Gator Chomps: Defensive Line Recruiting Board

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The dead period for college football recruiting is set to expire on the 14th of January. For the Florida Gators new coaching staff, it can’t end quick enough. Jim McElwain was introduced as the Gators new head coach on December 4th. That left him less than two weeks to get started recruiting to shore up the SEC’s lowest rated class, with only 8 commitments and only one higher than a three star, before the dead period began on December 15th.

Since then, McElwain has focused on building a new staff and by all accounts he did a great job. While most agree this staff should be pretty good in the long term as coaches and recruiters, the most pressing question right now is can they shore up this recruiting class by adding depth at the right positions without reaching for prospects and wasting scholarships?

For all intents, the initial recruiting class for a new staff is generally a lost class. With recruiting being primarily about relationships and with recruiting beginning earlier and earlier, some recruits start getting letters as freshmen, it’s tough for a new coach to come in and clean up with top level recruits right off the bat. Often the hardest recruiting a new coach does is attempting to keep top level commits in the fold.

And unfortunately for Florida and Coach Mac, there were few recruits to try to keep in the fold as uncertainty around the future of the program scared away many top level recruits including a number who Florida was considered a favorite to land shortly after signing day last year. The few that are committed are not necessarily special with the exception of four star wide receiver Derrick Dillon who unfortunately appears to be wavering.

This leaves coach Mac and his staff in crisis mode trying to find enough quality recruits to fill a class which could realistically be as large as 28 recruits. Not only that but there are some gaping holes depth-wise that need to be addressed as well.

Now the Gators are not likely to come anywhere near the 28 they can legally sign, but the trick will be to reel in a few big fishes and then find some adequate depth behind them, guys that will actually contribute and not take up scholarship space and room at the training table.

In our countdown to signing day series, Swamp Music has been looking at the top prospects left on the Gators recruiting board by position. Previously, we looked at quarterback, running back, offensive line, and wide receivers. Today we begin a look at the defensive side of things by bringing you the top defensive line targets left on the Gators board.

With Gators losing Dante Fowler to the NFL draft early entry and a couple more to graduation, it’s important the gators reel in 3-5 defensive line recruits for depth purposes.

While the poor season and coaching change turned away a lot of the top prospects on the board, luckily for the Gators two guys that have long been Gator leans are still on the board and they play on the defensive line.

At the top, is arguably one of their top two targets overall regardless of position: Byron Cowart (SDE, 6-4 260) from Seffner, FL. Cowart is a consensus five star athlete and the number three player overall according to the 247sports composite rankings, an industry generated composite ranking.

He is a beast rushing the passer with strength, agility, and great technique. He was the star of Under All American week and proved worthy of his high ranking winning MVP for Team Highlight.

He played and practiced so well he impressed former NFL head coach Herm Edwards who coached him during Under Armour week.

“He’s a special young man,” Edwards, said on BHSN’s ‘Recruiting Central’ as quoted in a story by Ryan Bass of 247sports. “I’ve been fortunate enough to coach in this game for four years now. He’s right up there with some of the kids I’ve coached before.”

Edwards added, “Defensively, he’s a game changer. But he goes about his business. He’s a leader and he was our team captain. You could tell by the first day when you’ve got select captains, I’m going that guy right there is going to be a captain.”

He has also had the Gators at the top of his list for some time. He had a great relationship with former coaches Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson. Unfortunately for Florida, those two coaches are now on the Auburn staff. And despite Muschamp receiving a buyout rumored in the seven million dollar range and despite there being a clause in his contract about not recruiting prospects he recruited while at Florida, he and TRob are definitely recruiting Cowart.

And why wouldn’t they?

“He plays when the moment is big, and he gets it,” Edwards said. “He’s a hard-working guy and he has a fantastic motor. He won’t live off his talent. He’s going to work at it. Whoever gets this guy, I’ll tell you what, look out.”

