National Signing Day comes the first Wednesday of every February, and each year it seems to continuously feel like a heated college football Saturday during the regular season. Coaches take shots at one another across state lines, some fan bases act like they’ve won a national title — or just lost one, depending on how the day goes. Head coaches go to bed that night feeling either more or less confident about their staffs’ futures in college towns.
In Gainesville, Fla., Florida head coach Jim McElwain’s staff put together a solid, relatively quiet, but quality 2016 recruiting class. The Wednesday went pretty much as expected — there were a few surprising pick-ups, and some misses. The 2016 class — McElwain’s first true one — finished 13th in the country. Overall, the class, despite maybe not having a slew of five-star and big name recruits, did exactly what it needed to do: filled the major needs at every position lacking depth. A big part of the successful class came in the 12 early enrollees who have been on campus for a month.
First and foremost, McElwain did an excellent job at getting major prospects at the skill position spots. There are five quality wide receivers, including the No. 2 ranked wideout in the country with Tyrie Cleveland, a talented pro-style quarterback in Feleipe Franks, graduate quarterback transfer Austin Appleby, along with two running backs.
All will be able to help immensely — Florida’s wide receiver talent, besides freshman phenom Antonio Callaway, was lackluster in 2015, and we all saw how much junior Treon Harris probably isn’t the best fit in McElwain’s offensive scheme, to put it lightly. The running back corps is young, especially with Kelvin Taylor declaring for the 2016 NFL Draft, but getting two backs in this year’s class is huge from a depth standpoint.
“That’s part of the side that needed probably the most restructuring,” McElwain said of the skill players in the class on Wednesday. “And like I said, I think we addressed some of those position needs. I feel really good at the skill spots. We obviously have some young offensive linemen and we have got a couple that we look forward to adding to that.
But when you look at from the receiver, quarterback, running back side, I think we’ve got some really good talent in there. It will be fun to watch them, because the majority of here already. So we’ll get a good feel for that this spring.”
Mark Thompson, a JUCO early enrollee running back, can come in and produce immediately. Standing at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, Thompson can run through the tackles very well, but can also pair his strength and size to find success on the edge, too.
On defense, McElwain also, you guessed it, filled some major holes for the most part, especially in signing three linebackers — a position that is in desperate need of depth and fresh talent. There are also six defensive backs — including a late JUCO addition from Arkansas target Jacob Putu. Thanks to former head coach Will Muschamp’s emphasis in recruiting talented defensive backs in 2011-14, the depth for the most part will still be there for a couple more seasons. However the departures of Vernon Hargreaves III, Brian Poole and Keanu Neal means there was some holes that needed to be filled on the recruiting trail.
“Well, you look at the young guys that obviously we’ve got one here already in David [Reese], and then you take a look at those young guys that will be in here taking snaps right away,” McElwain said of the linebackers. “As I kind of explained to them. We have got some quality at those spots, but the lines aren’t very long. It’s like when you go to Disneyland and get one of the fast tracks or whatever, where you have to go get on a ride right away.”
The one spot on that side of the ball that needed to be filled but wasn’t, was at defensive tackle. Florida had four-star defensive tackle Shavar Manuel verbally committed to the Gators up until Wednesday morning — he decommitted around 9:00 a.m. and then flipped to Florida State. Now, Florida’s options there are for the most part, pending any graduate transfers, down to Taven Bryan, Caleb Brantley, — who both had solid 2015 seasons — and redshirt sophomore Thomas Holley. McElwain was pretty short about missing out on the defensive tackle position in this year’s class.
“You always want to try to make sure you get one or two pieces at each spot and that’s a choice. That’s what it is.” McElwain said.
All in all, Florida’s 2016 National Signing Day, besides picking up Tyrie Cleveland, was pretty quiet and without many surprises besides Manuel decommitting. The No. 13 ranked class in the country might not sound like where you’d expect Florida to finish. But when you look deeper, McElwain’s first recruiting class did precisely what it needed to do, especially when seeing the 12 enrollees who are already on campus. Don’t fret Gator Nation — the second-year head coach did just fine on Wednesday.