic product Joyer is a true fullback who will have a special role in Gainesville for specific game situations. He's strong, has great size (5-11, 249 pounds) and can catch out of the backfield. Jordan is a 6-5, 280-pound offensive tackle from Ridgefield (Conn.) High School.
Of the 10 Florida commits, only three are on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, the highest rated Florida commitment to date, is from Asheville, N.C., and has good size (6-3, 260 pounds), speed and quickness off the edge. He should be a perfect fit in the Florida defense.
"I chose Florida for a variety of reasons," Pagan said. "I like the fact that they know how to win and do so in what I feel is the best college football conference in the country. Although they did have some recent turnover on their staff, it was not due to someone being unproductive; rather these individuals ultimately left to fulfill their own dreams and goals due to the success that they had while being part of the Florida family. That says a lot about the program."
Outside linebacker Ryan Shazier, from Plantation (Fla.) High School, is an athletic freak at 6-2 and 205 pounds. He runs the 40 in the 4.4-to-4.5 range and vertical jumps 38 inches.
Meanwhile, athlete De'Ante "Pop" Saunders could play on either side of the ball for the Gators. It more than likely he will end up as a cornerback. Saunders, from DeLand (Fla.) High School, has great speed and might be a better overall player than current Gator and former teammate Mike Gillislee.
Pagan, Driskell, Story, Leonard, Shazier and Saunders are all members of the ESPNU 150.
Who the Gators still want
What's left for the Gators? As usual, they will try and close with some of the best prospects in the land, but it won't be easy.
They are done at quarterback with the commitment of Driskel. At running back, Florida seems to be the favorite to land five-star ATH James Wilder (Tampa Bay, Fla./Plant), but it will not be easy. Miami, Florida State, Georgia, Alabama and many others are in hot pursuit. It's anybody's guess what he will do in the end. Wilder could make a decision soon.
Four-star running back Mike Blakely (Bradenton, Fla./Manatee) is a possibility, and four-star Savon Huggins (Jersey City, N.J./St. Peter's) is a player to watch here. In an ideal world, Florida would love to take two big-time backs, but getting one of these three is the goal.
Is Florida done at receiver? Maybe. Kelvin Benjamin (Belle Glade, Fla./Glades Central) and Sammy Watkins (Fort Myers, Fla./South Fort Myers) are still on the Gators' board, but they could be headed elsewhere. It is looking like Benjamin could sign with Miami while Watkins could end up at Miami or Clemson. Watkins is the younger brother of Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins.
Florida could also be done at tight end, unless Nick O'Leary (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) wanted to join this class. Right now he could end up at Miami, FSU or even leave the state.
The Gators would like to land four or five offensive line prospects. This position looks a little more muddied compared to some of the others. Trip Thurman (Dover, Del./Dover) favors Florida, Boston College and South Carolina at this time, while the Gators are in the hunt with Xzavier Ward (Moultrie, Ga./Colquitt County). More names could surface after their camp next week and certainly in the fall.
On the other side of the ball, Florida would love to land at least three more defensive line prospects. Florida appears to be the team to beat for four-star defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (Lake City, Fla./Columbia) while the Gators trail Miami for defensive end Anthony Chickillo (Tampa, Fla./Alonso). Two other names to watch are Curt Maggitt (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) and Todd Barr (Lakewood, Calif./Lakewood).
At linebacker Florida is playing catch-up with five-star Tony Steward (St. Augustine, Fla./Pedro Menendez). The Gators are also after Stephone Anthony (Wadesboro, N.C./Anson Senior), Curtis Grant (Richmond, Va./Hermitage), Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky./Boyle County) and A.J. Johnson (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville). They are one of the front runners for Anthony and in the mix with the others.
Defensive backs will be another targeted area with this class. Florida is looking good with safety Wayne Lyons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Dillard) and one of the favorites for safety Malcolm Mitchell (Valdosta, Ga./Valdosta). The Gators were the first big offer for cornerback Louchiez Purifoy (Pensacola, Fla./Pine Forest). Nick Waisome (Groveland, Fla./South Lake), Alex Dixon (Clearwater, Fla./Countryside) and Valdez Showers (Madison Heights, Mich./Madison) are three other corners to watch for with Florida.
Maybe some new names will surface with Florida. They do have their elite summer camp, Friday Night Lights, next Friday. Over the past few summers, the Gators have always pulled a commitment or two from that event in The Swamp.
Despite the transition at Florida, there won't be much of a drop off with the Gators. They will once again contend for the SEC East and will likely put together one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. Lots of new names and new faces are headed to Gainesville, and it should be an interesting and exciting fall in The Swamp with Meyer in full control.
"Last year's recruiting class was awesome, especially on the defensive line," Pagan said. "This year's recruiting class is shaping up great and is complementing the class from last year. Florida fans should be excited about the direction of the program."
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.