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National Signing Day 2015 recap: Jim McElwain saves Florida's best worst recruiting class ever

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Florida's 2015 recruiting class may be its worst ever. But it could've been much, much worse. And that's the argument for Florida's close being a bang-up job by Jim McElwain.

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At the moment, with some West Coast recruits still yet to make their commitments and shift things minimally, Florida sits at No. 21 in the best 2015 class rankings, the ones powered by the 247Sports Composite.

It is at once triumph and tragedy — at least in the football sense.

You really have to understand why it's the latter to get why it's the former.

That No. 21 ranking, if you look closer, isn't so good in context. It's 10th in the SEC, ahead of only geographically-disadvantaged Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Of the seven teams Florida plays on a yearly basis, three finished well ahead of the Gators, with top-10 classes, and one finished just a bit ahead.

South Carolina made a bowl on par with Florida's, lost to its in-state rival for the first time in half a decade, fended off rumors of Steve Spurrier's looming departure fomented by Spurrier himself saying he might not coach for much longer, lost seemingly half its class every other week, and finished ahead of Florida. Mississippi State is located in Starkville, lost its defensive coordinator to Florida, and lost its last two games to its in-state rival and the ACC runner-up, and finished significantly ahead of Florida. Tennessee and Georgia lost to Florida in 2014 and finished well ahead of Florida.

Hell, Tennessee hasn't beaten Florida in a decade and still basically lapped the Gators on the recruiting trail.

And that's only where this class sits compared to its contemporaries. Compared to Florida's standards for transitional classes, there's little doubt it's at least in the running for the worst Gators recruiting class in history.

Florida's 2002 class, a Frankensteined mess of Spurrier's final recruits and Ron Zook's first ones, finished 20th by Rivals's estimation, and yielded Ciatrick Fason, DeShawn Wynn, and Dallas Baker (who wouldn't arrive for two more years) and little else.

Florida's 2005 class, from the overlap of Zook and Urban Meyer, produced Louis Murphy, David Nelson, Reggie Nelson, Ryan Stamper, and players whose careers would end in genuinely tragic (Avery Atkins) and tragicomic (Ronnie Wilson) ways; it finished No. 15.

In 2011, Will Muschamp managed a No. 12 finish with just 19 players, nine of whom left Florida before the 2013 season; the best of those prospects was Jeff Driskel, the second-best was Jacoby Brissett, and aside from those two, Loucheiz Purifoy, and Marcus Roberson, it's hard to find a big-time contributor in those ranks (sorry, Jabari Gorman).

And, hell, Muschamp's 2014 class, which was recruited to a program that had just gone 4-8 and lost its final seven games, was better than all three of those transitional classes. I might even take just the secondary from Florida's 2014 class over every one of those transitional bunches.

Travel further back in time, to the 1990s, and it's hard to argue that Spurrier ever had a class outside the national top 20. I've never seen good historical rankings for years prior to 2002 (when Rivals first published class rankings), but Spurrier's Florida never went more than four years without an SEC title, and the only recruiting class of Spurrier's tenure that never had a hand in one was the 2001 class ... which he coached for one year.

Florida has been good enough, managed well enough, and well-situated enough to rake in talented recruits hand over fist year after year. Coaching changes never really dragged Florida down that far, and neither did the 2013 nightmare.

It took the combined effects of both to create the sewage stew that Jim McElwain inherited this year: Florida's prestige took a hit in 2013, unquestionably, and that temporary pain plus the uncertainty that swirled around Muschamp's job security led to recruits trending away from Florida, or simply holding off on joining the Gators' class and preventing any semblance of momentum until the last weeks of the recruiting cycle.

And even then, Muschamp was there to work against Florida, eventually nabbing Byron Cowart, Javarius Davis, Ryan Davis, and Mike Horton for Auburn — three targets and a commit on National Signing Day — on the final sweep of the perfect storm's outer bands.

Every little detail seemed to work against Florida this cycle. Florida State being way, way up and in a position to cherry-pick the recruits it wanted, the puzzling lack of a wide receivers coach after a respected one was made to resign, an extended dead period: Every incremental disadvantage seemed massive.

So why do I feel so good about the class McElwain landed?

For one, McElwain managed to hold serve on two of the state's three big-time prospects available by the time he took the reins. Cowart was always a tougher cookie, but Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson were true life-long Florida fans, very much eager to play for the Gators, not Muschamp or McElwain alone, and missing on either one of them would have been a grave error. McElwain didn't.

