EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series taking an inside look at how the Florida Gators’ Class of 2012 came together. Today we talk about offense. Up next: Defense.
As Gator Country does every year after National Signing Day, here is a look back at some of the storylines that were “behind the scenes” as it relates to how the Class of 2012 came together for the University of Florida over the previous twelve months.
We’ll start with an in-depth look at the offensive side of the football …
Quarterback – From the outset, it was clear Florida wanted a quarterback in the Class of 2012, although there were two major factors working against the Gators. For one, UF had signed two blue-chip prospects in the previous cycle, which was going to be a deterrent to big-time players at the position in this go-around. Secondly, this was clearly a down year for quarterbacks across the country. Just take a look back at the all-star games last month – not a whole lot to write home about as it related to the performances behind center.
With all of that said, former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was still calling the shots in Gainesville. Of course, he had plenty of success recruiting the quarterback position in South Bend. He landed Dayne Crist to Notre Dame a year after signing the much-heralded Jimmy Clausen, so it was assumed that he would be able to get a good one for the Gators, despite the presence of Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel on the roster. Of course, that turned out not to be the case.
Weis naturally has plenty of ties to the state of Indiana, so it came as no surprise that Gunner Kiel was one of the first players to land an offer from the former Florida offensive coordinator. The U.S. Army All-American never showed much interest in the Gators, and UF subsequently moved on to other names. Jameis Winston and Cyler Miles were next in line. Like Kiel, Winston showed little interest in Florida. However, Miles took a serious look at UF. He had the Gators in his list of finalists before selecting Washington in early June. Even after that, Miles made a quiet visit to Florida for the Alabama game but from that point on, UF ceased to be a major factor in his recruitment.
Following the departure of Weis, Florida continued to send out feelers to various signal-callers, including Dade City (Fla.) Pasco prospect Jacob Guy. However, it wasn’t until new offensive coordinator Brent Pease was hired that the Gators really started to make their move at QB. Within a week, UF had set their sights on two players – Skyler Mornhinweg (6-3, 190, Philadelphia, Pa./St. Joseph’s Prep) and Paxton Lynch (6-5, 225, DeLand, Fla./Trinity Christian Academy). Mornhinweg was the more athletic of the pair – having played some defensive back in high school. As the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, he could also claim some impressive bloodlines as well. Pease met with both quarterbacks, along with Guy, during in the two weeks that followed his assumption of duties in Gainesville on Jan. 13. Mornhinweg was always the top target, however, and brought the process to an end by giving his pledge to Florida on Jan. 27. Lynch, meanwhile, would end up at Memphis.
In all, this worked right according to plan for Florida. The Gators landed a much-needed body at the quarterback position. Mornhinweg is a talented player who certainly has some potential – but he also won’t scare off any potential blue-chippers who are taking a look at UF for the Class of 2013. Pease needs to land a big-time talent in the next recruiting cycle, and with a deep crop nationally at the position, should be in a position to do just that.
Running back – Before the depature of Urban Meyer, Seffner (Fla.) Armwood back Matt Jones had almost no interest in Florida. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound back was not interested in playing in a spread offense, and instead was seriously considering Georgia and South Carolina, among others, before the hire of Will Muschamp.
It took one afternoon – during a Junior Day event on Feb. 12 of last year – for Jones to be convinced that UF was the place for him. Three days later, he brought the recruiting process to a abrupt and screeching halt when he announced he would be heading to Gainesville for college during a press conference at Armwood High School.
Over the coming months, Jones would go on to be one of Florida’s top recruiters, helping the Gators land fellow a pair of fellow Tampa-area prospects in Dante Fowler of St. Petersburg Lakewood and Kent Taylor of Land O’Lakes. Certainly, Jones brings a much-needed presence at the running back position for Florida, and will likely have a shot at earning early playing time from the moment he arrives on campus.
The other part of the equation for Florida at the running back position was supposed to be Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson prospect Mike Davis. The U.S. Army All-American committed to the Gators just a week after Jones, and figured to give Florida a perfect one-two punch at the position moving forward.
