With national signing day less than 24 hours away, it’s time to reflect on the long journey that is finally coming to an end for high school football recruits in the class of 2014. The culmination of years of hard work and sweat equity resulting in the inclusion and participation in a strictly American process where highly paid grown men pursue youngsters barely past the age of puberty with the vim and vigor of a speed dating used car salesman. With recruiting being a year round game and starting earlier and earlier, the Gators already have a commitment for the 2016 class, some of these recruits have been in the fire for quite some time. For most recruits, particularly the top level ones who face an onslaught of external contact from coaching staffs and fans through snail mail, phone calls, social media, and personal visits, national signing day is somewhat cathartic. The end of a long, arduous journey, they can finally relax with letter of intent (LOI) in hand. A scholarship to the school of their choice waiting for them and the opportunity to continue playing the game they love. For many, the opportunity to continue pursuit of their lifelong goal of making it to the NFL where fame, fortune, and adulation await.
For recruits, all the hopes and dreams and the dogged pursuit of lofty goals begin on national signing day. For coaching staffs, the regeneration of rosters from the yearly decimation of graduation and players leaving early for the NFL as well as the building of a solid foundation for the program begins on national signing day as well. The old saying “it’s not about the x’s and the o’s but the Jimmy’s and the Joes” stands as true to day as it ever has. When Florida won two out of three BCS titles and Alabama won three out of four was it because the staffs were so much smarter than everybody else? Maybe, but more likely it’s because they out-recruited the other guys.
For fans, national signing day is all about the game within the game. Recruiting itself has become a game in it’s own right with rankings and mythical titles handed out yearly by websites devoted specifically to recruiting. In fact, over the last 30 years recruiting for the fans has become so big it has sprung up handful’s of sites which cash in on fan interest. So much so that all of the major sites have been bought out by major sports conglomerates such as CBSSports, Yahoo Sports, and now even NBCSports is getting in on the action. ESPN has a whole division in it’s global empire devoted specifically to recruiting and arguably interest in recruiting itself now rivals that of the sports themselves. But everything begins on national signing day.
For the 2014 graduating class, that day is tomorrow at 7 am which is when recruits are first allowed to fax in their LOI’s, with the exception being those student athletes who enrolled early for the spring semester. For fans, recruits, and coaching staffs alike national signing day can be one of the most nerve wracking days of the year. Many of the top players wait to announce until signing day, some even take longer, although the amount of players announcing on signing day appears to be dwindling year after year as coaches press recruits to make decisions sooner to ensure their inclusion in the class and to avoid embarrassing situations for the staffs of being spurned at the last moment by top targets at positions of highest need with no opportunity for a plan b. Besides those who wait to announce on signing day, there is always those recruits who appear to be waffling late on prior commitments, taking late visits to other schools, or upset by a staff’s continued recruitment of competition at their position looking to find spots in another team’s class. Staff’s sit impatiently by fax machines, yes they still head-scratchingly still use fax machines, waiting for those top recruits LOI’s to come through while fans sit by computer screens continually refreshing screens awaiting news of top players finally signed, sealed, and delivered.
So national signing day 2014 is finally upon us and within 24 hours Gator fans will see if a consensus top ten class will be bumped up into a top five class with the signatures of a few of the 14 uncommitted ESPN Top 100 players that list the Gators as finalists. With 21 commitments leaving only four open slots the Gators have done well to fill their positions of need with top talent and with numbers. The few recruits still remaining on their board are mostly top level recruits which will put an exclamation point on a top level class. At this point it’s time to analyze this class based on who they already have committed, what the needs are, who is left on the board, and what the expectations are for the final class.
First, let’s examine what the Gators needs are for this recruiting class. Every coaching staff has target projections for numbers at each position keeping in mind the NCAA limit of 85 scholarship players. This can vary greatly from staff to staff based upon what type of offense and defense they run. Assuming normal depth at each position, positional needs from year to year are based on attrition through graduation, players leaving early, transfers, medical hardships, etc… In this recruiting cycle top needs are quarterback (2), cornerback (3-5), offensive line (5-7), tight end (2-3), and defensive line (3-4).
At quarterback, the Gators gained an early commitment from their top target Will Grier and he has been solid in that commitment throughout. Originally, the staff only targeted one qb but after losing both Tyler Murphy and freshman Max Staver to post-season transfer, the staff was forced to scramble seeking another quarterback in this class. The main guy they targeted was FSU commit Treon Harris. With the switch to a spread offense under new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, it was imperative they find a solid dual threat qb who could not only compete with Grier for a backup slot but also compete with Driskel for a starting job. The only other scholarship qb left is Skylar Morninwheg who was pressed into late season duty due to injuries to Driskel and Murphy. It’s unclear what his role will be on the team moving forward and he is likely a candidate for transfer after spring football camp.
