As we get closer to putting the 2011 recruiting class to rest, I caught up with some of the local recruiting writers to get their takes on Will Muschamp’s first class at Florida.
We have Mark Wheeler of GatorBait.net, Laura McKeeman of Scout.com and FightinGators.com, Derek Tyson of GatorCountry.com, and Justin Wells of Florida.247sports.com in the house. I’ll be providing my input as well.
Let’s see what our somewhat working brains could come up with after a very, very long recruiting season with the Gators.
1. Who do you think was the most important prospect Florida signed in Will Muschamp’s first class?
Wheeler: Without a doubt being able to hold on to Jeff Driskel was priority number one for Will Muschamp and Charlie Weis coming into Florida. Mission accomplished! Signing a franchise quarterback is always a great thing, but it took on added importance for the Gators when you consider the fact that other than senior-to-be John Brantley, UF’s depth chart at the position last year was filled with quarterbacks more adept at running the ball than throwing it.
McKeeman: Jeff Driskel is the most important prospect Florida signed in Muschamp’s first class. You almost can’t call it a “get” for Muschamp since Driskel was essentially recruited and picked up by Urban Meyer and his staff. Driskel is, rather, a “keep” for Muschamp and a crucial cornerstone of this 2011 class. Not only does Driskel present a possible option to relieve the quarterback woes that plagued Florida in 2010, but he has also been key in holding on to some other important prospects that began wavering after Meyer’s departure. Obviously, we don’t know what to expect until Driskel proves what he’s made of in spring practice and begins the tall task of living up to his own reputation. But from what I’ve seen of the kid, we may have a Gator great on our hands.
Tyson: I think the obvious answer would be quarterback Jeff Driskel, but for sake of argument, I will say wide receiver Ja’Juan Story. After losing commits Jeoffrey Pagan, Ryan Shazier, Nick Waisome, and Chase Hounshell, Story was a guy who was strongly considering switching to Ohio State. Florida only had one other wide receiver commit (Javares McRoy), so losing Story could have been devastating. Though Story probably needs a year to develop, his potential is almost limitless.
Wells: From my vantage point, it has to be Jeff Driskel. The Gators needed a marquee name at the quarterback position in this class and got possibly the best one in the country in Driskel. When he traveled out to the Elite 11 quarterback camp out in California over the summer, many observers compared his physical skills to that of former Georgia standout Matthew Stafford, who went on to become the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick of the Detroit Lions. That Florida somehow managed to land a commitment from Jacoby Brissett as well, helps provide additional depth and competition at the quarterback position for the Gators.
Aschoff: The obvious answer is quarterback Jeff Driskel, so it doesn’t make sense not to go in that direction. Florida’s quarterback situation isn’t pretty. Though he struggled mightily last year, John Brantley should be the guy, but after that no one is truly sure what is going to happen. Jordan Reed and Tyler Murphy could end up playing different positions next year. Florida needed an elite quarterback of the future, and Driskel is that guy. He can play in both the spread and a pro-style, so adapting to Charlie Weis’ offense shouldn’t be a problem. He could be even more deadly in a pro-style because of his ability to run. I expect Driskel, who is already on campus, to see the field as Florida’s No. 2 quarterback this fall.
2. Which prospect, who signed with another school, was the biggest miss for Florida?
Wheeler: There are a couple of candidates here including James Wilder Jr., Nick Waisome and Timmy Jernigan. However, the player UF whiffed on who stands out the most is five-star linebacker Curtis Grant. Heading into the process, nabbing a couple of top-tier linebackers was priority number one for the Gators. Had the coaching change not taken place, UF very likely would have signed a linebacker class which included Grant, Stephone Anthony and perhaps Lamar Dawson. In the end, Grant was the only one UF was a legitimate finalist for, and he ended up signing with Ohio State.
McKeeman: Most will say the biggest miss in 2011 is linebacker Curtis Grant, who ended up at Ohio State. I definitely see why this was a huge miss, but I’m going go a different direction and look toward a big miss on offense: wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who will be a Seminole. Florida desperately needed a big wide receiver in 2011, and while Ja’Juan Story has the size, he will need much more coaching than Benjamin and won’t make as immediate an impact as Benjamin might have. With Muschamp’s decision to go pro-style on offense, I think a kid like Benjamin could have been a wonderful fit.
