Florida finishes strong despite handcuffs

The Florida Gators finished off a top ten recruiting class Wednesday despite a woeful 2013 football season. The 4-8 record caused heartburn for both fans and some recruits that were looking Florida's way. Despite that, Will Muschamp and crew pulled off a very good class and did so despite being hand-cuffed.

You won't be able to get it from Will Muschamp's lips, or even the lips of his assistants, but the stress and issues they have to go through in the last two weeks of the recruiting cycle are different and more strenuous than likely any other institution that the Gators compete against.

Inevitably, the double standard placed on this staff is something that keeps them from maximizing their potential on the recruiting trail. Ultimately it leads to an annual roster that could be well under the allowed 85 by the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics.

Forget who the staff is at Florida, it doesn't matter that it is the supposedly embattled Will Muschamp and his assistants. The guy putting the handcuffs on the program is the University President, Bernie Machen. It wouldn't matter if it was Muschamp or Knute Rockne coaching the squad.

You see Machen has a crusade, a crusade against something commonly known as over-signing. He hasn't pressed the issue as much in his last couple of years as he heads toward retirement, but he makes the head coach at the school he governs abide by a rule that doesn't allow Florida to account for normal attrition in a year.

That 85 rule is a stickler for Machen. His thought process is that your signing class number, plus the number of scholarship players that are expected back in the Fall at the time the class is signed, should never extend beyond the 85 limit.

In theory this is a very moral and ethical approach to the situation. In reality, the odds of a program like Florida not losing a student athlete to grades, discipline, unhappiness, or injury from February 1 to the middle of June are highly unlikely and probably hasn't happened at Florida in the last 2-3 decades. With that number of grown men in a program, there will be some that won't make it through for various reasons.

The issue for Machen is that he likely understands this, but that some programs tend to stretch the issue, forcing players out of the program during a not-so-opportune time, or forcing them to take a medical hardship, basically ending their career as a scholar athlete, even though the injury may not actually be career ending.

The reports are out there on certain schools, but that isn't what this is about. Machen's issue is about the gross manipulation of the process, when there are some schools that actually manipulate the numbers with the proper assumption that there will be 1-3 players that might not make it through the off-season for various and legitimate reasons. Again, these are very normal attrition numbers.

So, Florida is stuck. On signing day, they have to have ‘X' number of signees plus ‘Y' number of athletes on roster expected to play in the Fall, equal 85. Inevitably this means that not one more than ‘X' number of LOI's can go out to potential signees in case they all come back in signed.

This is the difference between Florida and even the normal program that does it the way I would call ethically and morally right. They have no intention of kicking guys to the curb in several months, but they know some guys will be gone for those various reasons mentioned before.

It leads to signing days like this one. And kudos to Muschamp and company for manipulating things with the prospects as well as he can to play within the rules that he has to abide by.

To understand where we have come from to the [point they are now, we need to flash back two years ago and 2012. Muschamp was into his first full year of recruiting and the class was shaping up fine. While the Gators finished fifth nationally that year, the night before the staff was waiting on two 5-star receivers, a 4-star defensive lineman, a 4-star offensive lineman and a 4-star linebacker. Most had told the staff they were going to sign with Florida and none did the next day. Florida, under the current rules were stuck handing out the LOI's to these prospects and no others until each one of them actually owned up to heading elsewhere. By then, the staff had little time to turn to fill out the roster.

A year ago there was less drama. There ended up being a couple of spots left and Florida went out and signed punter Johnny Townsend and offensive lineman Trevon Young, well after the normal signing time for prospects on that day. The class was a solid 29 prospects and finished seventh nationally without a star quarterback.

This year Muschamp and company manipulated things a little differently. And honestly got about the maximum they could have except for one spot. That one spot was tricky and came down to the last guy left on table on signing day, leaving them no time to find a replacement if he didn't come.

The night before signing day was a whirl, as it likely is every year. But with the intent of filling every spot, the staff was meticulous and trying to deal with several prospects for three spots, staying as upfront with them as possible.

That last night and during the day, the Gator staff had several prospects on the hook with the possibility of signing. They felt real comfortable with quarterback Treon Harris and his fax coming in, and they thought they had one more done.

The rest of the list goes something like C.J. Worton, Davon Godchaux, Isaiah McKenzie, Derrick Kelly, Eric Lauderdale, and Adoree Jackson. They were on the phone constantly with all of them for exactly two spots. The conversation with some lasted well into the day Wednesday with a few of them. Jackson was committed to one spot, but the worry was there. Worton could commit, but McKenzie may have been able to as well to the other spot. It would go to the first to commit. As it turns out, Worton got that other spot.

In the meantime they had the last spot filled with Jackson, but worried about the usual issues when recruiting someone so far away. They were right to worry. But, they kept most of the other group hanging as long as they could before each of them decided to head in another direction.

It was tireless effort and manipulation to try and get them to wait it out, and in the end, they came up one shy.

And really, all of that was unnecessary. If this group was allowed to recruit like any other group of their peers, they would have taken a commitment a week or two earlier from at least one of the others that didn't make it in. They chose to believe the big time guy over maybe the more sure thing on the list.

Inevitably, the Gators met almost every need in this 2014 class, but the one that stands out that they missed was the real play making slot receiver. That was supposed to be Jackson, but it could have been McKenzie who got away.

The play making is a serious issue for a Florida program that has lacked the home run threat at running back or receiver for a few years now. The staff did well in recovering from the de-commitment of super back Dalvin Cook in late December and quickly manipulated an offer and commitment from early enrollee Brandon Powell who was enrolled at Florida a week later.

Muschamp likes Powell and talked about his play making ability on Wednesday.

"I'm excited about Brandon Powell, a guy that's got great speed, he's a dynamic guy with the ball in his hands, a guy that was on our radar," Muschamp said. "We were really going in the class wanting to sign one back, and you've got to continue to recruit because of things you never know may happen."

Even without the true slot receiver, Muschamp likes the receivers the Gators landed. He talks about Ryan Sousa first followed by Worton who was the last commitment in the class.

"At the receiver position the two guys we signed, one of them caught over 100 balls, and the other guy you'll line up and compete against anybody," Muschamp said. "I'm excited about those two guys."

As far as the handcuffs he faces and the risk of not filling out the class, Muschamp took a self-centered approach to fixing it. He says the staff just needs to have a better feel for the real intent of the particular prospect.

"You need to know where you are, and you've got to have some hard conversations, and you don't get into much of the fanfare of signing day and all that," he said. "To be fair for the University of Florida, I need to know where we are with a young man. And that's to be fair to our program and what we need to do moving forward, and sometimes people work with you a little bit and sometimes they don't, and that's part of it."

If able to work like other programs, the class is full and that last spot is one extra that would be compliant when the first player left the program between now and June when the new signees enroll in school. Or they miss on Jackson and they are at the desired number already.

Instead, they miss on a key spot in the class because they had someone that wasn't completely truthful.

The staff finished strong. They went the last month of the process without losing a single prospect in the class and that was happening everywhere. They committed and signed nine of their 24 signees from the time January started. They filled just about every need in the class except for one. And that shouldn't have been an issue under normal practices.

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