The Florida Gators continue to reap the benefits of a national championship with a recruiting class that has a chance to rank among the all-time greats, but in the beginning there was only one that caught the vision and it was long before the Gators won in Glendale. Orlando Jones defensive end Jay Howard got the ball rolling back in the spring and he still has the Gators close to his heart.
When the recruiting process began, everything was rosy for Howard. He was Florida’s first commit and for a long time, he gave every indication that he was content with his commitment to the Gators. When the fall rolled around and one big school after another came calling Howard was enticed to take some official visits.
At this point, Gator fans started having their doubts, thinking he was in the first steps of wavering on his Florida commitment. The fact that his dad is a Florida State grad and the Seminoles were prominent among the callers didn’t lend itself to warm and fuzzy feelings by Gator fans. Yet, despite the doubts by others, Howard has always maintained he was committed to Florida although keeping his options to look open.
Howard was in Gainesville for most of Florida’s home games in the national championship season. He’s never lost the connection to the Florida staff and he’s maintained communication with them.
Howard is aware that he plays a position that is a huge need at Florida. The Gators lost four senior defensive linemen to graduation and one underclassman to the NFL draft, so the 6-5, 240-pounder knows that a freshman can come in and compete for playing time immediately.
Even though the Gators have earned commitments from several more highly ranked recruits on the defensive line, Howard isn’t the least bit concerned. To put it mildly, Howard knows he can compete against the best of them.
“Some people think I may be scared of the competition, but I know I can play against anyone,” Howard said Thursday night. “I am still committed to Florida, no doubt. I am 95 percent Gator and coming down the home stretch.”
The Gators have never wavered on what they told Howard and recent talks with Coach Urban Meyer certainly only strengthened his thoughts on the matter.
“Coach Meyer was at my basketball game the other day,” Howard said. “He told me he knew I could come in and help the team early. I am trying to be a starter by the Tennessee game that is what I want. I am competing against freshmen … the best freshman wins.”
Howard will come in at the Fox (rush end) position and compete there with the vacancy of 2006 starter Jarvis Moss. Howard feels like he has the tools to duplicate the success of the future high NFL draft pick.
“(Coach Meyer) thinks I will fit the role of Jarvis Moss because I play basketball and they really like that from their defensive ends,” Howard said. “They also like that I can drop back in coverage. I am also working on special teams and blocking kicks.”
A big time basketball player too and a member of the defending state champions at Jones High School, Howard remains extremely busy. It isn’t just the practice time, but he still takes phone calls from three other schools that would love for him to sign an LOI to play for them. Auburn, Florida State and Rutgers are still pursuing the sack specialist.
The Noles aren’t being shy about their tactics. They are telling him he can play right away, despite the depth already on the roster.
“Florida State is telling me they are weak at the position and Florida is stacked and (the Gators) don’t need my help,” Howard said. “They say I can come and help them out this year.”
Auburn is doing much of the same.
“At Auburn my host was Quentin Groves,” he said. “He was telling me I could come in and be a starter because they are losing two seniors. He says I can come in and help the Tigers bounce back.”
Rutgers uses the “we are building something new and we don’t have athletes like you here” strategy. But, Howard stays in tune with them mainly because he likes the head coach.
“Coach (Greg) Schiano is a down to earth guy,” Howard said. “I love what he is doing with the program. I really am not a Big East fan, but the reason I am considering them is they run the same system as we did in high school. There is no doubt I can go there and get on the field the first year.”
Down to the wire, the Gators are looking to land a few more quality players at receiver and in the back seven on defense. In the meantime, they would like to close that last five percent chance that Howard could land somewhere else. Unless the other schools win a national championship in the next week and lose a bevy of defensive ends, I see the Gators closing the remaining gap.