The Fourth of July weekend is great for anyone who loves fireworks, and less great for the rest of us, who might prefer not having their peace and solitude disturbed by artificial bangs and booms.
The Florida Gators had a perfectly representative stretch over their long weekend, too, with two decommitments bookending a commitment, a 2019 signee revealing he’ll have to head to junior college, and a somewhat surprising transfer, the latter of which may be the most significant loss for 2019 Florida to happen this offseason.
First, though, we turn to the recruiting trail, where Florida lost three-star athlete Jaheim Bell and three-star edge rusher Morven Joseph on either side of a commitment from Richie Leonard.
Bell used the Fourth itself to declare his independence from Florida’s 2020 class, making the call in a mid-afternoon tweet that could very well have interrupted your cookout.
Bell is fleet for his size — at 6’3” and about 200 pounds, he is likely to end up as either a big wide receiver or a slightly undersized tight end in college, with Florida selling him on the latter possibility — and just put in a fine showing at Nike’s The Opening. But he has also been flirting with South Carolina of late, and his Crystal Ball now shows four predictions that he’ll end up a Gamecock.
Losing Bell means Florida will have to look elsewhere for a hybrid tight end in the 2020 class if it still wants one. (The Gators do possess a commitment from Jonathan Odom, but he’s seen more as an in-line player.) Bell would probably have struggled to play early in 2020 at Florida, though, as Kyle Pitts, Kemore Gamble, and Keon Zipperer should all be ahead of him on the depth chart when he arrives.
Richie Leonard, on the other hand, may have committed to Florida on Friday with the hopes of playing early for the Gators — just like another player from his high school and at his position did.
Committed. Thank You.— Richie Leonard IV™ (@RichieLeonardIV) July 5, 2019
Happy Birthday Momma ❤️. pic.twitter.com/dWFIljNLdx
Leonard is a three-star offensive lineman from Cocoa, and fits a similar profile to Jawaan Taylor, who famously came to Florida as an unheralded prospect, worked his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman, and started for three years before leaving for the NFL.
Leonard may not quite have Taylor’s frame or feet — he’s listed at 6’3” and looks it, and has played more inside at guard for the Tigers — and will surely see a more crowded depth chart than Taylor did upon his arrival. But if he can come to Gainesville and work like Taylor did, he’ll have a strong chance to contribute to the Gators.
Morven Joseph, meanwhile, seemed to have a strong chance to decommit from Florida throughout June, as he spent much of the month traveling with teammates to see other schools and documenting the visits on Twitter — the sort of thing that firm commitments rarely do so publicly, even though Joseph’s tour did begin in Gainesville.
So it came as little surprise on Friday when he made that decommitment a reality.
Florida seemed to feel strongly about Joseph, issuing his second SEC offer (trailing just Kentucky) and getting him to commit after a Junior Day in February, even if the recruiting industry has him pegged as a three-star edge rusher and is skeptical about his relatively slight 210 pounds on a 6’3” frame.
But while he — like Bell — mentions Florida as a “top school” in his decommitment note, it is now likely he’ll end up elsewhere, with Florida State as a potential destination. And Florida, for its part, will be free to pursue a number of higher-rated rushers in a class that has a number of targets that make sense.
The Gators might also be able to issue a couple more National Letters of Intent than usual to that 2020 class after 2019 signee Deyavie Hammond revealed Saturday he will not qualify at Florida and will instead head to junior college and redshirt sophomore Brian Edwards announced his plans to transfer on Monday.
Hammond was a four-star offensive lineman in the 2019 class, and was considered a potential academic risk when he signed with the Gators, along with Lakeland teammates Zipperer and Lloyd Summerall. But Summerall and Zipperer have each made it and enrolled at Florida, and Hammond not ultimately doing that this summer makes it unlikely he ever will, with Florida’s track record of reeling in past signees from the junior college ranks nearly nonexistent in the years since the successful re-recruitment of Reggie Nelson.
And if you’re one to panic or sell doom over recruiting, you can also make it out as “troubling” that Hammond is the fourth four-star member of the Gators’ top-10-on-paper-as-of-Signing Day 2019 class to part ways with Florida before playing a snap in a season, joining transferred cornerback Chris Steele and quarterback Jalon Jones and fellow JUCO-bound linebacker Diwun Black. (And with wide receivers Arjei Henderson and Dionte Marks and offensive lineman Wardrick Wilson also still not enrolled at Florida, Hammond may not be the last bit of attrition for the Gators’ class.)
But the truth is that Edwards choosing to leave Florida’s fold is probably either this offseason’s most significant development for Florida’s on-field prospects this fall or a close second to Steele’s messy departure.
Edwards — who was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge after an incident involving his girlfriend in May, but had the charge dropped in June due to lack of evidence, with that girlfriend telling investigators that no crime had occurred — is the only player of the five mentioned here to have actually played a snap for Florida, after all, and projected to be a reserve defensive back again in 2019, even if Steele had arguably nabbed a rung above him on the Gators’ depth chart this spring.
And while Steele was almost certainly going to be a bigger factor for Florida over the next three years than Edwards was, Edwards could well have seen the field in nickel and dime packages or after any injuries to Florida’s thin secondary, with his versatility as a player who has worked at multiple secondary positions in high school and college having some value to the Gators.
Florida looked like it had put just enough depth together in its secondary to prevent possible disaster if any of its touted first-stringers — corners CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, corner/safety hybrid Trey Dean, or safeties Brad Stewart and Jeawon Taylor — went down this fall. Injuries to any of those players will now assuredly press either talented but green underclassmen (Amari Burney, Kaiir Elam, Chester Kimbrough, Jaydon Hill or John Huggins) or much-maligned veteran C.J. McWilliams into Florida’s lineup in ways that will unsettle fans who would have been much more sanguine about seeing Steele — hardened, in theory, by a spring spent in Gainesville — or Edwards — trusted enough to play at least some snaps in recent years — in those same roles.
Probably, this series of five players making decisions about their future — or, in Hammond’s case, having a decision made for them by academic prowess or lack thereof — will register as a blip as a whole and a series of smaller blips collectively. None of these players stands out as an obvious program-changer, and though any blow to Florida’s recruiting at present can seem like a major shot when one considers the deficit the Gators are trying to make up to full-gallop SEC programs like Alabama and Georgia and reigning national champion Clemson, it is assuredly overreacting to say the sky is falling.
But this stretch of mostly negative news follows a rare spate of nearly entirely positive news — Florida racked up five commits in just six days in late June, you may recall — and comes on the heels of the passing of legendary fan George Edmondson, and so the Eeyores among the Florida fan base aren’t wrong to be gazing dolefully back at the just a week ago when it was all good.
If you’re not equipped to take the roller-coaster ride that is following big-time college athletics in stride, you’re probably not going to enjoy every second of being a Gators fan.