This is the first edition of our ‘Next Up’ series profiling Florida’s incoming recruits.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Like many kids who grow up in Florida, wide receiver Rick Wells always wanted to play for UF.
As a high school recruit, however, he had reservations about joining the football program.
During his sophomore and junior years at Raines High School in Jacksonville, Fla., the Gators had their worst season (4-8 record) since 1979 and fired former coach Will Muschamp the following year.
In December of 2014, Florida hired Jim McElwain as its next coach.
“That’s when everything changed,” Wells said.
A month later, Wells found himself heavily pursued by McElwain and running backs coach Tim Skipper, his area recruiter. They offered him on Jan. 26.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Wells said. “They just sold me right away. It was just the vibe from coach Skip. Talking to him, he was cool for real. The way he told me they need receivers, I knew it was an opportunity and I took it.”
Wells committed to UF on the spot that day, pledging to McElwain just one month after he taken the job.
“He was our first commit in the class, and that meant so much to us,” McElwain said. “He committed to what our vision was. Then for him to watch it play out, I know he felt great about his decision.”
Wells didn’t know who his position coach would be at the time of his commitment. The Gators had yet to play a game — let alone practice — under McElwain.
“I just had faith in him,” Wells said. “I really thought he would turn around the program and he did. They didn’t win many games before he got there, but they won 10 his first year. It was a big accomplishment.”
Despite his belief in McElwain and satisfaction with the 2015 season, Wells visited some other schools to compare them to the University of Florida. They didn’t.
“Throughout the whole process, I didn’t see anything better than Florida,” Wells said, who officially visited the Gators on the last weekend of the 2016 cycle, one year removed from his commitment.
“On my last trip I sat down with the offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) and he showed me how I fit into his system. He sees me as a goal-line threat and a deep-route threat, just working the cornerbacks and being physical off the line of scrimmage. Me and my parents like what he told me, so it was a done deal.”
On that same weekend, Wells also reunited childhood friend and fellow receiver, Tyrie Cleveland. After four years apart, they will team up at Florida.
Wells has been looking forward to his arrival in Gainesville since signing day.
“That was my favorite moment of the process, signing that paper. I was official,” Wells said. “I can’t wait to join this team. The offense is on the rise. All the quarterbacks look good, the line is blocking better and backs are running hard. I’m just ready to play my part.”
It’s been almost a year and a half since Wells got the ball rolling for McElwain, a distinction he’s happy to have.
“I love the fact that I was his first commit,” Wells said. “Every time I talk to Coach Mac, he tells me I’m the guy that started everything. That’s a great feeling, and I can’t let him down when I get there.”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi