The title of this column seemed appropriate given the content, because it was expressed by a significant number of Gator fans that this off-season has seen transfers out of the Gator program of Biblical proportions. Perhaps it was the volume, perhaps it was the rapid succession, or perhaps it was the cumulative effect of the most unlucky Gator season on record and certainly the worst Gator season through which many of us have ever suffered. Whatever it was, it did seem like the eleventh Egyptian plague of Exodus, a “plague-plus-one” to put it in recruiting terms. But ever the skeptic, I wanted to go to the beginning of the modern age of Florida football (1990) and see if this year’s weight loss for the roster was indeed a startling outlier. But first, let’s talk about this week in the ever dynamic Gator landscape.
Recruiting Disaster, We Hardly Knew Ye
Seems eons ago that the defection of a self-perpetuated rumor mill tornado destroyed the 2014 Florida Gators signing class. You remember that fateful day that we were all dreading for weeks on end. The day that a star running back pulled the plug on his commitment, and with it the flood gates broke and the class fell to pieces, with blue chip star after star following his lead to save themselves from the carnage of the imploding class.
Well something funny happened to the Dead Class Walking on the way to the gallows. It didn’t disintegrate. Dalvin Cook did not lead them all away like some pied piper of mendacious deceit. In fact, to date only one 2014 Florida commitment has followed him out the door, and it was expected. A second ‘14 commit withdrew his Gator pledge because of the commitment of a much higher rated prospect and the growing likelihood that another much higher rated corner will commit soon. But more on that later.
Quite to the contrary, the Gators have received five new commitments, with at least one more rumored to be ready to go public any day, any minute. What’s more, two of the new pledges appear to have improved our chances of landing additional high priority targets. And one of those four new commits is even getting a jump on next year, as he is a class of 2015 enrollee. That number is rather impressive considering that Cook actually de-committed only ten days prior. And all this on the heels of landing the pledges of four outstanding prospects since the end of the dreadful 2013 season. And riding this wave of Gator momentum was the announcement that Florida had hired Mike Summers as the new OL coach, a guy with over 30 years of coaching experience, almost half of which was as a coordinator, great familiarity with southern football and recruiting with three stints at current SEC schools plus Louisville, and familiarity with the staff, having worked with Joker Phillips. And of course both of these recruiting hauls spikes bookended the announcement of Kurt Roper as new offensive coordinator (after which he treated the nation to a preview of the future Gator offense, scoring six touchdowns in its six possessions – forgetting that the refs missed the last one – with Duke athletes going against one of the kingpins of the SEC).
Ever since news broke many weeks ago that Cook was likely to flip commitments, there have been echoed undertones that the Gator program is kaput after a 4-win season. But this sort of recruiting explosion simply does not happen to programs that are on their way out. Historically it has been quite the opposite. So we’ve got that going for us. Which is good.
Backed in a Corner?
Having just added 5-star cornerback Jalen Tabor to the Gator commitment list, and a possible second highly touted corner picking his spot to commit, Gator Nation consternation turned to a possible defection from the corner spot, given the small crowd forming in the defensive backfield. And it was only a day before Chris Lammons rethought his options. He would have done well, however to consider the defensive scheme at Florida as well as the rotation philosophy that keeps the units fresh. Muschamp’s defense utilizes multiple corners in rotation of base, nickel and dime sets. And they cross-train at safety because there are always injuries or special situations where they have to cross-function.
And the rotation and fresh legs in the secondary will come much more into play with the resurgence of Auburn and annual Eastern opponent Missouri, both under the up-tempo spread offenses. Corners are going to be running all over the field, not just covering receivers but in run support from sideline to sideline in those constantly misdirecting offenses. They will need to have great cover skills to beat the Georgias and Florida States; solid strength to lend run support against power running machines like Alabama and LSU; great athleticism and versatility to handle dual threat offenses with waterbug athletes receiving or carrying the ball for Auburn and Missouri; Florida needs a big stable of outstanding athletes, and anyone considering a making or sticking with a pledge to play in the Gator backfield must embrace the concept of the greater good over the individual monopoly on playing time.
However, college prospects today unfortunately often look at depth charts as if they are going to be the starter for every play of every game of every season of their career. And they see multiple signees for a single position as a zero sum game. Hopefully the Florida coaches will convey that info and also the fact that you don’t have to start every college game to have a long NFL career. UF has had multiple DBs dating back even before Jimmy Spencer, all of whom either shared starting duties or never started at all and they went on to have very good, sustained NFL careers.
