RECRUITING: Gator Staff didn't go to Plan B

The Florida Gators had a successful recruiting season in the face of adversity. The Gator staff played the recruiting game about as well as could be expected, especially when you look at the number of players that actually gave them a chance by making it to Gainesville for a visit.

In the previous three years on a staff that was notorious for being among the elite in recruiting, the Gator staff certainly made use of using all of the visits that were available. The NCAA allows a school 56 official visits in a school year. The staff in the 2004 recruiting season used all but a couple of their visits. That number of officials netted them 24 signatures for the recruiting class. The year before, in much the same fashion, the class yielded 28 signatures after using all but a couple of visits.

This staff didn't have the luxury of building relationships with some of the elite players that were available to others and in turn, a large portion of the elite players in the state and the southeast, never looked the Gators way. The result in most cases might make a staff look at the second tier of athlete and shoot for them. They could bring the kids in and make a decision after eyeballing them on their physical presence instead of what they saw on game film.

Coach Urban Meyer and his staff chose not to take that route. While Gator recruitniks left and right were wondering why this player or that player wasn't given a visit, the staff had a plan from the outset and stuck with it. Basically, they weren't going to reach on any player just to get numbers. If the staff's evaluations of film didn't translate to what they deemed a ball player, that recruit would not be invited in for a visit. With a team certainly full of talent but devoid of adequate numbers at certain positions, this could have been a risky proposition.

Holding to their guns, the Meyer and the Gators finished up with a class that by standards rates in the top four in the country for average player rankings. The Gator's class had only 44 official visitors and signed 17 of them. The Gators landed a four-star kicker and he didn't even take an official visit. The Gators met almost all of their needs and they did it with absolute quality players. But oh, what could have been.

We won't go into the guys that were either committed or the ones loyal to the previous staff who turned away. Still, there were a handful of players that certainly gave more than an inclination that they might be coming to Gainesville instead of the other places they eventually chose, and this happened all the way up to signing day.

Chris Scott was the probably the most notable big loss. The huge offensive lineman from Riverdale (GA) Lovejoy had Gator written all over him until right before the Countdown To Signing Day show when he announced for Tennessee. More than once he talked about Florida's superior academics to Tennessee. It was quite ironic how he made sure to highlight Tennessee's academics in the end but could never come to lie about them actually being better than Florida's. His decision was very close.

Then there is a group of four players that I chalk up to the parent phenomenon and Gator recruiting. The Gators have been on the wrong side of the parent/child decision for more top flight recruits lately than any team I could imagine. Last year we had Lance Leggett and Keith Rivers. One had a parent that forced the kid to go somewhere else while the other had a parent that wanted him to come here but allowed the kid to go cross country. This year we have much the same, only there were at least four.

Let's start with the big guys. Matt Hardrick's mother wanted him to be a Nole, straight up. Now to be fair, Hardrick was a Seminole lean all along but he never hid the fact that the offensive line coach situation at Florida State was bothering him. It was enough that in the final days leading up to signing day he was leaning to the Gators and both Gator and Nole sites alike were acknowledging this. In the end, momma won out and Hardrick signed with Florida State.

Plantation's Jeff Owens was another story. Owens committed to Georgia on his visit there and never seemed to look back. Then the Gator staff was able to convince the state's best defensive lineman to visit and see what the new Gators are all about. According to a high school coach and other recruits who watched it happen, Owens verbally committed to the Gator coaches. On top of that, his parents did not want him to go out of state and were quite verbal about it. It didn't matter. Owens visited Florida State the next weekend and inevitably kept his initial promise to be a Bulldog. The Gators couldn't win this battle of the parent/child decision.

Jordan Hemby, a cornerback from Morganton (NC) Freedom gave his verbal pledge to North Carolina in early January. The Florida staff got in on him late but was able to lure the four-star (by cornerback for a visit. After publicly admitting that he was seriously considering Florida, Hemby's father stepped in and told him he needed to stick with his word and stay with North Carolina. Although dad later said Jordan could make up his own mind, one still has to wonder if he was still set on being a Tar Heel even after signing the LOI to go there.

Brandon La Fell visited the last weekend of the recruiting season. The Houston (TX) Lamar wideout and the Gator staff took a real liking to each other. When he visited Gainesville, Florida had his undivided attention and when he left on Sunday, the vives were only positive. Some even say he made a commitment. Still, momma wanted her boy to stay close to home and the Monday evening before signing day, he and his friend R.J. Jackson both announced for LSU, just a four-hour drive from Houston. It didn't end there. Tuesday morning came and La Fell was having second thoughts about his choice. He really wanted to sign with Florida. Florida's staff spent a lot of time on the phone with him and his mother, but to no avail. Once again, momma won and the Gators lost. He signed with LSU on signing day.

Three other players that signed elsewhere help show just how close this class was to being exceptional. Pahokee's Antone Smith, Houston's R.J. Jackson, and Maryland's Derrick McPhearson had Gators thinking they would be coming to Gainesville within a day of signing day. In all, nine very exceptional players were ever so close to pulling the trigger for the Gators on signing day.

Certainly there is no reward for finishing second in recruiting. The fact that these nine high school superstars were very close to sending their letters of intent to Gainesville instead of the schools they eventually chose bodes well for this staff's recruiting in the near future. Because the Gators were very selective in visitors, they can use an extra six unused visits this year for next and could bring in a total of 62. They had all of a month and a half to get in these kids' ears and maybe more importantly, the parents' ears. Imagine what a year will do.

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