Football Recruiting: The Show So Far

By: David “PD” Parker

With apologies to those too young to know your Monty Python, we are a few days shy of the half-way point in this year’s recruiting cycle and the tracks the Gators have made with the class of 2014 are no sketch comedy. The last week has brought the class into sharper focus, and the image is frame-worthy.

In 1987, the Stock Market had its Black Monday, the largest one-day percentage crash in history. In 1956, Fats Domino had his Blue Monday, that began with the line, “Blue Monday/How I hate Blue Monday.” Well this week the Gators had what can be called Orange & Blue Monday, and the results were significantly more positive for Gator Nation than they were for Wall Street and Mister Domino.

Gators go South, Class Heads North

The triple-header recruiting bonanza that went public on Orange & Blue Monday was not only a huge boost to the class but also a major geographic coup. All three commitments being from the Dade and Broward County lockbox that is so seldom cracked open by the Gators. Rarely have the Gators signed three players from those counties in one signing class, let alone garner commitments from three in one day. This brings the total in this class from Dade/Broward to five pledges. Coach Will Muschamp and especially assistant coach and Miami’s own Tavares Robinson have put down stakes in this forbidden land like no Florida coaches before them.

Now I am one to generally downplay the otherwise sky-high estimation of Miami-area talent. It is true that Dade and Broward counties have a big number of high quality prospects each year, but so do the Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and panhandle areas. The areas that surround Gainesville, themselves, have produced more than their share of top talent over the years. But it is impossible to ignore the wealth of talent in the southeast corner of the state in sheer numbers, both for depth and top-end quality.

The Gators have had no trouble becoming and remaining an elite SEC and national football power by culling the other talent-rich parts of the state and the many out-of-state mining areas where they have had so much success. But finally breaking through and establishing a recruiting base in Dade/Broward is critical for a couple reasons. Firstly, of course, is the fact that every top kid the Gators can pull from the area is another top kid who won’t be attending Miami or FSU. And the more top local talent leaves for Gainesville, the smaller the glimmer of hope flickers for Miami to ever return to the ranks of football elite.

More importantly, though is that the Gators want to be able to target whomever they want and they want to have a strong shot at singing the players they need to fit their systems. Sometimes that ideal player or two is going to reside in Dade/Broward. It simply is not permissible that one of the handful of the most elite programs in the nation is frozen out of what is often the most talent-rich segment of their home state for which they are the flagship university.

Pieces Falling Into Place

Recruiting at the top programs is of course always measured on its own each February, but the lifeblood of a college program is not sustained by one big class on its own. The talent pool is built and measured in two- and three-year groupings of classes. This is where needs are filled within the matrix of succession planning. You don’t have to sign a full 22 starting positions every year; you need to sign to your needs, sign to your depth and sign to your talent gaps or schematic demands.

Following the classes of 2012 and 2013, two deep and extremely talented groups of players, the Gators are still a year away from having ideal depth across the roster for playing on Saturdays. However the missing element is no longer numbers but experience, so the recruiting strategy is already in the reload, not rebuild mode. With JUCO signees and FBS transfers, the Gators have added 55 new talents to the roster over the last two years and have loaded every position with the kind of talent upon which SEC and national championships are built. 2014 is a year for being very picky and very specific about player attributes and talent level. It’s a year for cherry-picking elite players that will take already stocked positions to another level.

Thus far the offense has had its plate filled with the richest nourishment. The glamour and fan-wowing positions of quarterback, wide receiver and running back have been filled with what I will say right now will not be surpassed by any school in the nation for top trio of skill players this year. Will Grier, Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane are all #1-in-the-nation type players at their positions. With already four hulking offensive linemen to go before them (and one more – perhaps the best of the bunch – on the way) and a tight end from the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Birmingham, this side of the ball is set but for a few more dollops of gravy. And the prospects remaining are also among the nation’s elite.

On the defensive side, the backfield already has four of the best in the country pledged for Gainesville. Defensive back is a Muschamp specialty, the roster is loaded with truly staggering talent and depth – even if much of it is young – and the 2014 crop is another infusion of head-shaking talent with Chris Lammons, Duke Dawson, J.C. Jackson and Quincy Wilson. It’s difficult to imagine the Gator secondary being in a better position for the short- or long-term future, but of course there is at least one more top prospect to add before signing day. With two ends and a tackle, the defensive line is taking shape very nicely and will add more by February.

After the linebacker haul in the class of 2013 was added to the two ‘backers and three bucks from the year before, we knew going in that this unit would be a tough sell in terms of early playing time. But the coaches nonetheless have much to sell in terms of a defensive scheme to showcase their talents and, of course, all the other draws of being a Gator playing for one of the premier defensive minds in the game. The fact that Muschamp has not taken a commitment here is indicative of the talent level of the targets. Most of them will be waiting until very late in the process to make their announcements. That’s never a bad thing, provided Florida gets their share. And they always do.

Star Struck

Orange & Blue Monday did wonders to boost the spirits of those in Gator Nation who love to follow the rankings and ratings of the recruiting entertainment sites. It’s a fun way to follow the competition for players and in a third-hand manner provides a very general sense of what teams are probably having strong or not-so-strong recruiting seasons. But there is a tendency to get carried away with the significance of the star ratings, especially before the season starts. There is nothing wrong with following them for what they are worth, but the problem is the assumption that the stars have any value that isn’t 100% driven and dictated by the coaching staffs across the country. It’s a reverse engineering that the recruiting services would have us believe is being driven by their evaluations rather than the evaluations of high school and college coaches across the country.

This is why these entertainment services “reassess” and adjust their rankings and player stars throughout the year and even AFTER the season is over: not because they are actually reevaluating or the kids are changing talent levels but because they are simply catching up on the recruiting activity of all the major programs and recalculating rankings and stars depending on what teams are giving them heat. These services clearly watch film and devise their own rudimentary profile capsules on most of the recruits for entertainment purposes, but they are not doing real evaluation, and they are certainly not basing their rankings and ratings on them. They base them on what players are getting the most buzz from high school coaches – especially in prominent programs – and which ones are getting the most attention from the top college programs by way of contact, visits, scholarship offers and commitments. Kids get rated 5- and 4-stars because they are being pursued by top programs; top programs do not pursue them because they are 5- and 4-star rated prospects.

So timing is important here. Being a 3-star on National Signing Day means that recruit has not garnered a lot of attention from top programs so it may not be inaccurate to infer that he might be a reach (or he may just be a find or one of those early secured players that other programs did not try to turn). But July is a different ballgame. Being a 5-star player in July surely means that player has been one of the most pursued sophomores and/or juniors in the land. That’s why there are so few 5-star players in July. But being a 3-star player in July? It means almost nothing. And what it does mean is immaterial. It simply means that the kid was not one of those players identified early in high school as a rising star. And sometimes players develop into bigger prospects as seniors than as sophomores and juniors. It’s actually not that unusual an occurrence.

If fans want to count up stars on National Signing Day, there is a certain kind of indirect significance to that because most all the Letters of Intent have been signed and the recruiting entertainment services have had time to catch up to the programs’ scouting and recruiting efforts. But in July and August it’s an exercise in tail chasing. It’s just going to leave you dizzy and frustrated dogs.

And if there really are readers out there who are not familiar with Monty Python, you have one directive this fall between watching Gator games and Muschamp’s coach’s show: Rent yourself some Monty Python DVDs. You can thank me later. Until then, remember that every day is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.

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David Parker
One of the original columnists when Gator Country first premiered, David “PD” Parker has been following and writing about the Gators since the eighties. From his years of regular contributions as a member of Gator Country to his weekly columns as a partner of the popular defunct niche website Gator Gurus, PD has become known in Gator Nation for his analysis, insight and humor on all things Gator.