For Lammons, it was probably a combination of that and the fact that the newly-committed Tabor is as elite a prospect as they come (as is Adoree Jackson, of whom Florida is in hot pursuit, as Buford T Justice would put it), and it would have been an uphill battle to get the kind of playing time he is looking for.
Flipper’s Swap Meet
As Coach Muschamp continues to earn his nickname “Flipper” for flipping players to Florida who were previously committed to other schools, this year we may need to start calling him Swap Meet Willie. Because there are a number of trades going on as signing day approaches. While losing an excellent prospect like Chris Lammons is regrettable, it was a direct result of garnering Tabor’s pledge. The Gators traded up. Likewise, losing a talent like Dalvin Cook is never a good thing, but he was almost immediately replaced by Brandon Powell, a running back who could be his equal in terms of production in the new Gator offensive scheme. As many Gators are scoffing at the suggestion that this is anywhere close to an even trade, they are also scoffing at the suggestion that Florida could make an even trade for the departed Ermon Lane by adding Isaiah McKenzie. But the notion is not that far-fetched.
First off, Cook and Powell were both 2-year all-state first team members in two of the three biggest divisions in Florida, and Powell was the Broward 6A-7A-8A player of the year. And while Powell did not play in the game, as I mentioned in a recent column, Cook looked to me like the 4th-best running back in the Under Armour game last week. At wide receiver, the notion of an equitable trade is even more convincing. Isaiah McKenzie was a first team all-state this year while Ermon Lane was just a third team all-state honoree. McKenzie has not committed to any school, but he declined to commit to Notre Dame this week and Florida appears to be in the driver’s seat. And while we are comparing wide receiver swaps, if Lane follows Cook to FSU like a good little pet, the Gators and FSU will have made a straight trade at the position, since the Gators flipped former FSU commit Ryan Sousa in early December. He was also a first team all-state this year, so UF essentially traded FSU a class 7A first teamer for a class 6A third teamer.
I don’t know about you, but if someone is offering me Tabor for Lammons, I make that trade. If someone put McKenzie and Eric Lauderdale on the table in exchange for Ermon Lane, they’ve got a deal. And if I can get Powell and a second back from the group of Derrell Scott, Jeff Jones and Myles Autry, I am making that swap every day of the week and twice on Sunday. And as much as I do not want to lose JC Jackson, if we replace him with Adoree Jackson, it’s difficult to get too upset. Sometimes there is a bit too much made of the mantra of signing kids who deeply want to be Gators, but this year there is perhaps even more truth to it. One thing this program sincerely needs after the last four years of coaching staff and locker room discord is a big dose of harmony and unity. And although they are great players, Florida can probably stand to do without the follower mentality and rumored disciplinary issues of Lane and the ubiquitous narcissism of Cook.
Speaking of the No Fun League, Ronald Powell’s decision to test the NFL a year early was certainly disappointing but should come as no surprise. True that he has not had the career and did not have the year last season that one usually would need to propel them into the draft. But history shows that this is not necessary to get drafted, and in fact getting drafted is not necessary for making an NFL team and earning significant playing time. Just ask Will Hill, the undrafted former Gator who really only had one memorable play as a Gator, between his two substance abuse suspensions and an arrest for outstanding child support, has been able to fit in an NFL career with the New York Giants. Just imagine what a guy with character like RoPo could do.
But despite the long odds, his departure should not come as a shock. Besides his two serious injuries, Powell is a member of the Gators’ class of 2010. That class, Meyer’s last official, has gotten a really bum deal in their 4 years, going into #5. Lied to by Meyer to get them to come go Gainesville after his first retirement. Had to endure the internal coaching feuds at the beginning of their career and then another at the back end with a different staff, as well as a near player revolt amidst the turmoil. A laundromat dryer churn of head coaches, coordinators and position coaches. Given a one-year whetting of their appetite with an 11-win season in 2012 and a close brush with Atlanta and the BCS title game just out of reach…and then 24 injured starters and the 2013 complete debacle. By far the worst Gator season in their lifetime. Nobody can question any of this class who choose to leave early. They have certainly put in their time.
Now, About These Transfers…
Beginning with the offseason that saw Steve Spurrier hit Gainesville as the Old Ball Coach in late 1989, there have been 25 winters of transfers leaving the University of Florida football program. My assignment, and I chose to accept it, was to put some historical context to the (seemingly) outrageous number of transfers the program experienced at the end of this year. The modern age of Gator football splits into four coaching eras, and they lend nicely to comparison and benchmarking.
