Florida's 2015 recruiting class is a qualified success, the best worst class in school history. But as we begin our eight-part look at Jim McElwain's first haul as the Gators' head man, we have to tackle a curious absence at the most important position in the sport: Quarterback.
2014 in Review
As of the summer of 2014, Florida appeared to have nailed down its quarterbacks for years to come. Jeff Driskel would be the Gators' starter in 2014, and perhaps 2015, with Will Grier and Treon Harris waiting to compete for his spot, and California stud Sheriron Jones was a top-flight commit for the 2015 class that would provide significant insurance for Kurt Roper going forward.
Then the season started.
Driskel struggled early and often, being replaced by Harris — who beat out Grier for the backup role based largely on his readiness to play a support role behind Driskel — late in Florida's comeback win over Tennessee, and supplanted by Harris as Florida's starter for good after a three-turnover nightmare against Missouri. Driskel would play sparingly for the rest of the year, most notably throwing well in relief of an injured Harris against Eastern Kentucky and sputtering in a similar situation against East Carolina, and announced he would transfer to Louisiana Tech on January 5.
Driskel wasn't the first QB to depart Florida's future plans, either: Jones decommitted in December, after the firing of Will Muschamp and moves that made it clear that Roper would not return as offensive coordinator, and would later commit to Tennessee.
Harris, who made five starts for Florida, played well in fits and starts in 2014. He threw two touchdown passes on his only throws in the Gators' second season opener against Eastern Michigan, helped spur Florida to that comeback win at Tennessee, aided the Gators in rushing for more than 400 yards in a dominant defeat of Georgia, and darted past Vanderbilt defenders on a fine night in Nashville. But he struggled with consistency as a thrower, and completed just 49.6 percent of his passes, mitigating a gaudy 9.18 yards per attempt built on a slew of big plays in the passing game.
Grier would redshirt after losing the backup quarterback derby to Harris, suffered from back spasms, and didn't travel with the team to Alabama as a result. But his bill of health is cleaner now, and he is likely to compete with Harris for the top spot at quarterback in spring practice.
Skyler Mornhinweg, the only other Florida quarterback who has thrown a pass for the Gators, saw only brief action against Eastern Kentucky in 2014 after having to make three starts as a third-teamer in 2013.
Florida entered the 2015 cycle needing no more than a single quarterback to serve as a developmental player behind Driskel and the Grier-Harris tandem, and seemed to have more than met that need with Jones. But Driskel losing the starter's job made him very likely to transfer, intensifying the need for a developmental player, and the decommitment of Jones left Florida desperate for a player in 2015.
Targets, Efforts, and Commitments
Muschamp and Roper had their quarterback recruiting done and dusted by the end of the summer. But they wouldn't remain at Florida, and their work was for naught when Muschamp was fired.
McElwain began his tenure at Florida well behind the curve when it came to quarterback recruiting. Jones decommitted from the Gators mere hours after McElwain's introductory press conference, and only a handful of top 2015 quarterbacks remained uncommitted with just two months to go before National Signing Day — in a relatively poor year for East Coast quarterback talent, to boot.
But McElwain (and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier) zeroed in on a pair of in-state prospects, Florida State commit Deondre Francois and Louisville commit Lamar Jackson, and pressed hard for both. Both players would take official visits to Florida in January, but neither would ultimately trade their red for blue, though Francois's Twitter account tweeting out a public decommitment from FSU just days after spending a weekend in Gainesville before an evening of recanting and "hacked" talk spurred plenty of wondering about how solid his loyalty to the Seminoles was, and Jackson did wear a Gators backpack on National Signing Day, in a detail that will live on in message board lore for some time to come.
Florida never seriously pursued another quarterback, and so it finished with zero quarterbacks in 2015.
Evaluation and Future Prospects
Florida really, really needed to re-establish depth at the quarterback position with a quarterback in the 2015 class, and its failure to do so means McElwain's program finds itself in a situation eerily similar to the one Will Muschamp dealt with entering 2012.
Back then, due to the decision to take two quarterbacks in 2011 and Charlie Weis's departure for Kansas in December 2011, Driskel and Jacoby Brissett were Florida's lone quarterbacks capable of duking it out for the starter's role. And there was very little behind them: Tyler Murphy, who had never taken a snap at that point, and Mornhinweg, recruited as a career backup and greener even than Murphy in his true freshman season, were the extent of the Gators' depth behind those top two guys.
That approach worked out in 2012, as Driskel won the job, remained mostly healthy, and did enough to help Florida win 11 games, while Brissett played well enough in reserve to help Florida out. But it led to difficulty in recruiting a top-tier quarterback in 2013, and Florida settled for project Max Staver; Staver couldn't beat out either Murphy or Mornhinweg in 2013, and would transfer after his freshman season, making the Gators' haul a total wash. When Driskel went down early in 2013, Florida had to turn to Murphy and then Mornhinweg, and went 2-6 with its backup QBs starting.
The Gators would obviously like to avoid that 2013 scenario recurring. And with 2015's class done, the best means of doing that would be 1) bringing in a top-tier transfer, which seems somewhat unlikely at the moment, or 2) landing a big fish from the 2016 class. Fortunately for the Gators, the 2016 class is stocked with big-time passers, and between McElwain and Nussmeier, it seems very much possible that such fishing could be fruitful.
Florida could target Marylander Dwayne Haskins, Jr., who has tweeted his approval of McElwain's coaching staff:
The new Florida coaching staff— Dwayne Haskins, Jr (@dh_simba7) January 6, 2015
It could go after California golden boy KJ Costello, who will be hotly pursued by Michigan and Stanford, among other schools. It could try to land an in-state name, by flipping LSU commit Feleipe Franks of Wakulla, or by positioning itself well for Palmetto signal-caller and Miami commit Jack Allison in advance of instability potentially eroding Miami's recruiting class, or by going after Frostproof passer Xavier Gaines.
There are options available in the 2016 class, in other words, and Florida failing to meet a need at quarterback in 2015 is not a fatal error unless it is compounded. But while McElwain and his Gators can cite a lack of options with two months left in a recruiting cycle as valid reasoning for not landing a player at QB in the 2015 class, that certainly won't be the case in the 2016 class.