Dwayne Haskins, almost certainly the top Florida target at quarterback in the class of 2016, committed to Maryland on Friday.
And so the Gators have a quandary at quarterback again.
Haskins was always sort of a pipe dream for Florida: Despite some very positive tweets, an affirmed interest in the school, and a visit in late March, Haskins was projected to stay home and end up with the Terrapins throughout his recruitment. Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is a legend on the recruiting trail in the Washington D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area, with a long history of nabbing prospects from the area, especially offensive studs.
Locksley did this for Florida, once, as Ron Zook's running backs coach: The 2004 recruiting class that helped form the spine of Florida's 2006 national championship team included Marylanders Derrick Harvey, who would become a first-round draft pick, and Derrick McPhearson, who failed to qualify at Florida. He did it for Illinois with Zook, too, helping the Illini land Arrelious Benn.
More recently, since returning to Maryland following a disastrous stint as New Mexico's head coach, he's done it to Florida, helping the Terrapins keep Stefon Diggs, Damian Prince, and Isaiah Prince in the Old Line State. There have been cracks in Maryland's wall — Florida did snag Jalen Tabor out of the state in 2014, and Locksley's own son, Kai, is headed to Texas, after committing to Florida State — but Locksley tends to land the prospects he wants. Haskins, a quarterback with very good size and a soft touch, was certainly a player he coveted.
And that leaves Florida essentially out of the running for an uncommitted elite quarterback in the class of 2016. No 247Sports Compositie five- or four-star players classed as pro-style quarterbacks remain uncommitted, and just four dual-threat quarterbacks with four or five stars — Jawon Pass, Woody Barrett, Jalen Hurts, and Xavier Gaines — haven't made a pledge. Florida has been linked to Pass and Gaines in the past, but it's unclear how much interest either side in either player's recruitment has had of late.
This state of affairs isn't all that unexpected for Florida. McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are less than six months into their tenures at Florida, and it usually takes far longer to forge relationships with players, especially quarterbacks who take their time choosing which programs to consider. And despite an alarming lack of depth at the position, Florida's two scholarship quarterbacks — Will Grier and Treon Harris — are presumptive candidates to start for the rest of their careers. Florida's coaches can try to sell a chance to compete early for a starting job, but that doesn't work as a pitch when the cupboard still has a quarterback considered among the nation's best as a recruit (who still has four years of eligibility left) and a player who started for and sparked Florida as a true freshman.
Regardless of how Florida got here, the Gators' task going forward is clear: They will have to either flip an elite quarterback or look lower on their list.
The flipping would be very difficult, as quarterbacks, and especially good ones, are essentially the only recruits who still consistently stick with pledges made. Florida took advantage of Kurt Roper's hiring in the 2014 cycle, flipping Treon Harris from Florida State, but Harris stretches the definition of "elite" quarterback slighly; similarly, Tennessee ended up with former Florida commit Sheriron Jones, but it took Will Muschamp's firing (and Roper's consequent departure) to shake him loose from Florida. Jim McElwain's staff was far less successful in its sprint to 2015's National Signing Day, as the Gators failed to persuade Florida State commit DeAndre Francois or Louisville commit Lamar Jackson to swap hats.
The primary target for a flip this cycle would almost certainly be LSU commit Feleipe Franks, rated the No. 1 dual threat passer in the country. Franks had been linked to Florida before committing to LSU in June 2014, though that interest seemed tethered to former offensive coordinator Brent Pease. It would be very difficult to pry him from the Tigers' jaws, but Florida will have proximity on its side: Franks plays at Wakulla High, and is less than three hours from Gainesville; Baton Rouge is almost four hours further away.
But if that effort does not work, as is quite possible, Florida's primary target might well be Houston quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole. Aside from having a name so Texas it was probably rejected by the Friday Night Lights writers at some point and an even better Twitter handle, Sterling-Cole is valuable both for his own pro-style skills, and his connection to Florida wide receiver target Tyrie Cleveland, also of Westfield High. Both players hold offers from the Gators, and with Haskins committed, I wouldn't be surprised to see Florida turn up the heat on Sterling-Cole in weeks to come.
Other logical targets would include Pass, Barrett, and Gaines; the latter two are in-state studs, and Pass is from Columbus, Georgia, well within a day's drive of Florida. And then there's perhaps the most logical Florida commit at quarterback in 2016, Tampa Plant passer Rex Culpepper, son of Gators great Brad. Florida's struggles to land prospects from Plant are the stuff of legend among avid recruiting watchers — it is a fortress the Gators haven't been able to infiltrate of late, and inspires knowing groans among Florida fans like the mention of Seffner's Armwood High does for Florida State fans — but if any Plant player could logically end up at Florida, the son of a prominent Gators player would seem a good bet.
Florida not taking a quarterback in the 2016 class, after not taking one in 2015, would be a miscalculation so profound as to be unfathomable, so there's no legitimate worry about that happening. "Missing" on Haskins, though, leaves Florida caught between flipping Franks, chasing a four-star dual-threat passer who would likely be a project, and diving down its list to find a gem McElwain and Nussmeier can polish.
The first great long-term task for Florida on the recruiting trail — finding a signal-caller of the future — continues.