At this time of year when the Gator staff is flipping committed players seemingly left and right, while having some of their own commitments flopped to the competition, I thought it would be a good time to stroll through Gator history and select the top five players that were flipped to the Gators and the top five who have flopped out of their grasp. To begin, the top five flips.
5. Matt Elam (2010 FSU): This is the most recent flip to complete his Gator career, declaring for an early NFL entry after the 2012 season. As such, his story is no doubt fresh in the minds of most fans. But it was such a huge flip that it bears reviewing. It was a flip that came with some discomfort with Gator fans because it was discovered a year later that the promises sold to him by the head Gator were empty ones that he never intended to fulfill. But if Matt Elam is grateful for his flip and has no regrets, then I suppose fans should be at peace with it as well. Even if not, I am sure the guilt over the misleading sales pitch would be easily assuaged by looking back on the great career of one Matthew D. Elam. The “D” is for defense.
The 2009 season was a roller coaster ride for Florida fans. Fresh off a 2008 national title, they had visions of a repeat that would enshrine Tim Tebow in the halls of college football lore as possibly the greatest to ever play the game. The fun park ride started when Tebow was knocked out of the box early in the year by a concussion received courtesy of a teammate’s kneecap. After an off-week of wild rumors and speculation, Tebow started and finished the next game in spooky Baton Rouge, being utilized very carefully in the game plan to keep from breaking his fragile noggin. Luckily the only thing broken that night was LSU’s years-long home night game winning streak, however a season of angst and worry lay in wait as Tebow and the offense were inconsistent and just enough off their game each week to keep fans guessing and fretting. Then came the dreadful SEC title game. Game week proved that the Gators had mentally clocked out after their merciless home drubbing of hapless FSU, as news broke of a team-wide keg party that rivaled The Hangover movie franchise, the movies where the partying is so intense that the participants awake the next day with no recollection of the previous night’s events. Only it was star defensive end Carlos Dunlap’s drunk driving arrest the early morning after the debauchery that Gator Nation wanted to forget, but couldn’t. Dunlap was suspended for the title game and the ugliness of the events was punctuated by the fact that a couple of assistants knew in advance about the party and were even complicit in it without informing the head coach. What followed was a dreadful week of hung over game prep that rivaled the 1990-91 Sugar Bowl game week when the Gators spent more time on Bourbon Street than in game prep. The Gators made themselves easy punching bags for the stout but otherwise decidedly less talented Tide, who had been laser-focused on this rematch of the 2008 SEC title game for the last 365 days straight.
Following the game, head coach Urban Meyer was famously admitted to the cast of “Grey’s Anatomy” where he suffered a heart attack, esophageal spasms, negative vibes and a bad case of the Mondays. The incident was kept secret until the day after Christmas, when Meyer gave Gator Nation a giant lump of coal in their stocking by announcing that he was stepping down as Florida’s head coach and taking his talents to his living room recliner. At some point over the next 24 hours, it was explained to him by Jeremy Foley that quitting his job did not in point of fact give him the power to hand-select his offensive coordinator as his successor. By complete coincidence, that next day Urban reflected thoughtfully on his players’ bond and his love for Florida and announced that he was un-retiring and simply taking a brief leave of absence.
While this news did not send tectonic shock waves through the recruiting world, it did have a big effect on Matt Elam. He had been rethinking his decision to join the Gators in no small part because his good friend and FSU commitment linebacker Jeff Luc was in his ear every day to jump ship and join him in Tallahassee. Luc was rated by many as the best linebacker in the nation and Elam was rated by most as the best player in Florida and the two wanted to play on the same defense in college, taking most of their official visits together. But FSU was going through some coaching transition as well, with Bobby Bowden stepping down after their bowl game and Jimbo Fisher officially taking over the head coaching job that he had been unofficially performing for the previous three years. And it was well known that he was going to soon be cleaning house of some Bowden holdovers on staff with whom he had fought over numerous issues since being brought on as the head coach in waiting. Luc ultimately convinced Elam that FSU was the place to be and the recruitment took a new bizarre turn becoming the first and only time I can remember when an official commitment announcement (in this case, a flip) was made by another recruit. Luc announced Elam’s flip after Elam texted him his intentions. And he did so in the form of telling all his fellow Under Armour All-Americans at the team luncheon preceding that all-star game. It was the lone negative impact felt by the Gators on the all-star game circuit as Florida received multiple on-air commitments and had the most committed players in the UA and Army All-American games, making big plays all over the field. It was the year that Gator commits made up such a large portion of the UA defensive backfield that they called it the Gator No-Fly zone. But their biggest defensive back commitment of all was instead playing in the Army All-American game a week and a half later, and would be doing so as a Florida State commitment.