Sometimes, however, things don’t work out the way they are supposed to. Shortly after attending the Florida-Florida State game, Davis soured on Florida, and dropped his pledge to the Gators on Dec. 4. What happened between the Gators and Davis has become the topic of numerous message board conversations across the internet. Clearly, Davis was not happy with the continued pursuit of five-star Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook prospect Keith Marshall, who had been a top target for the Gators for well over a year. Older brother James Davis, a member of the Detroit Lions and a collegiate star at Clemson was not in the Gators’ corner, either. All of this led to the rather surprising decision by Davis to move on from Florida and eventually sign at South Carolina, where he is expected to help shoulder the load with star back Marcus Lattimore coming off a knee injury that ended his 2011 season in November.
Interestingly enough, there were whispers behind the scenes that the Florida coaching staff felt the Davis situation could be salvaged once he had some time to cool off. However, UF spent a week trying to convince 5-foot-10, 200-pound back to reconsider his decision – to no avail, of course.
The Gators made inquiries into a number of players over the final weeks leading up to Feb. 1 – with Miami pledge Duke Johnson being targeted as one of the players Florida was most likely to make a serious run at. But in the end, UF elected to stick with just Jones in the fold for the Class of 2012. It’s an intriguing strategy – as Florida is clearly stacking the deck to bring in a strong group of backs for 2013 (Winter Haven junior Adam Lane became the first junior to pledge to Florida on Jan. 21). However, UF will now head into the fall with a rather thin depth chart at the running back position.
Wide receiver – Local product Latroy Pittman (6-1, 195, Citra, Fla./North Marion) was the first prospect to commit to the Gators for the Class of 2012, and was seemingly always headed to Florida. He first emerged on-the-radar as a prospect to really keep an eye on as a sophomore, and just kept improving from there. Pittman actually recorded six interceptions during his senior year at North Marion, and could just as soon star in the secondary in Gainesville as he could on offense. But with the need at receiver, he is clearly going to begin his career on offense for UF. Strong, tough and possessing good hands, Pittman should develop into a reliable threat for Florida who makes his living working between the numbers for the Gators. Pittman showed in Orlando that he is comfortable playing in the slot, and that should be the right fit for him when he begins spring practice with UF next month.
Although Tallahasee Lincoln product Raphael Andrades (6-0, 190) sort of snuck under the radar until National Signing Day, he was always in the mix and stayed on the board for Florida. He attended a junior day event at UF last year, and made a couple of other visits to Gainesville. Certainly, Andrades isn’t a name that will resonate with a lot of Florida fans, but he was an ultra-productive player (27 career receiving touchdowns at Lincoln – a school record) during his prep career, and his signing looks to already be paying dividends at a school that is loaded with talent for the future (see the early commitment of junior linebacker James Hearns for further evidence).
The Gators are still waiting on the decision from Army All-American Stefon Diggs (6-0, 185, Olney, Md./Good Counsel) before the wide receiver position is officially brought to a close. Diggs will make his decision public on Feb. 10 at 10 p.m. The announcement will be carried live on Comcast SportsNet Washington. Despite the loss of Charlie Weis, it has been the efforts of Florida running backs coach Brian White that have kept Florida firmly in the mix for the speedster out of Maryland. The presence of former Good Counsel standout Jelani Jenkins on the Florida roster has also helped out the Gators immensely over the course of the recruiting process for Diggs.
As for Nelson Agholor (6-1, 180, Tampa, Fla./Berkeley Prep), a lot of people have wondered “what went wrong” for the Gators in the pursuit of the talented athlete who ended up at Southern California. The loss of Charlie Weis certainly didn’t help matters, but there was always a good chance that Agholor would end up in Los Angeles. The academics of Southern Cal appealed to Agholor, as did the opportunity to live in on the left coast for the next 3-5 years. A good relationship between Monte Kiffin and Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao only helped matters a little bit more. Ultimately, while many observers remarked that the possibility of Florida landing prep teammate Schyler Miles (who signed with Kansas) could help UF with Agholor – I was told by someone with good insight into the process that it was actually Florida safety signee Marcus Maye who had a better bond with Agholor. Ultimately, as many speculated before Signing Day, no friend or teammate would have a whole lot of bearing on the decision of Agholor, as he decided to cut his own path towards the other side of the country.