Cowart is likely a signing day decision and has narrowed his choices down to FSU, Auburn, and Florida with the Tigers and Gators his top two. Last week he tweeted pics of the depth charts for both Auburn and Florida.

Long considered a Florida lean it will come down to how comfortable the new staff can make him feel at Florida and how well they can overcome his relationship with Muschamp and TRob. FSU can’t be totally counted out here but I expect him to sign with the Gators on February 4th. If he does indeed sign with Florida he’ll be the second Under Armour MVP to do so in the last three seasons (Vernon Hargreaves 2013 game).

The next guy on the board is also a consensus top 10 recruit, five star CeCe Jefferson (SDE, 6-2 275) from Glen St. Mary, Florida. He is the number two rated strong side defensive end nationally behind Cowart and the number five recruit overall according to 247sports. He’s also been a huge Gator lean since his freshman year when he first struck a relationship with former head coach Muschamp.

For most of the last year, if Cowart was considered a Gator lean, CeCe would have been a Gator lock. Since the coaching change, however, he has announced Ole Miss as his leader. That’s bad news for the Gators from a guy that has probably been to the Swamp more than some players.

Can the new Gators staff reel in another of the biggest fishes they were expected to reel in before letting Muschamp go? Can they overcome the effect of Muschamp and TRob working for a competitor? CeCe likely has a closer relationship with those two coaches than any prospects in this cycle.

“It kind of makes it a better situation for Auburn because I was at every Florida home game probably from my freshman year all the way up to my junior year,” Jefferson told the Orlando Sentinel in a story by Justin Hokanson of 247sports. “Me and Coach Muschamp, we had a great bond and I feel comfortable with him and I like the kind of defense he runs. I know that he will take care of me if I am under his wing and so that boosts Auburn for me.”

While CeCe announcing Ole Miss as his leader was bad news for Gator fans who love to keep up with recruiting it has a silver lining. The fact that it was Ole Miss and not Auburn says he’s likely just trying to find an excuse not to go to Florida but the Muschamp connection might not be as strong as many think.

I’m not sure Ole Miss is the place he ends up. Perhaps it’s a smokescreen to create signing day suspense. If it’s truly a Florida-Ole Miss battle, I think Florida wins in the end. Distance and heart (he’s a huge Gator fan) plus an enigmatic coaching staff with a strong sales pitch should be enough to sway a kid who lives and breathes orange and blue.

An interesting dynamic here is that CeCe and Cowart have become good friends over the course of their recruitment and have mentioned the possibility of going to the same school.

“We (he and Cowart) talk often. Over the past four years, me and Byron have become brothers,” Jefferson said. “We met at a camp and ever since then we’ve had the same mindset and so we got close and committed a bond.”

That could very well happen but unfortunately it might be Auburn and not Florida. They have the familiarity factor going for them. And it’s important to note both guys will be visiting Auburn this weekend.

However, although I can see Cowart going to Auburn I cannot see CeCe doing so. My gut feeling is that if they do choose to go to the same school it likely would be Florida. It should be noted that while he continues to say good things about Florida he has been trending away from the Gators since the coaching change.

Ultimately, the Gators have a great shot to close with 3 five star players (CeCe, Cowart, OT Martez Ivey) on signing day and that alone would be huge for this class and this staff. Get the remaining big fish they were supposed to get and then find some gems behind them.

Beyond those two, however, it gets a little murky. Those two have been considered locks for so long there’s almost no one else. There was a couple but they have long since committed elsewhere.

One of the first guys the new staff made contact with after taking over was South Carolina commit Quandeski Whitlow (6-3 221, WDE) from Opelika, Alabama. He’s certainly a new name for anyone keeping up with Gator recruiting but not defensive coordinator Geoff Collins who had offered him while at Mississippi State.