Elam flopped to the bad guys on New Year’s Eve. Seven days later, Urban Meyer had convinced him that his coaching future at Florida was fully intact, that he was going nowhere and that Elam had him as his coach and mentor for as long as he chose to stay at Florida. He de-committed from FSU on the seventh and listed Florida as his new leader and FSU a distant third behind even Georgia. Clearly something Urban Meyer sold him about FSU struck a nerve and Elam announced that he would be doing an on-air hat ceremony during the Army All-American game. Elam, who almost flopped from Florida to both Tennessee and West Virginia (where former Gator DB coach Doc Holliday had him close to committing before bolting the Mountaineers for the head coaching job at Marshall). But that is what sometimes happens when a kid commits in his junior year and then gets caught up in all the hoopla as a senior. And unlike the rest of the 2010 signing class, Elam had good reason to doubt Urban’s claims that he would be there for his entire career. Urban recruited Matt’s brother Abram to Notre Dame back in 2000, where he heard the same promises that Urban would be around his entire career. Urban left the very next year for the head coaching spot at Bowling Green. But sincerity’s loss was the Gators’ gain, as Matt became one of the most successful defensive backs in Florida history. He led the powerful Gator defense that was one of the few bright spots in the bumpy transition years between Meyer and Will Muschamp. Elam anchored and was the clear leader of the stalwart 2012 defense that was arguably the best in the nation and one of the finest in Gator history. He also made what was possibly the biggest play of that season, ripping a fumble out of the hands of an LSU receiver who had just caught a deep bomb that looked and felt at that instant to turn that ultra-tight game in the Tigers’ favor. The Gators recovered and went on to score a decisive touchdown to win the game, give Muschamp one of his first signature wins as a head coach and propel the Gator season to an 11-win campaign against the toughest schedule in the nation.
4. Jevon Kearse (1995 Notre Dame): Jevon Kearse originally committed to Notre Dame. Lured by the storied history and legendary head coach Lou Holtz, he wanted to play in the shadow of the golden dome and Touchdown Jesus. But the longer he dwelled on the thoughts of freezing his rump off four or five months a year, the more he leaned back to joining his cousin and rising senior Johnny Church in the warm, sunny climes of Gainesville. We recruitniks often talk of how the warm weather is going to do our coaches’ work for them and keep a blue chipper in the Florida sunshine and out of the tundra in South Bend, Columbus or Ann Arbor, but this is one of those rare times where it actually did. This was also one of those years when Florida lost a coveted player to a flop and picked up another at the same position, as safety Benny Guilbeaux had told Spurrier he was going to be a Gator just days before flipping to Notre Dame. That flip was followed just hours later with Kearse’s flip from the Irish. While Guilbeaux had a nice career at Notre Dame and stayed a safety, Kearse had a Hall of Fame type career at Florida, growing almost immediately out of his safety frame into an outside linebacker and then defensive end, the position where he went on to become the best in the NFL for a spell. Garnering honors for SEC All-Freshman, first team All-SEC (twice), first team All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Kearse was selected with the 16th pick of the NFL’s first round in 1999 by the Tennessee Titans, where he was a three-time Pro Bowler after being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and AFC Defensive Player of the Year, leading the AFC in sacks as a rookie (and second in the NFL behind another Gator alumn, Kevin Carter).
3. Reggie McGrew (1995 FSU): The Parade All-American defensive tackle from nearby Mayo was the crown jewel of the 1995 Florida State recruiting class. They had edged out the Gators in a fiercely tight decision by Mister McGrew. A little less than two weeks before signing day, Reggie finally made up his mind to don the ketchup and mustard. But as the signing day moment of truth approached, McGrew began to get those Florida feelings again and doubt his decision. In the final 48 hours before signing day, he had made himself physically ill with stress to the point where he was throwing up on the eve of the big day, wrestling with the decision to flip to Florida. But all of this was transparent to the coaches at Florida and FSU. Spurrier was the kind of coach who usually stopped directly recruiting a kid if they committed somewhere else. And this was more the benchmark behavior back then. Not like the modern days of going after multiple committed players with a vengeance. For all the coaches and the media knew, McGrew was signed, sealed and delivered to Tallahassee. Signing day dawned and 7:00 a.m. came and went and no Letter-of-Intent for Reggie McGrew. Ten o’clock passed. The noon update from the FSU football offices went out with no mauler from Mayo. As the afternoon approached, phones started ringing and rumors started flying that he was thinking about flipping. That evening, his father had a man-to-man talk with him about being a stand up guy and honoring his promises. But it was also a heart-to-heart and in the end he told him to go where his heart led him. He slept on it and on Thursday, he called Spurrier and told him his heart led him to Gainesville. He signed his LOI the next morning and the Florida class of 1995 was complete.
The flip was huge because of the great talent and the pressing need at his position (as well as denying FSU of his services), but it was almost as memorable for the exclamation point it put on the class. It was a class that went into the final weekend as a highly-rated group but exploded to the top of the national rankings in the final three days. The grand finish started Monday night when Parade All-American corner Damian Hill from legendary national powerhouse Dallas Carter popped for Florida. He was legitimately compared to Deion Sanders and was the best defensive back in the nation. Texas was a rare pull for the Gators, and so was Louisiana, but the next evening River Ridge’s Parade All-American defensive tackle Ernie Badeaux pulled the trigger for Florida. So did Jevon Kearse and National Bluechip Recruiting’s number one rated guard in the nation Cheston Blackshear from the more local recruiting hotbed of Jacksonville, where he was the Offensive Player-of-the-Year, unheard of for an offensive lineman. While Blackshear became a starter and earned second-team All-SEC and a Fergie Ferguson Award as a senior, Hill and Badeaux were dismissed from the team before either were able to finish their second cup of coffee. Kearse’s exploits have been covered above. But the last was far from least. McGrew went on to be a big star for the Gators, earning SEC All-Freshman honors while anchoring the national championship winning defensive line as a redshirt freshman in 1996. He was first-team All-SEC in 1998, his final year as a Gator before being selected as the 24th selection of the NFL’s first round.
2. Fred Taylor/Riedel Anthony (1994 FSU): These two have to be counted together as a package deal. Because that’s what they were considered coming out of high school. At least that’s what everyone said – the media, the fans, the self-anointed recruiting gurus. Fred Taylor was the once-in-a-decade running back from the Muck at Glades Central, and Riedel Anthony was his skinny drip pal who the powerhouse run-oriented Raiders threw the ball to every now and then. The only part of that meme that was true was that they were good friends. They took visits together and wanted to attend the same college on football scholarships. But their roles would not remain the same for very long.
It was easy to see what gave rise to the package deal perception. Taylor hadn’t even played running back until his junior year – he had been a linebacker to that point – but when all-county star Gilbert Grantlin graduated, head coach Rich Casko gave Fred a shot and he never looked back. A power back with sprinter’s speed, he averaged over ten yards a carry for his career and finished his senior year with nearly 1,800 yards despite missing two games with injury (a theme that would follow him throughout his college and pro careers) and sitting out the entire second half of five blowouts. Being both new to the experience of being the center of attention, and doing so much to gain that attention, Fred would sometimes look into the crowd, pick out his family or friends and wave to them as he raced down the field for another long touchdown run. Reidel Anthony, on the other hand, caught just two dozen passes as a senior, accounting for four touchdowns. In two years, Taylor scored 40 times.
Glades Central was a recruiting hotbed at the time – a few years later in 2001 the school would stand alone as producing the most current NFL players – and it was a fierce battleground between Florida and FSU for rule of the school. Both wanted to establish a pipeline to this fertile bounty of talent. The school’s offensive coordinators, Spurrier and Mark Richt, recruited the school hard, especially for its rich stocks of offensive skill talent. As the lore goes, players from the Muck (Belle Glade and Pahokee) were almost programmed for speed and agility as they ran all year in practice for the annual burning of the sugar cane fields. When the cane burns, all the rabbits that call the fields home flee from the flames, darting left and right at eye-blink speed and the kids all chase them down and try to catch as many as they can. Taylor and Anthony had such speed and knew how to use it on the football field.
In the fall of 1993, Spurrier had built Florida into an SEC dynasty in the making. His fourth year saw the Gators win their third conference title in four years, after never winning an official crown in its history. But Florida State was playing at another level at the time. They had signed one of the strongest recruiting classes in the history of the sport in February ’93 and finally matched their recruiting titles with their first national title on the field … just a few weeks before National Signing Day. The lure of playing for national titles led both Taylor and Anthony to give their pledges to FSU. But as signing day drew closer and closer, those old Florida dreams fought their way back into their minds. Despite their plans to sign with Florida State, Spurrier had convinced both of them to take an official visit to Gainesville the weekend before NSD. Mark Richt spoke with them that Thursday and they confirmed their commitment to FSU, but they also confirmed they would be taking their visit to UF. At Bowden’s behest, Richt played hard ball and it is said that the threat to pull their scholarship offers was bandied about if they took that last visit. Whether that part of the conversation took place or not, the package deal made the drive to the Florida campus the next day. That Monday, two days before singing day, they announced they would be playing ball for Spurrier.