Tyson: Tim Jernigan and Curtis Grant were both huge losses, but I will say Curt Maggitt was the biggest loss. Maggitt admittedly grew up a Gators fan, Florida had his last visit, and the last chance to make an impression. It seems that Maggitt would have been a nice fit as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense that Will Muschamp runs. For whatever reason though, Florida couldn’t close the deal and he chose Tennessee the night before signing day.
Wells: No doubt it is defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. The consensus top-ranked player in the state was just 40 minutes up the road from The Swamp in Lake City and would have addressed a need position for the Gators. Long considered to be a lean to Florida, the loss of Dan McCarney — and eventually Urban Meyer — likely sealed Florida’s fate in regards to losing Jernigan to Florida State (over LSU) on National Signing Day. That one may hurt at the end of each November for the next three to four years, as Jernigan is the type of prospect who could develop into an anchor on the defensive front for the Seminoles. Factor in late misses on two other linemen — Elkino Watson (Miami Booker T. Washington) and junior college prospect John Jenkins (Perkinston, Miss., Gulf Coast C.C.) — and things could get quite sticky for the Gators if they suffer any kind of injury issues along the defensive line in 2011.
Aschoff: I keep going back and forth on this one. The top two guys on my list are Lake City Columbia defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and Richmond, Va., Hermitage linebacker Curtis Grant. Both were major hits at positions of need for Florida. While Jernigan was almost right in Florida’s backyard, I have to go with Grant. Defensive tackle might have been a bigger need for Florida, but Jernigan’s work ethic has constantly been called into question over the years. He’s even admitted to not always giving his all or not being in shape. We won’t know if he would have shaken those bad habits in Gainesville. With Grant, you are getting one of the most athletic and smartest linebackers in this year’s class. He’s a true leader on the field and might have contributed very early at Florida. By only signing one linebacker, Florida took a major hit when Grant picked Ohio State.
3. When you look at the guys Florida signed, which prospect do you think will be the sleeper of this class or is the most underrated? Who do you think is the most overrated?
Wheeler: Two signees really stand out as being underrated — Jeff Driskel and Louchiez Purifoy. On the surface it might be hard to make the case that the No. 32-rated prospect (Driskel) in the nation is underrated, but I’m of the mindset that the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder was deserving of five-star status, rather than the four stars assigned to him by Rivals.com. In my opinion, an even bigger injustice was Purifoy coming in at No. 147 overall in the Rivals250, and No. 28 in the state of Florida. Watch his tape and read the press clippings from his senior season. He might just be the most electric player in the state with the ball in his hands and one of the top overall pure athletes in the Sunshine State.
McKeeman: Speaking of Ja’Juan Story, I think he will be the most underrated guy in this class and ultimately has the most upside. At the Under Armour All-American game, I was speaking with a coach who has worked at three different BCS schools and works specifically with wide receivers. He said Story would be the most successful guy in the future out of all the talent playing at the Under Armour game. Once Story gets coached up and learns from (wide receivers coach) Aubrey Hill and Charlie Weis, he could end up being incredibly productive not only in college but also in the NFL. He’s got the size, tools and athleticism. Sometimes raw talent is the most precious and valuable commodity.
Tyson: Fullback Hunter Joyer would have to be my sleeper pick. Before the coaching change, Joyer was heading to Florida hoping the Gators would use him. Now that Charlie Weis is running a pro-style offense, the fullback position becomes very important. Joyer will be used as a lead blocker, a receiver out in the flats and an occasional ball-carrier. I expect him to compete for playing time immediately. As for an overrated pick, I hate to call a kid overrated before ever seeing him play a college game. I wouldn’t call Jeff Driskel overrated because he has a world of potential, but I don’t think he will have an immediate impact like a lot of fans believe. His playmaking ability is uncanny, but his passing skills still need some fine-tuning. I still think in the end he will be a great college quarterback.
