I'm not stunned by the idea that Florida will have a relatively quiet close to the 2014 recruiting cycle. I'm not even all that disappointed.
Florida's competency on the recruiting trail for the last three years under Will Muschamp has been simple: Getting elite defensive talent to come to Gainesville, using D.J. Durkin and Tarvaris Robinson to close with big-time prospects, and staying in touch with the players Florida really, really wants, no matter their committment status, for the purposes of potentially flipping them down the line. And despite a 4-8 season last fall that helped decimate Florida's surprising haul in South Florida, the Gators look to have a top-10 class inbound, with big needs met at quarterback with Will Grier and in the secondary with Jalen Tabor, Duke Dawson, and Quincy Wilson. The need that appears likely to go unmet, unless Adoree' Jackson picks the Gators, is "playmaker."
And, okay, that hurts Florida fans who really, really need a decent offensive team to keep them from marching to Muschamp's office or sending a bunch of typoed emails to Jeremy Foley. But Florida's problems on offense last year were not due to the lack of a playmaker — Solomon Patton was very good in that role, and if there was any complaint about him as a player, it was that he was underused. Whether that was just an error in usage and gameplanning or the fault of a line that struggled in pass protection, that's likely a coaching problem, and Florida hired new coaches to fix it.
Those new coaches have talent to work with at almost all of the positions where Florida needs it, too. No, there's no running back as fast as Dalvin Cook in the fold — but Kurt Roper was working with talent that isn't on par with Florida's (sorry, Dalvin, but I think you're wrong about that one) at Duke, and doing just fine. Mike Summers has done good things with all levels of talent for years. And, remember, the now-reviled Brent Pease and Tim Davis were doing enough on offense in 2012, despite a leakier offensive line, an unsteady hand at quarterback, and a running back who most scouts thought was not as good as Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor in high school, to win 11 games.
Florida does not need to be as competent on offense to win games as most of the rest of the nation does; that's the luxury of having Muschamp and a bunch of other really good coaches working with excellent talent on defense. Florida's offense might not need to look like a world-beating unit in 2014, either: If Florida wins nine or 10 games this fall, that will make the Gators an easier sell to recruits whether or not they have visions of 150-yard days dancing in their heads, if only because anything is an easier sell than 4-8 and the putrescence we often saw out of the 2013 offense.
Don't despair too much on National Signing Day, the hour of vaporous hope, if things don't go the Gators' way, and don't delight too much if things work out. The players and coaches who will make or break Florida's 2014 season — and with it, Muschamp — are largely already on campus and working.
While hundreds of young men will have the happiest day of their lives tomorrow, Chris Walker is likely to have the happiest day of his life tonight.
Walker, finally free, will play against Missouri in the O'Dome tonight, and he may well get the loudest cheer of the season when he checks into the game. (If Billy Donovan sends him in during a media timeout, which seems unlikely, I will be crushed.) And he'll probably play well enough in flashes to make jaws drop, and poorly enough for stretches to make people nod knowingly about how raw he is — that was always going to be the case, even if Walker had showed up in the fall, because it's the kind of player he is.
I and others have gotten a kick out of linking to the bravura McDonald's All-American Game dunk contest performance as evidence of Walker's athleticism, and I think watching him in the game itself is cause for hope that he'll be really good. But Donovan's been stressing throughout this process of getting Walker eligible that he hasn't played organized basketball since last February, at the end of his senior season.
And, because Donovan isn't going to badmouth his player, he's not saying the most relevant thing about that: Walker was literally head and shoulders above most of the players he played against in high school, so he's really more like 18 months removed from meaningful, non-exhibition basketball.
Walker looks like Wilt Chamberlain in the videos of him playing for Holmes County, and he was treated like it — video from Holmes County's victory in the 1A state title game shows Walker busting through double teams, leaping past triple teams, and generally being pawed at by humans who are not of his athletic echelon.
It's not an insult to those players to say that every single player Walker sees in practice at Florida is better than they are, and that every single player Missouri will put on the court is better than they are: It's just a fact. And Walker's going to be slow to adjust to that; there's only so much simulation one can do in practice.
All I'm expecting from Walker against Missouri is a huge smile and a roar from the crowd when he checks in. I can wait for everything else.
Last Friday, the Men's Basketball Rowdies — the student group essentially in charge of the Rowdy Reptiles — started a campaign to bring Justin Timberlake to Gainesville on March 8 to sing the national anthem prior to the Gators' Senior Day clash against Kentucky. The campaign has already gotten some of the attention it was angling for, notably from Sporting News writer Troy Machir, but it's also gotten the sort of snarky writeup ("embarrassing," "have no shame," "act incredibly foolish," "painful") that people who would never put themselves out there in this way will gleefully pen.
That's going to be the case for the entirety of the campaign, I think, and I ultimately think the campaign will fall short of its goal. While Timberlake does wrap an American tour leg in Miami just days before the game in Gainesville, it would be extraordinary for him to come sing at a game involving two teams he has no real connection with (he's a Memphis native and a Memphis fan, so the best one I can come up with is Timberlake singing and then zinging John Calipari), and even if he does, it might well overshadow what should be a celebration of the finest senior class in college basketball this year.
But these are unintended consequences of a good-faith effort to celebrate those players and create buzz around the Rowdies (this is a good place for the disclosure that Jonathan Arnholz, vice president of the Rowdies organization, has written for Alligator Army, and that I'm friendly with and have been treated well by the Rowdies), and the intended consequences — publicity and student interest in basketball — outweigh them, especially when it comes to a key demographic: Women.
While I know many, many women who are Florida fans, and will be no matter if Timberlake or Engelbert Humperdinck or a random UF student sings the national anthem on Senior Day, there are women, especially current students, who had little interest in basketball before this campaign started and have spent time thinking about Florida basketball because of this campaign. It's not just women — Timberlake's appeal is universal — but I saw dozens of women I've never seen interact with @AlligatorArmy tagging tweets with #BringJT2UF last week, and I'm sure it's been a topic of discussion on RTS buses, in sorority houses, and in group text messages.
And there's really no better time to get fans, especially women, into Florida basketball than right now, with the Gators on fire and led by Patric Young — who is, if we're being honest, really, really, really ridiculously good-looking. (My mom thinks Casey Prather and Will Yeguete are good-looking, too, and I agree, but we also agree that Scottie Wilbekin would do well to banish his scruff for good.) I don't love the idea of getting people into sports based on sex appeal, but it certainly does happen, and one of the unintended consequences of getting women to pay attention to and come out for games might be them falling in love with the sport, or with a team that is hard not to love.
Plus, the Rowdies are clearly going to get rather creative with this, and clearly have UF's blessing to go all-out on the campaign: Tonight's game against Missouri is "Suit and Tie Night," with students encouraged to wear a suit and tie to the game (you know, because of "Suit and Tie"), and Albert himself is out there in top and tails to promote it.
Look who @GatorZoneAlbert ran into on campus! @cprather24 @jtimberlake pic.twitter.com/f75TzU0iY0— Gator M-Basketball (@GatorZoneMBK) February 4, 2014
This is not a half-assed campaign; it's a real PR push, and whether it ultimately pays off or not, people are paying attention. I don't care if the Rowdies do #BringJT2UF or not: I'm going to Senior Day to watch an awesome basketball game and pay tribute to four players who have poured years of their lives into being Gators, and being great.
But I get what they're trying to do, and I tip my hat — it's a fitted, not a stovepipe — to them.