The Florida Gators’ list of woes in the 2017 recruiting cycle got longer on Wednesday.
First, South Florida offensive lineman Kai-Leon Herbert, thought to be a Florida lean for much of the fall despite a Michigan commitment, committed to Miami, cancelling a planned official visit to Florida this weekend in the process; then, just hours later, California cornerback Elijah Blades, a long-time Florida commit, decommitted from the Gators’ class, leaving Florida with just two corners committed.
And though Blades kept Florida in a post-decommitment top five list, history suggests very few elite recruits — and Blades is one, as one of the best defensive backs in the country — decommit from schools on or around National Signing Day only to reaffirm their commitments before the end of the cycle.
Oh, and current Florida commits and players spent much of the rest of the evening unsubtly subtweeting about Blades and Herbert. That was great.
We only want all in 's— Jake Allen (@Jakeallen_14) January 26, 2017
Can't be apart of DBU if u scared of competition— Jordan Scarlett (@Famousscarlett) January 26, 2017
Just FACTS no shade ...— Jordan Scarlett (@Famousscarlett) January 26, 2017
Marco Wilson, of course, attends the same high school that Herbert does, American Heritage. This Thursday might have an awkward hall run-in!
Blades, for his part, observed the irony of fickle fans in college football recruiting:
All these fans mad now and tweeting hate but when I was committed they was all on me. Smh— ELIJAH - BLADES™ (@savageszniv) January 26, 2017
And he’s right, as Florida fans polluted his mentions on Wednesday night, and continue to do so today. But that problem is neither limited merely to Florida fans nor something that can be handled in an era of prospects running their recruitments through social media — until or unless a prospect makes a show of eliminating every program whose fans attempt to sway him on Twitter or Instagram, the sort of fever dream I consider for a nanosecond more each January.
One of the many products of the explosion of social media in the last decade is the shift of interest in recruiting information — which has been compelling enough information to enough diehards to sustain multiple subscription-based sites for most top-25 programs for the last 15 years — from message boards to Twitter. And that has brought the creepiness, presumption, and entitlement of fans who get emotionally invested in 17-year-old strangers making their college decisions because those strangers might allow them to feel happiness by making the “right” decision into full public view, laying bare just how unusual and toxic the practice of following recruiting can be.
But college football fans will always care about where their bread is made and how their circuses are staffed, and so we’re stuck with this model for the forseeable future.
And Florida fans, right now, think the bread is moldy and the circus is a joke.
Florida fell to No. 31 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings on Wednesday night, in a band of teams no Florida fan wants to concede may be equal to Florida, with Blades leaving the class. And that’s uncharted territory for a Florida program that had — until Jim McElwain’s arrival — churned out top-10 finishes on an annual basis, and could point to 2014’s No. 9-ranked class, one that Will Muschamp cobbled together after a disastrous 4-8 season, as an all-time disappointment. (That class was extraordinarily boom-or-bust, in retrospect: It yielded Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, who leave Florida as likely first-rounders, but also Will Grier and Gerald Willis, who didn’t make it to 2016.)
Both of McElwain’s complete classes so far have finished outside the top 10 of those Composite rankings, and, apart from Tyrie Cleveland, Feleipe Franks, CeCe Jefferson, and Martez Ivey, have lacked the sort of top-shelf, five-star talents that excite the recruiting-obsessed fan and the more casual fan who pays attention to recruiting from bowl game to National Signing Day.
This 2017 class is looking like it might end up being near that No. 21 rung McElwain’s 2015 class finished on, and given that it is currently headlined by a defensive end who may transition to defensive tackle, in Tampa’s Zachary Carter, it’s safe to say it also lacks flash.
But Blades — who had been entertaining overtures from Nebraska and USC for months, and who would have been Florida’s first signee from California since Ronald Powell in 2010 — was always a tenuous commit, and is likely the last decommit from this class. And six days remain between now and National Signing Day, meaning that McElwain has time — though not much — to salvage this class, at least in terms of its curb appeal.
What he probably needs to do reach the low teens of the rankings, and avoid “worst class ever” being true based on final class rankings, is hit on enough targets for the Gators, and do so in short order. There are plenty of those targets — 247Sports lists 19 uncommitted prospects as Florida targets at this moment, though one of them is Blades, and a few others are very long shots — and there is plenty of space in Florida’s class, which dwindled to 14 commits after Blades backed off his pledge, but the Gators will likely need to close with at least half a dozen lower-tier players, or hit a home run and persuade an unexpected star to join the fold, to jump 11 or more spots and into the top 20.
What McElwain can do to make Florida fans — currently the most disgruntled group of fans that has just watched its team make the SEC Championship Game twice in a row, thanks to the Gators’ offensive struggles, the relative success of rivals (and the attendant needling from rivals’ fans), and the disconnect between the confidence that Florida will always compete for national championship instilled by two decades of doing just that and the reality, spelled out by this more difficult decade, that doing so is actually really freakin’ hard — happy with this haul is less clear. It’s likely that placating the most pessimistic Florida fans is impossible at this point, and making even somewhat pessimistic fans happy is going to require a week with some magic in it.
Whether there is magic to be worked is also up for debate. While Florida is theoretically in the mix for uncommitted five-stars LaBryan Ray and K’Lavon Chaisson, either one picking the Gators would be a shock. Four-star corner Chris Henderson is trending toward committing to Miami for a second time after many months of being a Florida lean. Tedarrell Slaton and James Robinson remain likely Florida pick-ups, but despite both players being talented prospects, neither is likely to send a charge through the Florida fan base: Slaton is a lineman, and Robinson has long been considered a Florida lean.
Florida can probably stock its cupboard with enough bulk at defensive tackle and scramble for enough personnel at cornerback and safety to meet most of its needs in this cycle. And McElwain’s staff has nailed enough evaluations, not just of hidden gems like Antonio Callaway and Vosean Joseph who have become budding stars, but of high-profile misses like Lamar Jackson, Deondre Francois, and Jacob Eason, to argue that Florida’s hit rate below the vaunted blue-chip line is higher than most, though probably not enough to get the Gators to elite levels of performance without also improving its success rate on reeling in the absolute best prospects.
But meeting needs and positioning a half-dozen three-star players as hidden gems will simply not meet National Signing Day expectations for Florida fans — and while the true value of a recruiting class simply isn’t knowable until three or four years down the road, a lack of information has never prevented hasty assessments from being made, regardless of accuracy. McElwain is coming off those back-to-back SEC East titles, and yet assembling a class that is languishing near the back of the conference. The disconnect is painfully obvious, and obviously painful, given the cri de coeur that has broken out on Florida Twitter.
This Wednesday’s failures do not necessarily guarantee next Wednesday — National Signing Day — will be a failure for Florida. (And any announcement of many young men getting a shot at a college education and training for a very lucrative line of work being branded a failure — because not enough of those young men, or the wrong ones, got that shot at the school whose football team we root for — is another distressing reminder of what, precisely, most college football fans care most about.)
But they do lower the Gators’ ceiling for this 2017 recruiting class considerably, and raise the bar even higher for what Jim McElwain must do to make the work of cobbling together this class look like it all paid off.