GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The spring evaluation period ends Tuesday, and Florida’s assistant coaches covered a lot of ground during their month and a half on the recruiting trail.
UF coach Jim McElwain and his staff visited prospects all across the country, from California to New York and throughout the Southeast. Though the Gators have expanded their national recruiting footprint, particularly in Alabama and Texas, the state of Florida remains the ‘first and foremost’ priority for McElwain & Co.
“Everybody recruits this state first,” McElwain said at the Naples Gator Club. “When you look back historically, there was about a four-year run there where all three teams (Florida, Florida State and Miami) I think we’re in the top 10. It speaks volumes obviously to the quality of high school football that’s in this state in general.”
Over the past decade, a few out-of-state schools such as Clemson have made inroads in Florida and taken away some talent from the three rivals. The Gators’ top running back target, Clearwater’s Adarius Lemons, committed to North Carolina this spring, but UF offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and running backs coach Tim Skipper continue to pursue him.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we get those who want to be Gators and the ones that fit the needs you have year to year,” McElwain said at the Space Coast Gator Club, an area that has produced three current Florida players and is home to the state’s No. 1 athlete, Cocoa native Bruce Judson.
McElwain has already made significant progress in South Florida. His first four commits for the Class of 2017 came from the region, as well as seven of the final 14 recruits he landed in his first recruiting class — highlighted by record-setting wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
“It’s not only about how good the football players are down here, but obviously getting the right ones,” McElwain said at the Broward County Gator Club. “We have 20-plus players on our roster from this neck of the woods and we need to continue to do that. Having (linebackers coach) Randy Shannon on our staff and obviously (receivers coach) Kerry Dixon — who spent some time at FIU and FAU and has some real relationships down here — I think that’s really important.”
Another critical area for UF is Jacksonville, which is the largest city by population in Florida. The Gators have signed a Jacksonville product for four consecutive years, and they’re trying to flip five-star cornerback Shaun Wade from Ohio State in this recruiting cycle.
“We have roughly 15-17 players from this area,” McElwain said at the Gator Club of Jacksonville. “With this being so close and being a major area, it’s key. The high school football is so good and you look at the success of our guys. You’re talking three starters on the offense from this area (not including quarterback Luke Del Rio).”
One city the Gators need better results in is Tampa. They haven’t signed an 813 prospect in two years, but four-star wide receiver Daquon Green is committed for 2017 and defensive line coach Chris Rumph has Florida in prime position to land four-star defensive end Zachary Carter.
Greg Nord‘s No. 1 tight end target, Tre’ McKitty, is also from Tampa. His commitment would give UF the top two tight ends in the state.
“Obviously it’s the closest major city,” McElwain said at Tampa Gator Club. “Throw that and Orlando in the mix. There’s ease for these people’s friends and family being able to get to The Swamp and get back home easily.”
New secondary coach Torrian Gray has quickly improved Florida’s in-state recruiting efforts, most noticeably in his hometown of Lakeland, which recently produced a pair of first-round picks for UF in Maurkice and Mike Pouncey.
“T’s been awesome,” McElwain said of Gray. “Polk County has been giving him a hard time. First time we’ve had a guy brought up from Kathleen and now all of a sudden everybody at Kathleen can play, right? (Gray offered Kathleen linebacker Ventrell Miller last week). But no, it’s been a great addition. He’s blended in and hit the ground running.”
Defensive coordinator and Orlando area recruiter Geoff Collins, along with offensive line coach Mike Summers, are working to flip five-star offensive tackle Calvin Ashley, an Auburn commit. He visited Florida three months ago and raved about the trip.
“This is a huge area for all of us,” McElwain said at the Central Florida Gator Club. “As I’ve said, there’s not a school in the United States of America that does not recruit Florida. It’s a big state for everybody. For us in particular, it’s very important.”
Unless otherwise indicated, rankings and ratings come from the 247Sports Composite.
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi