Gator fans have certainly had bigger weeks at this time of year before. Sugar Bowl wins, national title-clinching victories, landslide high school all-star game windfalls. But while this week did not approach those heights, it was a very exciting few days and certainly a fun and entertaining roller coaster ride. And despite the response you may receive from the average Gator fan, most of it was very good news for the Gators. But there was also some bad news as well that brought with it an absurd and undeserved amount of drama and hoopla. Let’s start with the bad news.
The Cook That Poisoned the Stew
I won’t spend too much time on this, since it has been covered more than Pearl Harbor and the last Royal wedding combined. And I made my feelings clear about the entire business (or should I say, “bidniss”). Unfortunately, the drama of Cook’s treachery will drag on all the way to national signing day because he has promised to try as hard as he can to flip Ermon Lane from Gator glory to the evil empire, and he will also be working blue chip Gator boy J.C. Jackson to do the same. Gator fans will hold their collective breath to see if the value of their word is worth a lot more than Cook’s word, and if Ermon’s relationship with Quincy Wilson and J.C.’s relationship with Duke Dawson are both stronger than their suddenly BFF relationship with Cook.
But despite this bad news and bad taste left in toothy Gator mouths all over the nation on New Year’s Day when Cook’s defection was broadcast from the Under Armour compound, the actual UA all-star game revealed some very positive results in terms of the whole Cook saga. Although Cook did have a couple nice runs and get a touchdown run from deep in the red zone on a very well-blocked play that even Steve Marriucci could have taken into the end zone, he did not shine in this showcase of the stars. He showed a little glimpse of why he is so highly regarded, but when put to the test of the tape, he appeared to be the fourth-best running back in the game. From my chair, it looked like the best three running backs, in no particular order, were Leonard Fournette, Jeff Jones and Bo Scarbrough. Every time I thought one of them was going to come out as the most impressive of the game, the other would come up with another impressive play. All three showed great versatility running and catching the ball, and running after the catch.
The reason this is so intriguing is not merely the natural schadenfreude that Cook acted as if he believed himself bigger and more important than the world with his behavior leading up to his defection from the UF class, and then wound up having a quiet day in the big game compared to those other three backs. It is because one of those three backs that performed better than Cook just happens to be making his third and final official visit of his recruitment to Gainesville on January 24th. That of course being Jeff Jones, the kid who got more positive mentions on ESPNU during the practice week than any other back. His only other two visits were to lowly Iowa State, which he has eliminated, and to almost as lowly Minnesota, the “home team” for the Minneapolis native and the school that holds his current commitment. Proximity to home is the only advantage UM has over UF in this battle, if you discount how late Florida got to him in the process – both of which could be deciding factors. But it bears consideration that he is well aware that Florida is an elite program with multiple recent national titles to its credit and Minnesota is little more than a rock at the bottom of the college football lake. And this week and this game was his coming out party to the nation. What’s more he was mixing all week with four Florida commitments and three more players whose college decisions will come down to cases with Florida in the final two….there were no other Golden Gopher commitments or targets at the UA camp this week.
And if Jones stays put, Gator fans should check out the highlight film for Derrell Scott, a highly touted uncommitted back from North Carolina and Army All-American Bowl nominee that just got a long-awaited offer from Florida this week.
So now on with the good news…
The month of December was sprinkled with great news and growing momentum on the recruiting trail. The announcement that Brent Pease and Tim Davis would be relinquishing their posts on the Gator offensive staff was probably bigger news in terms of momentum than the pending commitments. But those commitments were huge. Two offensive linemen, a wide receiver and an elite athlete that could work as a tight end-wide receiver hybrid. All positions of big need, and one of them a flipped FSU commit that could make the loss of Cook a wash in the long run. Time will tell if the high school rankings were good predictors of their relative strengths. This set the stage.
Even Jack Tripper Impressed
With apologies to the late, great John Ritter, there were a lot of people pulling a “Jack Tripper” the last few weeks since Brent Pease was let go. That’s what you call it when someone overhears a conversation and gets the entire point of the conversation wrong and runs down the road with it. That describes the life cycle of pretty much every rumored potential offensive coordinator the Gators may or may not have pursued, considered or ever heard of. In the end, a guy that nobody was predicting hit the radar, was interviewed and hired within a matter of days. And just like that, Kurt Roper was the future of the Gator offense
Roper’s hire kicked off the good news of the past week on Christmas Eve when swirling speculation was confirmed with breaking news that he was going to be the new offensive coordinator for Florida. After a day of opening presents and emptying stockings, Gator Nation got one final gift the day after Christmas when Roper was officially announced. The more of Roper’s resume and coaching style was reported, the more the gift kept giving. After taking a long weekend to enjoy the new spoils, Gator fans rung in the new year by watching their program’s future offense score six first-half touchdowns on six possessions (despite the officiating crew inexplicably denying them the final one), rack up 29 first downs, 12-of-19 conversions (63%) on third and fourth downs, 427 passing yards and 661 total yards with ACC athletes facing an SEC defense. They even won the time of possession. And they did it with the sort of unpredictable, impressively creative and quick-strike excitement that has not been seen at UF since the 2008 national title season.