Florida also desperately needed offensive linemen in this cycle to provide an immediate infusion of bodies and prevent the disasters that befell the thin 2013 team. With six in this class, including the nation's best lineman in Ivey, McElwain landed more high school linemen than Muschamp did in his first two classes (the Gators got two in 2011, and another two in 2012), and as many linemen, including transfers, as Muschamp brought into the program over those first two years. Errors in offensive line recruiting likely rank with errors in quarterback recruiting and development as the cardinal sins of the Muschamp era; McElwain made sure to avoid them, and did.

And the two great missed opportunities in this class, not taking a quarterback and landing only one linebacker, can be spun into positives. Any 2015 quarterback would've had to wait in the wings for the Treon Harris-Will Grier quarterback duel to conclude, and McElwain would likely have had to take a flier on a sleeper if he couldn't work magic and flip Deondre Francois or Lamar Jackson if landing a 2015 quarterback, rather than just landing the eventual successor to Harris/Grier, was his objective.

Without a 2015 quarterback on the roster, Florida can sell playing time hard to a much deeper crop of 2016 quarterbacks; even pursuing a transfer candidate, as Florida might, won't reduce the allure of a "You can be my hand-picked guy" pitch from the men (McElwain and Doug Nussmeier) who made A.J. McCarron the only two-time national champion starting quarterback since Tommie Frazier.

And the same is sort of true at linebacker, where Florida's depth chart looks wide open in 2016 and beyond. The 2016 class is light on linebackers (2015's class was actually rather deep), which may make Randy Shannon's hunt for hitters harder ... but, on the other hand, Randy Shannon is literally the only college position coach Ray Lewis had, so I think his credentials might cancel out the degree of difficulty.

Florida also went light on wide receivers in this class, which augurs well for a bumper crop of in-state wideouts in 2016 (one of whom, Rick Wells, is already a Gators commit), and didn't bring in a ton of chaff at defensive back, which should help as it tries to reload a secondary that will assuredly lose a ton of talent in 2016. (Unless you think Vernon Hargreaves III is staying for the 2016 season, in which case you are an insane person.)

And if we can forget about those schematic needs met and unmet, Florida got what is unquestionably a psychic win on National Signing Day. Sure, a morning of being reminded of Will Muschamp and losing recruiting tussles with him was excruciating, but that gave way to an afternoon of bliss for Gators fans who have had precious few of those for about two whole years.

Florida landed two of the nation's top 10 on Wednesday, something no other program in the country can boast — and it landed the second of them in a flurry of activity that netted four commits in a half-hour. The Gators jumped 40 to 50 spots in every recruiting ranking, and assured themselves of being part of the winners section of any write-up of the day.

This is momentum, and though momentum is largely just feel-good malarkey, Florida fans have been desperate for feel-good anything for a while now. This close seems likely to stoke enthusiasm beyond the relatively good reception McElwain has gotten from a legendarily picky fan base, and he needs it, especially given the significant work left to do in restoring the Gators on the field.

No, the rankings aren't great on a holistic level, or in historical context, and, yes, some of the players Florida snagged on Wednesday (and prior) may be of a lower caliber than the ones Gators fans are accustomed to crowing about on message boards.

But, yes, this was almost exactly what anyone looking for a little hope from Florida needed — and it came at exactly the perfect time.

I wrote about hope and faith a lot last fall, in discussing my feelings for Muschamp — a coach I still think will have significant successes down the line, and a man I've spent four years respecting for the many things he did to fix a program that I believe, with good reason, was broken. I wrote about needing hope from the Gators prior to their game against Alabama, and about no longer wanting to draw it from Muschamp after Florida's horrific Homecoming loss to Missouri.

I am an incorrigible optimist: Hope really does spring eternal for me. I was going to be a believer in Jim McElwain no matter what happened on this day — and my understanding of his career also gives me a fair bit of faith in him.

The casual Florida fan is significantly more pessimistic than I am, and, I would wager, less intimately familiar with the whole of college football. She probably thinks of the last four years as a dark age, and may have thought of McElwain as a bumpkin with buck teeth from a mid-major school prior to today.

Even the greatest skeptic, though, has to concede that McElwain and Florida did something remarkable on this National Signing Day, and with this misbegotten and malnourished recruiting class. I can't imagine how cold-hearted and pessimistic one would have to be to see Ivey and Jefferson beaming as they become Gators and not feel at least a little better about Florida's future.

Today was about restoring hope and faith for Florida fans. I think McElwain did that.

And I think a little hope and faith may go a long way.