Commentary

Gators, Horns still big with recruits

Florida and Texas struggled on the field, but still going strong off it

Originally Published: December 2, 2010
By Jamie Newberg | ESPN Recruiting

When it comes to college football and recruiting, two of the nation's top programs have been Florida and Texas. Collectively, in the past five years they have won three national titles and had the nation's top recruiting class twice.

It was supposed to be business as usual this year and going into the 2010 football season, Florida was ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason poll, while Texas was No. 5. Yet, the Gators ended the regular season 7-5 and Texas finished 5-7 and won't even go to a bowl game this year.

Recruits notice records, but so far, it doesn't look like the struggles on the field are carrying over onto the recruiting trail.

"Hey, every program out there has a down year once in a while," said Florida commit Jeff Driskel, who plays at Oviedo (Fla.) Hagarty and is the nation's No. 1 rated quarterback. "What does it tell you if a school has a down year and still wins seven games? That's pretty good and Florida is a premier team. I am not wavering at all."

Quandre Diggs (Angleton, Texas/Angelton) is the nation's top cornerback and he's headed to play for Texas despite the Longhorns' subpar season.

"It doesn't affect me at all," Diggs said. "I think in the long run it will make us better. You can't be on top all the time. That's how I look at things. Now, more than ever, I believe that I have an even better opportunity to come in and help out the team."

Gators commit Mike Blakely (Bradenton, Fla./ Manatee) echoes the same sentiment. He knows the Florida struggled on offense in 2010 and his chances to help out his future team are high.

"I look at things like this is a great opportunity for me. They need help [on offense] and I want to do what I can next season and beyond," Blakely said.

"I look at it [Florida's record] and say who cares? My top two schools were Florida and Auburn. Look at Auburn, they are undefeated. I had a chance to go there and I could change my mind if I wanted to. But I will not because once I committed to the Gators I am a man of my word," he said. "You know, there are a lot of recruits out there that don't give Florida a fair look because they are usually too good or because they lost some games and they all think they are going downhill. Every team has a poor year once in a while."

Florida did lose one high-profile commit when four-star defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan (Asheville, N.C./Asheville) decided to re-open his recruiting earlier this week. It wasn't because of their season, however, but because of the loss of assistant head coach and defensive line coach Dan McCarney, who left Florida to become the head coach at North Texas.

And that could be a reason they lose out on another defensive lineman. Four-star defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (Lake City, Fla./Columbia) has been a strong lean to Florida for awhile and many believe he told coach Urban Meyer last season that he was going to sign with the Gators. But recently, Florida State, LSU and Alabama have gained ground on Jernigan.

"He hates seeing them lose and was very upset about the loss to FSU. The team struggling this season did hurt them with Timmy," said Columbia coach Craig Howard. "Losing McCarney will hurt them too because he and Timmy grew pretty close. But I think he's still strongly considering Florida."

Florida has 17 commits right now and are still in the mix for many of the nation's top uncommitted prospects. The Gators hope to sign a full class of 25.

Meanwhile, Mack Brown and the Longhorns have 23 commitments and are all but done. They have been amazingly consistent since his arrival in 1998 in Austin. The Longhorns' recruiting formula is to work ahead. They identify the top prospects, get them on campus and then have most of the recruits closed out by the May evaluation period. In fact, by late April they had already collected 20 of their 23 commitments, and it doesn't look like many of them are wavering.

"This is my dream. I grew up always wanting to play for UT," said Desmond Jackson, a four-star commitment from Houston (Texas) Westfield. "I remember getting my first letter from Texas when I was a sophomore and I started running around my house and screaming. When they offered me I was so excited and thrilled that I don't even know how to explain it. Like I said, this is my dream."

History shows the Longhorns and Gators will be players on the recruiting trail. Over the past five years, Texas has finished ranked second, third, 10th, third and third, while Florida has finished ranked first, fifth, fourth, second and first. Right now, the Longhorns are No. 1, while the Gators are No. 4.

"Both Texas and Florida are great programs. But every team has a down year and it's that year for the Longhorns and Gators," said Josh Turner said, a Texas commit from Oklahoma City (Okla.) Millwood. "These teams have tradition and will always recruit well."

Introducing …
Robert Nkemdiche (pronounced Kim-DEE-chee). Remember that name, as he will be one of the most sought-after defensive line prospects over the next two-plus seasons.

Only a sophomore, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive lineman from Grayson (Ga.) High School will likely be courted by college programs coast to coast. This kid is that good.

"Robert is simply awesome. He's just naturally gifted," Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. "His development has been amazing. I think he just turned 16. He's using his hands right now and playing with more maturity and more discipline. Robert is starting to understand our scheme (3-4). He has the biggest and strongest hands you will ever shake. Once he gets his hands on a lineman he just tears them apart. Robert's fast, athletic and quick off the ball. He runs 4.6, is quick and coordinated for a big man. Robert's so talented that it's scary."

Nkemdiche played his freshman year, but Conn was careful not to give him too much too quickly.

"Robert was so big in the eighth grade. He was returning kicks for touchdowns and doing some amazing things," Conn said. "So when he got to the ninth grade we didn't want to bring him up too fast. He played about 10 plays a game and did great. He had so much to learn but was so naturally gifted. Robert didn't understand defenses and technique so we just told him to go get the QB."

The more Nkemdiche played, the more quickly he developed. Now he is starting to make quite a name for himself. Georgia was the first to verbally offer, and Georgia Tech quickly followed.

"Georgia Tech came by the school on Monday. Georgia was at the school [Tuesday], and Alabama came by [Wednesday]," Conn said. "They came to see Robert."

Conn says Nkemdiche doesn't have a school favorite at this time, but he did go to games at both Georgia and Georgia Tech.

This weekend's visits
This weekend has some big official visits. Two five-star prospects will make their first official visits. Cyrus Kouandjio (Hyattsville, Md./DeMatha), who's No. 6 in the ESPNU 150 and the nation's No. 2-ranked offensive tackle, will make an official visit to Alabama. Tony Steward (St. Augustine, Fla./Menendez), the nation's top-rated linebacker and No. 9 overall recruit, will head west to officially visit UCLA.

Also visiting Alabama is Xzavier Dickson (Griffin, Ga./Griffin). Kentucky will host defensive tackle Isiah Norton (Dallas/Kimball), while Ole Miss will entertain wide receiver Anthony Denham (Los Angeles/Monterey Park C.C.), safety Otha Foster (Poplarville, Miss./Pearl River C.C.), linebacker Keith Lewis (Tampa, Fla./Freedom) and offensive guard Ethan Hutson (Destrehan, La.). Defensive back Byron Moore (Wilmington, Calif./Los Angeles Harbour) and Izauea Lanier (Scooba, Miss./East Mississippi) will visit Tennessee.

Offensive tackle Cameron Clear (Memphis, Tenn./Central) will trip to Duke, while tight end Jack Tabb (Red Bank, N.J./Catholic) will check out North Carolina.

Defensive back Wayne Lyons (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Dillard) will visit Michigan and West Virginia is scheduled to host running back Tre Mason (Lake Wales, Fla./Park Vista), cornerback Andrew Johnson (Miami/Southridge), and safety Gerrod Holliman (Miami/Southridge).

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.