Wells: In terms of a sleeper prospect, I really like the potential of Loucheiz Purifoy. Many wanted to talk up the National Signing Day announcement of Marcus Roberson for the Gators as the marquee pickup in this recruiting class among the defensive backs signed. But Purifoy brings many of the same qualities to the table, and he might be the fastest prospect the Gators signed in this class. I don’t like the term “overrated” in discussing prospects, but I do think the signing of Graham Stewart might be considered a bit of a “reach.” This was a great year for linebackers in the state of Florida. But the Gators really put all of their eggs in the baskets of All-Americans Stephone Anthony, Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier. And, though for a time it seemed Florida might be in a position to land the trifecta, they ultimately missed on all three. Meanwhile, several very worthy linebacker prospects — Keith Lewis (Tampa Freedom; signed with Ole Miss), Shaun Ward (Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson; signed with Texas A&M) and Ramik Wilson (Tampa Jefferson; signed with Georgia) — were either completely ignored or given a lower priority by the Gators over the past year. It’s hard to assign blame to anyone here. The Gators had a plan in place at the linebacker position, and because of the coaching change, were unable to see it through. But it will be interesting to keep an eye on some of these in-state linebacker prospects from the Class of 2011, to see how they perform at the next level in locales such as Athens, College Station and Oxford, among others.
Aschoff: The first name that comes to mind here is fullback Hunter Joyer when discussing the most underrated signee. As a fullback, he lacks the glamor and attention. Not many will really remember that Joyer signed with the Gators, but they will eventually know him once he gets on the field. He benches more than 500 pounds and is the first true fullback Florida has had since the Ron Zook era. Watching him over the summer, I could tell this kid would be a load to stop or get by in the future. With Steve Wilks and T.J. Pridemore constantly fighting injuries, the addition of Joyer is major plus for an offense moving to more of a pro style. He could immediately see action this fall. As for overrated, I have to go with Graham Stewart. He was rated a four-star prospect, but after watching him in the USA vs. The World game, he looks undersized. He’s got good speed and instincts on the field, but I’m not sure if I think he’s an SEC linebacker. I think he’ll be a hard-working player when he gets to Florida, but right now, his size is a concern. I will note that I said cornerback Cody Riggs was the most overrated last year because of his size, and I whiffed mightily on that one.
4. Muschamp might have been a big name in the college football coordinating world, but it seemed like a lot of prospects in Florida’s recruiting area weren’t too familiar with him. How much of a factor do you think that played in Florida’s recruiting efforts, especially after he replaced an icon like Urban Meyer?
Wheeler: I don’t know if it was so much a lack of name recognition on Muschamp’s part as it is an entirely different personality type altogether when comparing him to Urban Meyer. Whereas Meyer would immediately bond with a young man by being buddy-buddy, laughing, joking and cutting up with him, Muschamp comes across as more business-like in his approach. I think rather than being their friend during the process, which might have had a downside when they actually arrived on campus and thought they were still friends with the coach, Muschamp is going to be more along the lines of a Nick Saban where he sells the Crimson Tide as being a winner on the college level while being an NFL feeder type of program. If you win and those players get drafted, that approach certainly has its advantages.
McKeeman: I don’t think prospects’ familiarity with Muschamp, or lack thereof, really affected anything with his recruiting in 2011. Yes, most of these players had no idea who Muschamp was when I first contacted them about the hire, but he was incredibly proactive about contacting the guys he wanted as soon as possible. The personal attention he gave these guys and his presence in their homes and with their parents made him seem familiar and approachable. I remember talking to Anthony Chickillo (defensive end who committed to Miami, but was one of Mushchamp’s first targets) after Muschamp first visited him. Chickillo said, “I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.” Many other recruits echoed Chickillo’s sentiments about Muschamp, and I have yet to talk to a family or recruit who was not impressed by him. The “Florida” name itself certainly carried more weight in this recruiting class than any coaches, but ultimately that is the best. Players should never go somewhere for coaches, as we all know the school itself is the only constant in any college football program.
Tyson: I was surprised when I asked recruits about new coach Will Muschamp, and some of them had never heard of him. I believe it did play a factor in this recruiting class because guys want to tell their friends they are playing for a big-name coach. Next year, I don’t believe it will play a factor at all. It was a smart move by Muschamp to hire big-name assistants like Charlie Weis, Bryant Young, and Dan Quinn. Quinn might not have a big name, but his NFL coaching experience makes up for that.
