Next step starts today for Gators

I will be the first to tell you that it is a true accomplishment to get to the SEC Championship Game as the winner of the Eastern division. But the real goal is to be the SEC Champions. The Gators may have accomplished more than many thought, myself included, in winning the East. But that isn’t enough for this program anymore. To take the next step, they have to hit harder in recruiting and that starts Sunday.

We posted a list of big time prospects the Florida staff will visit on Sunday. There isn’t much chopped liver on that list. It is solid, now it is time for Jim McElwain and his assistants to start earning their recruiting stripes.

“I'll tell you what I saw… the depth was a huge issue, and where it really shows up, guys, you know. You've been around a long time. It's in special teams,” McElwain understated after his team’s 54-16 shellacking at the hands of number one Alabama Saturday night in the SECCG. “Obviously, we got our tails kicked in that area. When you're thin like that, that's the nature of it.”

“When you're building a program, taking over a program, you run through some attrition. Your body count isn't always there. We've got to get that back up. I'm not saying those guys on those teams didn't try now. That's not what I'm getting at, at all. They tried their tails off. Sometimes you go against players that, you know, are pretty good, right? That's the way it goes.”

Not many that actually watched the contest Saturday would say that the gators didn’t come out and play hard. But for Florida to take that next step, it is apparent they are going to have to land players of that ilk.

McElwain has been here just two years now. In this man’s opinion he has transformed the skill talent on offense in that short period of time. Again, they need to add more talented receivers and running backs to the fold, but those things are there and much more than they have been.

Recruiting stars aren’t the be-all, end-all, but over time and with a large group of prospects, you are going to wind up with a better roster if most are 4-star and 5-star prospects that are coveted by the best programs instead.

McElwain has had issues building the ‘star power’ on offense, from basically nothing when he arrived if you consider that in the four previous years under Will Muschamp, the former head coach signed just three 4-star prospects at receiver, left him with one 4-star running back, and an offensive line that became devoid of experienced talent because of several career ending injuries or expulsions.

Certainly Muschamp left a stable full of defenders and he recruited that side of the ball well, but I am not sure of a major program that has ever had to undergo a transformation on offense like this one has on offense.

If you add in the quarterback issues of a year ago, both quarterbacks McElwain inherited were off the team before the start of spring football, the entire offense has had to be overhauled since his arrival out of necessity, not choice.

Given that Muschamp sign three 4-star receivers, Jajuan Story (transferred immediately), Ahmad Fulwood, and Demarcus Robinson, McElwain added four last year alone. He also added 3-star Antonio Callaway who should have been rated a bit higher by the way he has played while in college.

The group of Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland, Joshua Hammond, Freddie Swain, and Dre Massey look to be a promising base for next year and moving forward. Brandon Powell is a steady player that plays hard and can do some things, he is a positive. The rest is unknown and so they need to add.

McElwain also showed up with just Kelvin Taylor in the fold at running back. He did rush for 1,000 yards a year ago, but almost 300 carries to get there. I’m a Taylor fan and he had no offensive line, but he wasn’t a game breaker like Florida has had in the past.

Kan Li / Scout

McElwain quickly added four highly thought of running backs, Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine have panned out well. Jordan Cronkrite had injury issues this year and it is to be determined. 5-star junior college transfer mark Thompson showed some signs during the season, but his fumble issues kept him off the field for the last part of the season.

The offensive line has been a constant work-in-progress. We said it would be and I often have said I didn’t think this would be there year. They have shown signs of improvement, yet not enough for even this guy who often gives the benefit of the doubt.

McElwain seemed to pull off a coup last year with the signing of 4-star quarterback Feleipe Franks after Franks had been committed to LSU for over a year. He also signed Kyle Trask who has all the tools, but saw limited playing time in high school. A couple of transfers, Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby have been the guys on the field this year and left a lot to be desired, both certainly giving it their all.

Quarterback is a place where they need one of the freshmen to come through, but they have to hit the trail hard and get a difference maker. Watching the offense for the last two years, a lot of people will tell you a quality signal caller of SEC level would have made a huge difference for an offense that hasn’t gone up since Muschamp left.

The Gators have recruited well in spots on defense. Defensive end really shouldn’t be a complaint. Names like CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga, Antonneous Clayton, Jachai Polite, Jordan Smith, etc. were all signed in the last two years. The fact that Chris Rumph rotates so many guys up front keeps those guys coming.

Defensive tackle is a different matter altogether. With Andrew Ivie giving up football because of a permanent injury, the Gators have nobody that they have signed in the first two classes at the position. It is a big concern and as of Sunday there may not be a commitment at the position for this class either.

David Reese was the high profile guy the gators signed at linebacker a year ago. He along with Jeremiah Moon both merited 4-stars out of high school. Moon, Reese, and fellow freshman Vosean Joseph have shown that they will likely be very good players down the line. But, with three seniors graduating, this has to be a position the Gators do very well.

Secondary recruiting hasn’t been great, but probably solid. Chauncey Gardner looks like a player and has done some very big thing in this, his freshman season. Junior college transfer Joseph Putu is a bone crusher that just had so much to learn. He will likely play big next season in what may be his last. Freshmen safeties Jeawon Taylor and Quincy Lenton look to be players for Florida for the near future. Both would have played more prominent roles in 2016 except for injury.

Numbers are scary at some positions. Defensive tackle has to be the one that sticks out the most. The Gators return Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark. That is it until a few of the bigger ends slide inside for some plays. They need to sign three in this class and at this point that is looking very hard to do.

The second biggest issue is quality at offensive line. They need to find a couple of Jawaan Taylors (coincidently a 3-star) in this class to add to what they have. They have numbers there. They need to add difference makers.

As we mentioned, quarterback is a position they have got to improve upon. Is the future guy on campus?  If not, they better make sure they get that guy.

They could lose two of the running backs that were so highly thought of to start the season. That leaves them with two and whoever they bring in. Yet another position they need a difference maker for the future or in case of injury.

Urban Meyer used to want 12 receivers. They don’t need that many, but they have a couple of talented ones lined up to a nice base core. Getting a premiere receiver would help the cause a great deal.

If they hit on who they believe they will sign in the secondary they should be fine. They have quality players lined up. The back end of the defense is going to take a hit next year regardless of who plays because of the likely loss of Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson along with Marcus Maye.

There are other positions of need, but these above are key and need to be tended to in this class.

The concern here is the lack of success so far in recruiting under the current regime. Back to the recruiting numbers. The issues left by the previous staff still had encouraging recruiting numbers. Muschamp’s recruiting finished 25th nationally in 2011, 5th in 2012, 7th in 2013, and 9th in 2014.

Jim McElwain has finished 29th and 11th in two years. His third year is currently ranked 21st, but has a chance of finishing strong.

They have to finish strong. They have to improve on what they have done in two years. A year ago, Florida didn’t get a single commitment in the month of January that actually signed with the Gators in February. The busiest, craziest month in the recruiting cycle and they went o’fer.

The supposed board for this class doesn’t seem full enough at this point. It is going to take a colossal effort to finish where they need to finish.

This program got used to winning SEC titles. They have to have the talent to get back to that.

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