Let’s begin with Spurrier. He was seen as such a transformational coach coming in, that it should come as no surprise to learn (or recall) that the program suffered minimal transfers during and directly after his hiring. Significantly fewer, as we shall see, than the attrition experienced by coaches that followed him when they went through their regime transitions. His first season 1990, there were just five transfers, followed by two years of just four per year. That number increased through the rest of the ‘90s, as would be expected. The Florida program experienced a meteoric rise and began attracting a higher percentage of elite players looking for immediate playing time and expecting to start. With only 22 starting positions and 85 scholarships, there are disappointments. And this was the decade when the player entitlement attitudes began to emerge.
Still, Spurrier’s tenure saw a remarkably steady and stable attrition rate. Over his first eleven years, the Gators lost between four and six players per year to transfers, which for the purposes of this discussion includes elective transfers, dismissals or players deciding to quit the game. I am not counting careers that were ended by health issues or careers that never started because of failure to qualify for enrollment. After his final year 2001, there was a single spike to ten transfers. But this was also predictable. A legend was departing just a year after signing a huge 31-member signing class that was ranked #1 in the nation and came to Gainesville to play for Steve Spurrier, and the new coach famously set off red flags across Gator Nation and the program before he even began his introductory presser. Despite the big final year of “unnatural attrition”, Spurrier averaged 5.4 departures per year. Zook lasted only three years, and he presided over a marked increase in average transfers. But it was a very inconsistent stretch, with totals of 6, 3 and 11, respectively, for an average of 6.7 transfers per year.
Enter Urban Meyer. Whereas Spurrier never had a year with more than six transfers over his first eleven years, Meyer never had a year with fewer than six – and only had one year with that few. A number of factors contributed, beginning with Urban’s philosophy of taking some pretty big character risks – big in percentage of a class and big in individual magnitude. He also upgraded the proportion of elite prospects who frequently bail on a school as soon as it appears they are not going to be an immediate star. His year with six transfers fell right in the middle of his tenure, bookended by two years with seven transfers, and further bracketed by three seasons with nine apiece. In all, Meyer averaged over 7.8 transfers per year.
Which brings us to Muschamp and the perceived unnatural and overwhelming volume of transfers experienced in 2013. A total of seven players left the program this year, and although it seemed like a large number for several reasons mentioned earlier, it was almost a full player less than the average Urban Meyer pushed out of the program over six years. Overall, Muschamp has a gaudy average of 8 transfers per year, but only because of the mass exodus in 2011, his first season as head coach. That year 15 players voluntarily left or were dismissed from the program. This number is as much to do with Urban Meyer losing control of the program, which cultivated a ‘lunatics running the asylum’ atmosphere which drove many to reject and refuse the new standards of discipline set down by Muschamp. After that initial purging of the program – which by the way is what is responsible for the probation-like depth issues that Muschamp has been battling ever since – Muschamp has only lost on average 5.7 players per year to transfer, just a shade more than Spurrier’s exemplary mark of 5.4.
So when you look at the numbers, it seems clear that the panic over the perception that Muschamp is a player-antagonizing ogre that is bent on driving more kids out of the program than he can recruit into it each year, is not supported in the data. After the 15 players who fled in the Urban Meyer dumpster fire jet wash, Muschamp’s Gators have experienced mild to average attrition, and nothing more. And the seven who departed in 2013 was no outlier at all in the last 14 years. Over that time, eight other years had seen more transfers, and Urban Meyer’s tenure alone only had a single year with fewer.
What Was the Theme Again?
To address the title of this column at long last, as I am always wont to bury the lead: what was the genesis of the exodus? Specifically the exodus of the seven now former Gators in 2013. It was not, as theorized by many disgruntled fans, a rush to evacuate the Florida program because of a fire and brimstone culture of hell that Coach Muschamp had brought down upon the team. It was rather an effort nudge out about half a dozen players to whom it was likely explained in no uncertain terms that they would probably never be good enough to earn significant playing time for the remainder of their careers, barring a rash of injuries at their positions. The remaining transfer, Tyler Murphy, was not nudged out, but to the contrary was urged to stay. However he explained his reasons for transferring to the media weeks ago. Teams of experts are still working on the subtext of those interviews to determine what those reasons were. Luckily the Twittesphere, keeping with its long history of clarity and purpose, gave us all the concrete answers we could hope for.
As we eagerly await each day’s new gift of a fresh face on the recruiting radar or a new commitment from an elite national prospect, this anticipation was made possible by those seven transfers. Because without them, this class quite likely would already be full. Instead, the staff is adding players with potentially sky-high ceilings and ability to elevate the program back to championship status, in the place of departing players who just as likely would never see the field again or even for the first time.
Tell Swap Meet Willie: that’s a trade I’ll take.