Florida's biggest recruiting weekend of the year — featuring a make-or-break series of official visits (and one major unofficial visit) — will take place over the next 72 hours. And we'll get to that this afternoon.
But the biggest commitment the Gators get this week may be the one they already got from the NCAA: Jake McGee, the talented tight end whose 2014 season in orange and blue amounted to a couple dozen snaps of blocking before a broken leg sidelined him for the season, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, tweeting out the news to much fanfare on Tuesday.
That's not because McGee is a better player than, say, Byron Cowart or Martez Ivey or CeCe Jefferson will eventually be; it's because, right now, he is a better player than they are, and at a position where Florida desperately needs production.
It's too soon to know exactly how good McGee will be after his rehabilitation, and unclear if he'll even participate in spring practice, much less whether he'll be at full go, but he's Florida's most experienced tight end almost by default in 2015. The depth chart behind him begins with a trio of 2014 recruits (DeAndre Goolsby, C'yontai Lewis, and Moral Stephens, Jr.), the latter two of whom redshirted, and continues with two 2015 recruits (Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Camrin Knight) who might. Granted, those five players — who have gotten a combined zero catches in college football, and of whom only one (Goolsby, who contributed on special teams in 2014) has even played snaps — aren't that far removed in production and experience from Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook entering 2014 (or, um, exiting it), and all of them have the advantage of not being converted defensive ends, but that's still a dire depth chart without McGee to top it.
And Burton and Westbrook, apart from Burton's bizarrely excellent showing against Eastern Michigan and Westbrook's miraculous touchdown catch against Missouri, were rather awful in 2014. Burton had seven catches for 42 yards against the Eagles; from that game on, both players never combined for more than the five catches for 45 yards (and that improbable Westbrook touchdown) they against Missouri. And, of course, two immense Westbrook drops — one that cost Florida a go-ahead touchdown against LSU, one that turned into a pick-six against Florida State — may have been the single most pivotal plays in games that consigned the Gators to a 6-5 regular season instead of an 8-3 campaign.
In 2013, while vacillating between being the go-to receiver and an occasional option for a Virginia team that completed just 54.7 percent of its passes (98th nationally) and only scored nine touchdowns through the air (tied for 115th), McGee led the Cavaliers with 43 catches for 395 yards, had two games of eight catches, at least two catches in all 11 games he played, and three games with at least 50 receiving yards.
I find it very, very hard to believe that McGee won't be an upgrade at tight end, even if he's not the player he was prior to his injury. And while we're not sure how Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier will utilize tight ends in their new Gators offense — tight ends combined for 75 catches at Colorado State in 2013, but just 37 in 2014, and Michigan tight end Jake Butt had just 21 catches in Nussmeier's offense in 2014 — McGee presents a valuable option for Florida's young quarterback, whoever he ends up being, this fall.
But McGee doesn't just help Florida in 2015: He helps Florida set up for beyond 2015 at the tight end position. That crowded depth chart is full of players who won't scare off big-time recruits, allowing Florida to go after prime targets and dangle playing time in the 2016 cycle, and McGee could very well show said prospects what an excellent tight end can do for the current regime. But McGee's presence also allows Florida to stagger its depth chart to best serve the development of the players behind him, rather than press them into service. Imatorbhebhe and Knight will almost surely redshirt (the latter is practically a mortal lock to redshirt, given that four freshmen will be ahead of him on the depth chart when he arrives this summer), and there's no rush to play the green Goolsby or Lewis.
We don't yet know what kind of teacher Greg Nord will be as Florida's tight ends coach, and it's somewhat illogical for me to think he'll have a major impact on a sixth-year player with a potential NFL future in McGee. The players behind McGee, though, will have quite some time to absorb Nord's coaching, and that's a much better prospect that throwing them in the fire as wet-behind-the-ears freshmen.