If you pulled out a map and a compass then dropped the point on Gainesville, Florida, and used the scale to draw a 180-mile circle around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, you’d essentially be circling the entire northern half of the State of Florida and a pretty good chunk of the Gulf of Mexico.
New Florida Gators head coach Jim McElwain may not have much of a chance at pulling the next big prospect out of the sea (although, at 6’4″, 235 lbs, Aquaman Jason Momoa looks like he could make an immediate impact off the edge); however, as he looks to revive a Florida brand that suffered post-Urban Meyer, it’s the Florida landmass that falls within those lines that he’ll have to wall off if he hopes to make the Gators the preeminent force in the SEC East again.
Within that 180-mile radius lies Tampa-St. Pete, Jacksonville, Orlando and a good chunk of Tallahassee. In a state where every school in the country has a presence and then you’ve got Florida State to the north and Miami to the south to contend with locally, building a rapport with local high school coaches gives you a natural in. And when your backyard features some of the best talent the country has to offer, those ins often yield big-time prospects.
As McElwain focuses on the current version of Florida Gators football–the one left with a startling lack of speed (considering Florida’s history), talent and depth compliments of former head coach Will Muschamp–with spring in session, he’ll have to have an eye to the future of the program. And as he gets back out onto the recruiting trail, he’ll have to continue to build upon the relationships he generated in his first couple months on the job.
With the Gators coming off a recruiting cycle in which they managed to sign just three of the Top 35 players in Florida according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, McElwain will have to quickly make up ground in the Class of 2016 to be competitive locally. And the area, as always, is brimming with talent.
Just south of Tampa, in Bradenton, IMG Academy, for instance, is home to four of the state’s top six prospects. Of the quartet, three of the players are already verbally committed (two to FSU and one to Florida’s permanent SEC West rivals, LSU), but with just over 10 months until National Signing Day, McElwain has to become a fixture in the hallways of IMG. Even if he misses out on those top prizes, the school has a stunning seven composite four-star prospects in the 2016 class alone. That tree is bound to bear fruit eventually.
Just up the road, in Tampa, the nation’s top wide receiver prospect, Nate Craig-Myers of Tampa Catholic, is a current Auburn commitment, as the Tigers have made themselves comfortable recruiting against Florida by famously winning the head-to-head battle for Byron Cowart on NSD 2015. There’s coveted talented in Lakeland and St. Pete and up in Jacksonville, and yet if you look at their commitment list, Florida keeps coming up empty.
It’s early, but as of now, the Gators have just one commitment in the state’s Top 50 for the Class of 2016.
When Florida was truly great, they didn’t exactly throw a wet blanket over the entire state (nobody truly could), but when they went head-to-head with Florida State, Miami or any SEC rival for a prospect from Pensacola on down to Homestead, it felt like they’d win seven times out of 10. Now, they’re getting beat out routinely by the likes of Auburn in Hillsborough County and that should be a sobering reality, yet there’s still this thinly-veiled expectation that McElwain can make the Gators a power-player both at home and abroad again.
Yet, the reality is, if Jim McElwain is going to have any success at Florida, he needs to forget South Florida for the time being and focus on that 180-mile radius. Because when Florida was contending for national titles, even though they had an imprint across the state and nationally, they kept that area under wraps.
Take the Class of 2006, for instance. The famed Tim Tebow class was the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, and of its 24 signees, exactly half hailed from within 180 miles of Gainesville.
This year, with roughly 20 prospects from the area standing as four-stars or better, if Florida locked up even half of those kids in their own backyard, that’d lay a pretty solid foundation to McElwain’s first full recruiting class–one that needs to be special if Florida is going to dig themselves out of this hole anytime soon.