Florida optimistic after strong finish on National Signing Day

Four-star cornerback Duke Dawson is one of 24 players who make up Florida's top-10 recruiting class.

Steve Dykes

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They needed a day like Wednesday.

The coaches. The players. The fans.

For the Florida faithful age 35 or younger, the 2013 Gators football season was an unkind jolt they had never known. Sunny Saturdays turned into gloom and doom by nightfall.

There’s not a college football program in the country that is immune to what happened to the Gators. It’s just that it had been so long since Florida football fell on such hard times that few remembered, or believed that it would ever happen again.

Injuries played a role, as did a sputtering offense and one of the country’s toughest schedules.

A promising season turned into 4-8 and the program’s first losing record since the Iran hostage crisis, which was revisited by the movie "Argo."

As with any program in the dumps, the quickest way to climb out is on the recruiting trail.

Since Florida’s loss to eventual national champion Florida State at The Swamp 68 days ago — UF’s seventh consecutive defeat — Gators coach Will Muschamp and his assistants spent the majority of their time focused on recruiting.

Even in the final hours prior to Muschamp’s National Signing Day press conference Wednesday, coaches remained glued to their cell phones to determine exactly how everything would play out.

By the time the sun vanished over Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on one of the most anticipated days of the year, the Gators’ losing streak was over.

They won on National Signing Day.

The major recruiting evaluators — Rivals, Scout, 247Sports and ESPN.com — all had the Gators finishing with one of the country’s top 10 classes.

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Muschamp’s take on recruiting rankings hasn’t changed — he doesn’t put any stock in them — but he knew the 24 players on the sheet of paper he carried to the podium had improved his team.

"It’s a great day here at the University of Florida," he said. "We had a miserable fall, and to have the staff come together … and to put together this class, I’m really proud of that."

The Gators signed six offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, four defensive backs, three tight ends, two quarterbacks, two receivers, a running back and multi-purpose athlete Deiondre Porter, a quarterback at Tampa Jefferson whom Muschamp projects as a defensive back.

The Gators didn’t get every player they coveted — Adoree’ Jackson passed over Florida, LSU and UCLA to sign with hometown USC — but they got enough of them to make a difference in 2014.

Cornerback Jalen Tabor is one of the nation’s top defensive back prospects, defensive linemen Thomas Holley is a dynamic athlete and quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris offer intriguing possibilities. Much-needed depth was added to the offensive line.

As with any recruiting class, only time will determine how good the latest batch of Gators really is.

Muschamp playfully reminded everyone of that Wednesday by recalling a story about former Georgia Tech quarterback Tom Luginbill, now one of ESPN’s top recruiting analysts.

"I was watching ESPN this morning and somebody said Tom Luginbill was the number one junior-college player when he came out," Muschamp said. "I intercepted Tom Luginbill, so that’ll tell you how important those rankings are."

He’s right. For every two-star recruit who blossoms in college but was overlooked on National Signing Day, there are more than enough five-star studs whose brightest moment came in front of those TV cameras when he signed his National Letter of Intent — and then began to slowly fade from our memory.

Still, if you sign enough good players who pan out and find a few diamonds in the rough, magic can happen.

Hope of that is what has turned National Signing Day into college football’s largest offseason spectacle.

Adding to the Gator Nation’s optimism of better days ahead is a revamped coaching staff. Since he walked off Florida Field more than two months ago after that loss to FSU, Muschamp has hired a new offensive coordinator (Kurt Roper), new offensive line coach (Mike Summers), new special-teams coordinator (Coleman Hutzler) and new director of player personnel (Drew Hughes).

No one, most of all Muschamp, wants to trudge through another "miserable fall."

Signs are starting to point to better days ahead.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed all but nine quarters last season due to a broken leg, is starting to jog and expected to be full-go by spring practice. Muschamp said doctors were pleasantly surprised at how well running back Matt Jones’ surgically repaired knee is healing during a second surgery Wednesday. The nine early enrollees are fitting in.

The message to recruits was the same this year as it was a year ago when the Gators were riding the momentum of a Sugar Bowl berth and 11-2 record.

"At the end of the day, it’s still the University of Florida. It’s a top 10 public institution. It’s a big-time degree," Muschamp tells recruits. "You can realistically win a national championship on and off the field."

Talk of a national championship seemed light years away by the end of last season.

But on National Signing Day, anything seems possible. Auburn’s dramatic turnaround last season proved that.

For the Gators, Wednesday was about looking ahead and hoping to see many more Sunny Saturdays this fall than last.