Harris, for his part, has been very tight lipped about his recruitment. His family is highly involved in the process with his father being the successful coach at Miami Booker T. Washington high school. While still committed to FSU, he is also considering the Gators whom he visited a couple of weekends ago and Auburn whom he visited the previous weekend. While he hasn’t commented much publicly he has stated his desire to play quarterback in college. This alone should bode well for the Gators who have recruited him specifically as a qb whereas FSU and Auburn have recruited him as an “athlete”. He also appears to be intrigued by Kurt Roper’s offense and believes his skill set is perfect for that system. All this bodes well for the Gators on signing day.
The biggest position of need for the Gators for this cycle is cornerback. With the Gators losing three of their top four corners due to graduation (Jaylen Watkins) and early draft entry (Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson) the Gators are seriously lacking in depth and experience. There is also some serious rumors floating that Cody Riggs is transferring out. This, if true, is very questionable as he only has a season remaining and would have every opportunity to compete for a starting corner position. On that note, the Gators have four corners committed, one athlete committed who can compete for time in the secondary, and are finalists for one other top corner in Adoree Jackson.
The four commits are five star and ESPN national top ten overall player Jalen Tabor, who flipped from his commitment to Arizona just before early enrollment after news came out that Marcus Roberson was leaving school early, as well as consensus four star recruits Duke Dawson, Quincy Wilson, and J.C. Jackson. Jackson is one of those recruits who will certainly be on flip watch on signing day as he has flirted with FSU whom he originally flipped to Florida from and Miami late in the process. Deondre Porter, another late flip from South Florida, is being recruited as an athlete and could very well spend some time in the defensive backfield if need be. Dawson and Wilson are very solid corner prospects who were dominant at the high school level and are expected to come in and compete for early playing time right off the back. The jewel of the class, however, is Tabor who is the consensus top two corner in the nation and will likely man one of the corner spots opposite last year’s freshman all american and fellow five star recruit Vernon Hargreaves.
The position of next highest need would have to be offensive line where they lost their interior (Halapio, Harrison, and Koehne) to graduation as well as Ian Silberman to transfer. After loading up on lineman in last year’s cycle it was important for them to do so again for depth purposes. To date they have five solid commitments led by top ESPN Top 100 offensive tackle David Sharpe. He was the staff’s top target at tackle and they landed him after he had flirted with Georgia for many months. Also in the fold are Travaris Dorsey, Nolan Kelleher, Drew Sarvary, and Kavaris Harkless. It needs to be noted that Dorsey hasn’t qualified yet and there is still a chance that he will not qualify. He says of course that he’ll be fine but it’s a big enough issue that coach Muschamp visited his school a few weeks ago to check on his academic progress. Regardless of how he ends up I believe the staff plans to allow him to sign a LOI and they’re content to monitor his progress. His situation, however, along with a rumor of a transfer or two that has already happened but yet to be announced presents an interesting scenario where the staff could actually oversign by one or two without penalty.
With the five already in the fold, the staff would still like to add at least one more and possibly two. The main guy they are pursuing is five star offensive tackle Damien Prince. He visited Florida this past weekend, the only 2014 recruit on campus for an official visit, and came away noticeably impressed. He is good friends with Jalen Tabor who has actively been recruiting him to Florida ever since he enrolled at UF. The staff feels confident that they can steal him away from the home state Maryland Terrapins. The only other recruit the staff has left on the board along the offensive line is tackle Derrick Kelley whom I’ve considered a plan b against Prince. However, it appears the staff sees him as more than a plan b and have actively been recruiting him and there’s a decent chance that he picks the Gators on signing day regardless of what Prince does. That leaves the question would the staff take both players? I think the answer is obviously yes depending upon how some other positions shake out on signing day.
The next biggest position of need for the Gators is at tight end where they have had ZERO production since Jordan Reed left early for the NFL. The staff signed the top two tight ends in America the year before last but Kent Taylor has decided to transfer and Colin Thompson has largely been injured. The other two tight ends Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton have played extensively but contributed very little. It’s important for the staff to upgrade both numbers and talent at the position. The staff has done that with top two targets Moral Stephens and Deandre Goolsby as well as a lower rated project Cyontai Lewis. Both Stephens and Goolsby are athletic play makers with great hands in the mold of Jordan Reed and as play makers are certainly an upgrade over anyone currently on the roster at the position. With three solid commitments, the staff is done recruiting tight ends in this cycle.