The Aggies have a bad SEC defense but it is still an SEC defense with SEC athletes and it got utterly shredded by ACC athletes because of the scheme and play calling. Visions of championships danced in Gators’ heads as they watched Chick-fil-A Bowl, imagining the game being called with UF skill players instead of Duke skill players. In 2014 and many years into the future. Your loss Cook. Hopefully Jeff Jones and Ermon Lane see their future in this offense, as it certainly is difficult for a skill player not to get jacked about this offense. And just as hard for an offensive lineman not to get excited as well, given the pace and the simplicity of the scheme as well as the speed at which plays are executed. It is much easier to hold a block for 3 seconds than for 5-7 seconds waiting for intentionally slow-developing plays to unfold as with the previous Gator offense.
And if this marriage of the Roper offensive brain trust and Muschamp’s defensive genius bears the fruit of championships, how appropriate that it all started by Gator fans zeroing in on the action in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, the venue so dominated for so many recent years by Florida’s football and basketball teams that it had to have its name changed to the Florida Dome.
Big Day in Saint Pete
Gator fans who watched the 2010 Under Armour and Army All-American all-star games and thought that landmark recruiting windfall was going to be commonplace – they may have been disappointed. But fact is, no program is ever going to dominate the commitments or the on-field talent like Florida did that year. Fact is, any time a program picks up a commitment at either one of these games, that program had a very big day. Two commitments is reason for a block party. Florida had their name called by an elite defensive tackle, Gerald Willis. A handful of other schools got one commitment go their way and only LSU captured two new players. Florida also went 50% on the players considering them at the game, one better than LSU did. The Florida commitments – Ermon Lane, Gerald Willis III, J.C. Jackson and Quincy Wilson – all got their names called for making plays on the field. So did the players of whom, as Sheriff Buford T Justice would say, they are in hot pursuit: Adoree’ Jackson, Lorenzo Carter and Damian Prince. The Gators had a very good day.
This Lane is Still Occupied
Despite all the speculation that Ermon Lane will follow his friend Cook to FSU, he has not followed the same path that Cook has. There was no weeks of speculation following leaks that he had committed to the bad guys. He gave a Gator chomp at his Under Armour uniform ceremony photo shoot. He is just as close – probably closer – to slam-dunk Gator commitment Quincy Wilson. He has a good relationship with slam-dunk Gator commit Will Grier, with whom he teamed up and hooked up on seemingly countless pass completions and touchdowns in the 7-on-7 Super 11 competition over the summer.
And unlike Cook, Ermon no doubt did watch Florida’s future offense on display in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. And he can no doubt see what a star he could become in that offense, on the big SEC stage instead of the modest little ACC stage. And he no doubt saw Travis Rudolph commit to FSU at the UA game and outplay him and out-shine him in the game itself; and he no doubt can weigh the difference between coming into FSU in the same class and competing with Rudolph for touches and hype his whole college career and coming into Florida as the marquee receiver in his class, the Big Dog on offense from the word ‘go’. He may yet disappoint Gator Nation and turn to the dark side, but I for one am not giving up the ghost on him yet.
More to Come
Oh it isn’t over yet. The Army All-American game is but a matter of hours away, to extend this great Gator week. It will feature perhaps the most important future Gators on both sides of the ball: quarterback Will Grier and defensive tackle Khairi Clark. There are many players on the defensive side of the ball who could throw their hats in the ring for the biggest defensive signee in this class, but there is no question that Grier is the jewel of the offense and the class in general. These two future Gators will be teaming up with fellow Florida commits Chris Lammons and David Sharpe to show their wares. No serious Florida targets in this game I believe, so Gator fans can just sit back and enjoy watching their future Gators show their stuff.
At this point, Florida has a top-10 class, both in terms of generality and in the actual rankings. In the next month the Gators will be closing out the class with some excellent athletes. They will land some huge “gets” and they will miss some more. That’s the recruiting game. And win or lose, it is always fun to watch.