Championships are never won in February, of course. You’ll hear that more than once Wednesday. National Signing Day has become part payoff, holiday and obsession for recruitniks who breathlessly track high school prospects from the courting process to the dotted line.
Precaution is the prescription for this time. Still, the day matters, and it will hold as much weight in Gainesville as it does in Knoxville and Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge and Tallahassee, plus other college football havens where January dreams are planted as soon as the fax machine starts to hum.
The Gators’ lost season has been over more than two months now. But National Signing Day feels like a step forward, past the 4-8 record, past the listless offense that resulted in the firing of two assistants, past the un-Florida-like fall that produced the worst campaign in 34 years.
Turn that tattered page. The future begins now.
"Any time there’s talk of coaching turnover, whether it be at the head-coach level or even with a coordinator, it’s obviously going to give recruits a reason to pause and revisit who they’re talking to," said Patrick Burnham, a Scout.com recruiting analyst with a Florida concentration. "But the thing about it is, at the end of the day, Florida is still Florida. They’re still one of the premier programs in the nation. They’re always going to be able to attract high-level recruits."
Florida is still Florida, even if 2013 was a dent to its reputation. High-ability prospects choose Gainesville as their new home, and this year will be no different.
The Gators’ expected haul, as tabulated by Scout.com, includes one five-star prospect (New Orleans defensive end Gerald Willis), eight four-star players and 12 three-star talents. It includes 21 commits — 12 offensive, nine defensive — and it ranks 11th overall and sixth in the SEC.
None of this is an exact science. Potential is hollow until it’s shaped for the country to see on Saturdays. Blue chips could become busts, whereas diamonds in the rough sometimes develop into jewels.
Still, there are names that create a buzz, in addition to Willis, that the Gators are expected to secure Wednesday: Four-star quarterback Will Grier, a native of Davidson, N.C.; four-star defensive tackle Khairi Clark, a native of Hollywood, Fla.; four-star cornerback Jalen Tabor, a native of Washington, D.C.; four-star defensive tackle David Sharpe, a native of Jacksonville; and four-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley, a native of Brooklyn.
"I would say that Will Grier is definitely the guy that they want to get most excited about," said Brandon Huffman, Scout.com national recruiting analyst. "Just because he’s a confident quarterback. He put up a ton of yards (5,785 with 69 touchdowns last year). He’s done everything he has needed to do at the high school level. I think it’s just now a matter of getting the chance in college."
Coach Will Muschamp’s staff hopes more have that chance at The Swamp. Talk to Huffman, and he’ll say Florida’s class could lack many elite skill-position players because of the offense’s recent problems. He’ll say there has been such a focus on the opposite side of the ball, in the trenches, that the cream of this class should have a distinct defensive feel.
The list of current commitments supports the theory. Of the nine players with at least four stars expected to sign with Florida, only three are offensive targets: Grier, Sharpe and four-star tackle Nolan Kelleher, a native of Mt. Pleasant, S.C. That’s it.
Certainly, no class is complete on Signing Day Eve. Deep thoughts are had. Futures are considered. Kids make choices, and grown men paid millions of dollars hang on the strokes of a few key pens.
So it should come as no surprise that there are other potential catches Wednesday that could bolster this group: five-star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson from Gardena, Calif., four-star cornerback Treon Harris from Miami and four-star offensive tackle Damian Prince from Forestville, Md., all could choose orange and blue. Snagging Jackson, rated sixth in the Scout 300, would especially be a coup.
But as the class stands, sizing up its identity is simple: Think defense, defense, defense.
In years to come, the Gators hope "turnaround" comes to mind as well.
"If they lack a lot of the skill position players, it’s because the offense has been so un-dynamic, and that’s a big reason why it has really hurt their recruiting in this year’s class," Huffman said.
Still, it’s movement forward, past the recent forgettable Saturday afternoons, past Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern and the rest. That’s all gone.