Wells: Just the fact that Florida was going through a coaching change is something that definitely affected the Gators on the recruiting trail. Urban Meyer and his staff had been building relationships with a lot of their top targets for at least a year. Now all of the sudden, there’s a coaching change, there’s a new staff and these guys have to start from scratch with just a few weeks to go before National Signing Day. That’s hard to overcome for any program, and it showed in some of the final results that filtered in last Wednesday for UF. The true test will come from what Muschamp does over the next year. He has to establish his name across the state of Florida. This is a staff that should do well on the recruiting trail, on paper at least. But can they overcome the momentum that Jimbo Fisher and his crew have established in Tallahassee over the past year? That will be the big question over the coming months.
Aschoff: Replacing Meyer was always going to be a tough proposition. Add the fact that Muschamp was coming from a different recruiting area and he was always going to be behind. It was an unfair task, but he knew what he was getting into. After talking to players and coaches, players weren’t as up-to-date on who Muschamp was and what he had done as coaches were. Coming into Florida’s area meant building new relationships with coaches. The fact that he previously coached in the SEC might have meant something to high school coaches he knew, but players just weren’t as familiar with him and I think that hurt. His name just wasn’t big enough to truly grab some of the major guys on Florida’s board. I certainly expect that to change because he’s been one of the most aggressive recruiters everywhere he’s been. Time will only continue to help Muschamp and his staff on the recruiting road.
5. After taking some time to reflect on the 2011 class, how would you grade Muschamp’s first recruiting haul as head coach at Florida?
Wheeler: I’m not exactly the type to hand out the “feel goods,” but overall I think Muschamp did about as well as can be expected, considering the time constrictions that were placed upon him by his late hire, combined with the fact that his coordinators weren’t in place until early January. Urban Meyer and Ron Zook are both thought of as excellent recruiters, and they each struggled somewhat (Meyer had the No. 15 class, Zook the No. 20) with their first recruiting class before rebounding to sign the No. 2-rated class in their sophomore recruiting seasons. Given the circumstances, I would give Muschamp and staff a solid B, maybe even a B+, for a class which will end up ranked No. 12 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings with Jacoby Brissett signing his LOI.
McKeeman: I would grade Muschamp’s class a C+. There were certainly some huge misses on guys like Curtis Grant, Kelvin Benjamin and Elkino Watson, but Muschamp and Co. were able to grab quite a few gems. Charlie Weis had great success getting quarterback Jacoby Brissett at the last minute and stealing him away from Miami, which seemed the clear favorite to many for Brissett. Brissett maintains Weis was an integral part in his decision to land at UF. Muschamp was also able to get cornerback Marcus Roberson and hold onto guys like Jeff Driskel and Mike Blakely. You can’t ignore the fact that he was able to retain some key pieces in this class. Also, the potential of Muschamp’s first class is certainly there and could end up impressing us all much more than we planned.
Tyson: I think this was a solid, but not spectacular class. I would rate it a B-. Adding Jacoby Brissett, was a boost to the class. I know Muschamp would have liked to add more players, but he did get 19 solid players, many of which could help contribute early. Like Muschamp said in his press conference, he was going to for quality not quantity. The state of Florida will be loaded with talent next year, so it will be interesting to see how the new staff does when it has a full year to recruit.
Wells: All things considered, I give it a solid B. The Gators brought in a haul among the skill positions and in the secondary that has to be considered as strong as any group in the country. With Muschamp and his staff basically having to re-recruit all of the guys who were previously committed to Florida, along with making a few additions down the stretch, this has to be considered a pretty good group for the first-year head coach.
Aschoff: With the task of having to replace Meyer and coming into the recruiting game very late, I think Muschamp did a good job of securing most of the core guys from Meyer’s class. However, there were holes that weren’t filled. Florida signed one linebacker and three would have been preferred. Only two offensive linemen will come in, and Florida lost one in the process. The Gators looked to be trying to bring in four at one point. Finally, the defensive line will be represented by just two signees. There is no defensive tackle and not much is known about Tevin Westbrook and Clay Burton at the ends. But Driskel stayed committed and Florida might have the best defensive back group in the country. Tight end A.C. Leonard could make an instant impact, while running back Mike Blakely will provide a spark to the offense whenever he’s healthy. Looking at everything, I like Muschamp’s work, but missing on a bunch of defensive guys was costly. I say Muschamp’s first class deserves a B-.