Finally, defensive line is also an important area of need particularly at defensive tackle where Dominique Easley and Damien Jacobs have graduated. The Gators have a fantastic D line class committed currently with two more defensive ends on the board. The stars are defensive tackle Thomas Holley who flipped late from Penn State, defensive end Gerald Willis, the brother of Alabama safety Landon Thomas, who the Gators stole away from the home state LSU Tigers, and four star defensive tackle Khairi Clark. Defensive end Justus Reed and Taven Bryan round out the class. The two left on the board are consensus five star and ESPN Top Ten defensive end Lorenzo Carter and Rocel McWilliams a Missouri Tiger commitment. Carter, an enigma for months, is genuinely torn between the home state Bulldogs and the Florida Gators whom he originally named his leader in February. McWilliams is equally torn between his longstanding commitment to and relationship with the Tigers and an offer from his dream school the Florida Gators who he and his family have long been fans of.
Wide receiver and running back are both positions that the Gators loaded up on in last year’s cycle and not positions of high need in this cycle. The Gators, who lost their top running back target Dalvin Cook, when he decommited from the Gators and then committed to FSU, quickly scrambled to bring in an ample replacement and did so by flipping Brandon Powell from the Miami Hurricanes. At receiver, the Gators have former Seminole commit Ryan Sousa on board and are still pursuing another former Nole commit in C.J. Worton. Isaiah McKenzie whom the staff tried very hard to bring in, has all but eliminated the Gators and is likely choosing between Virginia Tech and Ole Miss.
This brings us to final predictions for signing day and for the class as a whole. I believe the chance to play for a dream school in the SEC and in Roper’s offense where he will be targeted often is too much of an opportunity to pass up for C.J. Worton. Also the opportunity to play in front of friends and family and be close to home is equally important and Worton will sign with the Gators on Wednesday.
Damien Prince got the full court press from both the staff and good buddy Jalen Tabor this past weekend and I believe his relationship with Mike Summers and desire to play in an up tempo offense like Roper’s should be enough to overcome those around him who may be pushing him to stay close to home in state. While this certainly is no slam dunk for the Gators, I believe he will be a Gator on Wednesday. Derrick Kelley, on the other hand, while tempted to play closer to home, ultimately has too good of a relationship with the staff at LSU and has already pictured himself playing on the bayou and I expect he will be an LSU Tiger on signing day.
Adoree Jackson has expressed strong interest in continuing his two sport status while simulaneously playing two ways in football as well. That scenario would most likely benefit the Gators the most with them having a top rated track team and he having a solid relationship with both track coach Mike Holloway and his positon coach at UF Travaris Robinson, I believe that the Gators have done enough to make it close but ultimately the new staff at USC keeps him local.
Treon Harris while tight lipped about his recruitment has let slip enough to convince me that he will be a Gator as well. He loved his visit, loved the plan the staff laid out for him in Roper’s offense and will have the opportunity to compete for a starting job at quarterback from the start at Florida, something he won’t necessarily get at Auburn or FSU. In the end, however too much time has elapsed for the Gators and the good feeling of that visit has worn off and the chance to play for the national champions keeps him in the fold at FSU.
Which brings us to the final two recruits left to choose Florida or someone else Lorenzo Carter and Rocel McWilliams. With Carter the staff has done everything they needed to do to secure this pledge and it still might not be enough. If it were left purely up to Lorenzo, I believe we wouldn’t even being talking about this and he’d be a Gator tomorrow. However, the family is tight-knit and I believe family desires and distance win out here and Carter ends up in a Bulldog uniform come signing day.
McWilliams, on the other hand, is one I believe is strongly leaning to the Gators at this point and with Carter going elsewhere I believe McWilliams will pull the trigger for the Gators tomorrow..
On a final note, the only Gator commit that has been looking around late is J.C. Jackson and there have been strong indications of a possible signing day flip, not to his former school of choice, FSU, but to the new guy on the block the Miami Hurricanes. However, with him spurning FSU, not visiting on the final weekend, and missing out on the Miami home visit to make a late unofficial trip up to Gainesville, that bodes well for the Gators. Despite all the hype and the rumors of an impending decommit, I think Jackson ultimately sticks with the Gators.
So there you have it… My predictions. 21 commits who all sign LOI’s to Florida including J.C. Jackson. The Gators add three more on signing day, Damien Prince, Rocel McWilliams, and C.J. Worton for a total of 24 total one short of their maximum for this class.
It’s important to note that the Gator class, already considered a consensus top ten class, could very well end up a top five class with the addition of some combination of the above players, but that is unlikely in my opinion. Three of these recruits will be among the thirteen uncommitted ESPN top 100 players announcing live on ESPN on signing day, Adoree Jackson, Damien Prince, and Lorenzo Carter. Additionally, head coach Will Muschamp will be one of thirty head coaches that will be interviewed by ESPN on signing day. Check out the ESPN announcement schedule here.
And as always stay tuned to Swamp Music for the latest in FREE news, analysis, and opinion on Gator recruiting and athletics. Follow Swamp Music on Twitter @Swamp_Music2 for live tweeting of Gator recruiting news as the LOI’s roll in.