Taylor grew up a Gator fan, but he picked Florida because of the early playing time afforded by the departure of four-year star Errict Rhett. Anthony on the other hand was entering a situation where playing time was anything but guaranteed. All-everything receiver Chris Doering returned to lead the receivers and Anthony’s signing class of 1994 included five other receivers – Jamie Richardson, Nafis Karim, Ike Hilliard, Jaquez Green and Travis McGriff – four of whom were higher rated than he was. Whenever Spurrier would see media talking to the soft-spoken Anthony in the preseason, he would always throw his wise-cracking, squawking voice over to the group, telling them that they had the wrong guy; that Fred Taylor was somewhere else. After Anthony had a huge day in his first intrasquad scrimmage, including grabbing two long touchdown bombs, the reporters started spending more time around Anthony than Taylor. He went on to star for the Gators for three years, capping his career in the national championship year of 1996, leading the SEC with nearly 1,300 yards receiving, 18 yards per catch on his career, and broke former teammate Chris Doering’s SEC record for touchdowns in a season with 18 (a record that still stands today). He and fellow first-team All-American Hilliard were one of the best receiver duos to ever play the game, and he was the 16th pick in the first round of the NFL draft by nearby Tampa Bay, where he played for five seasons. Taylor meanwhile stayed for his senior year, mostly because of the injury bug that created question about his durability. He finally proved he could last a full season, racking up nearly 1,300 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns en route to All-American honors. Also chosen by a Florida team (Jacksonville) as the ninth pick of the draft, Fred’s NFL career was a tad more successful that Reidel’s, distinguished as an All-Pro in his 13-year career. Despite seldom playing a full season due to recurring injuries, Taylor finished his career with 11,695 yards, good for the 15th-most rushing yards in NFL history, just behind Thurman Thomas and just ahead of John Riggins. Only the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmit Smith has more NFL yards by a Gator. Both Anthony and Taylor were “package deals” as members of the Florida–Georgia Hall of Fame and the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, as well as the Gainesville Sun’s list of top 100 Gators from the first 100 seasons of Florida football.
1. Lawrence Wright (1992 Miami): After starring for North Miami High School, safety Lawrence Wright decided to play his college ball close to home, signing a letter of intent with the University of Miami. However he failed to qualify academically and enrolled in prep school at Valley Forge Military Academy. A self-described borderline kid, Wright was helped back from the edge in high school by a school counselor who identified and helped him overcome reading impairment similar to dyslexia, and his head coach, former Dolphins linebacker Larry Ball, who drove it home that he would not play on the team or succeed in life if he didn’t attend to his academics. Though he raised his GPA high enough to make the cut as a senior, he came up just 10 points shy on his SAT. In his year at Valley Forge, he prepared and retook the test and achieved the 700 score required.
It would have made exciting recruiting theater if given a second chance, young upstart Steve Spurrier was able to out-recruit Dennis Erickson – fresh off winning the 1991 national title – for Wright’s services. However there was a much different script at work here. Part of the education Wright received at Valley Forge was in better researching his college options. His dream growing up was to one day earn a degree so that he could build a recreation facility in his impoverished Liberty City neighborhood in Miami. Through his focused research during his year at prep school, Wright learned that the University of Florida had the top-ranked building construction school in the nation. A lot of top college prospects cite academics as a deciding factor in choosing a school, but this was an example of it actually being true. And in the end, the difference between attending Miami and attending Florida was 10 meager points on the SAT.
Ironically, this star player who could not qualify academically for Division I directly out of high school, was a CFA Scholar-Athlete and made the SEC Academic Honor Roll four consecutive years. Wright was inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame in 2009. An SEC All-Freshman, two-time All-SEC first teamer, third-team All-American, and winner of the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as a senior, Wright was part of the class that won four-straight SEC championships – the only team ever to do so outside of Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad – and won Florida’s first national title in 1996. The photo of Wright raised above the team in the New Orleans Super Dome, pointing and shouting the gospel at his teammates before that national title game is an iconic piece of Gator history. And iconic pieces of Gator history are saturated with images of Lawrence Wright. His serpentine interception return in the 1993-94 Sugar Bowl against West Virginia – the 52-yard pick-six that covered nearly 200 yards sideline-to-sideline-back-to-sideline-again – to give Florida the lead for good was one of the classic plays in the history of the storied Sugar Bowl. But perhaps the most iconic Gator moment – the play that Wright is most remembered for – is known simply as “When Joey Met Lawrence.” Anyone who has not seen the 1995 hit on Tennessee’s Joey Kent, I invite you to YouTube it and try to guess what world Mr. Kent woke up in after that collision.
And that neighborhood recreation facility in Liberty City? Wright built it. From a trouble-making academic fence-rider who was once expelled for nearly starting a riot, Wright has become one of the most renowned graduates of the elite UF building construction program. And some folks remember L-Dog for a little poetry, too. “If you ain’t a Gator, you must be Gator Bait!”