Tight End – Three names were heavily involved in the mix at the tight end position for Florida in the Class of 2012. Colin Thompson (6-4, 255, Warminster, Pa./Archbishop Wood), Kent Taylor (6-5, 230, Land O’Lakes, Fla.) and Kurt Freitag (6-3, 240, Buford, Ga.). But this much was always clear – the Gators wanted two tight ends and got their top two targets in Thompson and Taylor.
Following his official visit to Florida in January, Thompson said he knew UF was the place for him after a trip to Gainesville last April. He committed early and was clearly the fact that Charlie Weis has always heavily involved the tight ends in his offense was a factor that helped seal the deal for the Gators. Still, even after Weis left, it was clear that Thompson wasn’t going anywhere, and he helped continue to keep things calm in the wake of Florida not having an offensive coordinator for over a month.
The Kent Taylor-Kurt Freitag dynamic was always an interesting one. Clearly, Florida preferred Taylor, but weren’t interested in striking out on both players. Taylor had Florida State and Penn State high on his list at one point, but the tight end has never been feature player in a Jimbo Fisher-run offense, and that caused the Seminoles to eventually fade (along with the commitment of Christo Kourtzidis). Family ties had Taylor intrigued by Penn State, but he wanted to stay closer to home – and like Thompson, the appeal of playing in a Weis-run offense was enough to sell Taylor on playing college football in Gainesville.
Really, the only other player on the board that factored into the mix was Sean Price (6-3, 235, Citra, Fla./North Marion) who was very much interested in going to Florida early on. However, following the Orange & Blue Debut last spring, he soured on the Gators, and never seemed much interested in considering UF from that point on.
The Gators got a pair of good ones in tackle D.J. Humphries (6-6, 270, Charlotte, N.C./Mallard Creek) and future guard Jessamen Dunker (6-4, 315, Boynton Beach, Fla.), who favored Florida early on and followed through with commitments to UF which they saw all the way through until both players enrolled at Florida in January.
To go along with Dunker, it looked like the Gators had a chance to own Palm Beach County up front, as both Pat Miller (6-7, 270, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) and Avery Young (6-5, 290, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.) appeared to favor UF early on. Early reports indicated that Young was the top offensive line prospect on the board for Florida – a fact that reportedly upset Miller. After a couple of spring visits to Gainesville, Miller started to look to LSU and Auburn as his top options. He would commit to LSU before eventually settling on Auburn, where he enrolled in January. Curiously enough, Young would eventually follow him to the Plains as well.
I was advised Auburn was the school that concerned UF the most in early January. Those fears were confirmed when Young announced for the Tigers on National Signing Day. Young always gave positive feedback to UF prospects as it related to how he felt about the Gators – indicating to Matt Jones during the Orange & Blue Debut as well as Jeremi Powell during an official visit to Florida in November that he was interested in verbally committing to Florida. However, he never did pull the trigger on that move, and subsequently decided to head elsewhere.
As for two of the other top in-state prospects on the board – Jacksonville Bolles tackle John Theus (Georgia) and Lakeland guard Evan Goodman (Arizona State) – those decisions were made early on when Florida decided to pass on their older brothers. Nathan Theus was signed by UGA in the Class of 2011 as a long snapper, while Arizona State elected to sign undersized interior lineman Devin Goodman as a center in the same cycle. Had Florida elected to take either player (and had every opportunity to do so), they would have been able to sign the more talented younger brother in each family as well. Call it a case of “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.”
There were plenty of other national names on the board – Kyle Murphy (Stanford), Andrus Peat (Stanford), Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame), Jordan Diamond (Auburn) and Vadal Alexander (LSU) – among them. Simply put, it was a weak year in the state of Florida along the offensive line, and the Gators couldn’t get a couple of the blue-chip out-of-state prospects to buy in. Although junior college prospect Fehoko Fanaika (6-6, 340, Sacramento, Calif./College of San Mateo) could help fill a crucial need along the offensive line if he signs late with UF, the Gators will clearly need to address a crucial need up front in the Class of 2013 after signing just six offensive linemen over the last three recruiting cycles.
*** One other note I wanted to add – I’ve been told by a reliable source that Florida coach Will Muschamp and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher currently have a “gentleman’s agreement” in regards to recruiting. If either coach gets wind of wrongdoing by a member of the other staff, they will get on the phone and hash out the issue man-to-man on the phone. It will be interesting to see how long that practice holds up, but for now that remains the case, so I’m told.