A consensus three star prospect, Whitlow has been receiving increased interest of late as schools seek to fill out their recruiting classes. Collins is really sold on this kid. While smallish at 221, he has a solid frame to add weight. His best attribute though is his burst off the line. He has a quick first step and good speed in pursuit which makes him a solid edge rusher.

Is Florida a player?

While he remains committed to South Carolina, he is taking visits to Louisville (1/17) and Florida (1/30). He appears impressed by the Florida offer.

“It’s another great SEC school,” Whitlow was quoted in an article by Luke Stampini of 247sports. “A good defensive coordinator, so I’m willing to take a visit and check out some things.”

“This will be my first time. I want to find out and feel the atmosphere in Florida, see how they are around there. I want to get close to the coaches, know the coaches. If I were to sign with Florida what would be my job, my position. Also, feels like home, feels good.”

With Florida in need of some bodies and the likelihood of either one or both of CeCe/Cowart slipping away, expect the staff to put on a full court press to try to flip Whitlow. If he makes it on campus (there’s rumblings that he may not take the visit particularly with him visiting South Carolina the weekend before), the Gators have a solid chance with him. Of course, if he doesn’t make the trip you can pencil him out of this class for the Gators.

Another guy that has popped up on the Gators board recently is Shareef Miller (6-5 220, SDE) from Philadelphia, PA. Although he is listed as a defensive end, he was actually offered by Florida as a defensive tackle according to reports. Coincidentally, he attends the same high school as former Gator All American DT Sharrif Floyd who plays for the Minnesota Vikings. Luckily for the Gators, the two Shareef’s appear to know each other.

He tweeted that minutes before tweeting this:

Miller, like Whitlow, is seeing his recruitment blow up in the latter stages of the recruiting cycle and appears to be impressed with his Florida offer. He also appears impressed with new defensive line coach and ex-Raiders assistant Terrell Williams.

“I know a little about it,” Miller was quoted in an article by Brian Dohn of Scout.com. “I’ve done my research on them and the defensive line coach came from NFL and he coached some good players. He’s coached Cliff Avril and Ryan Kerrigan and Anthony Spencer. He’s a good defensive line coach. You want to go somewhere where the defensive line coach is going to help you get better.”

So is Florida a player for Miller?

“Penn State was my leader,” Miller said in a story by Luke Stampini. “But once I got that Florida offer, it changed because that’s a big offer. It’s a great school, and it’s a great academic school too, because I did my research.”

The question is will he even be able to visit Florida. He has all his official visits lined out and none are to Florida.

“This is what I might do,” Miller said. “I already set one (official visit) to Miami, in Florida, so I might try go on an official to Miami and go on an unofficial to Florida, and hit both schools that weekend.”

Sounds good but the old recruiting adage applies here: watch what they do and not what they say. In other words, if he makes a trip to Gainesville, particularly if somewhat on his own dime, then Florida is a serious player. If not count him out.

Finally, another new defensive end recruit new to Gator fans and recruitniks is also an interesting prospect due to his versatility: G.G. Robinson (6-4 260, SDE) from Lilburn, Georgia. The Louisville commit is a defensive end prospect the Gators have recently offered but there is a possibility they’re looking at him as more of an offensive lineman than defensive end.

The decisions of CeCe and Cowart, however, could ultimately determine which side of the ball he plays at Florida if he signs with the Gators. The uncertainty of their status makes Robinson’s versatility even more valuable.

He is scheduled to visit the Gators in January 30th so they get the last shot to impress him. With such a short time to make an impression, however, it may be difficult to sway him.

On signing day, while the Gators have a great shot at both of their top guys CeCe and Cowart, my feeling is the Gators nab Cowart and Miller and quite possibly Robinson. I’m not comfortable with the trending away from Florida this late in the game for CeCe. He is definitely a toss up at this point. For sure expect to see a couple other names pop up also along the defensive line between now and signing day if the staff isn’t getting good enough vibes from these recruits.

Stay tuned to Swamp Music as we count down to signing day.

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