GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tyrie Cleveland had one of the more dramatic recruitments of the 2016 cycle, and his signing-day decision literally came down the wire.
In fact, it almost didn’t happen.
Cleveland, the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver, was set to announce Wednesday, out of finalists Arkansas, Florida, Houston and TCU, during a ceremony at his high school in Houston.
While coaches and fans from the four schools as well as the Westfield student body awaited Cleveland’s announcement, he was nowhere to be found.
“It was a stressful situation,” the Under Armour All-American said.
Cleveland had walked off the stage and was in a coach’s office consoling his crying aunt, Theresa Yancy. As SEC Country documented, Cleveland was born and raised in Jacksonville and grew up a Gators fan before moving to Texas to live with her.
Following his visit to Florida, Cleveland decided he wanted to attend UF after three long days — and nights — of deliberation.
His offensive coordinator at Westfield, Matt Kerstetter, spent more than three hours with Cleveland talking about his finalists after school Monday.
“I kept telling him, ‘I’m never going to tell you where to go.’ A lot of people were pulling him in different directions,” Kerstetter said. “I just wanted to help him make sense of his options. We tried to rate things by different categories and started to look at which schools offered what. The one thing he kept coming back to is where his best support system was.”
After their discussion, Kerstetter said Cleveland was down to Florida, Houston and TCU. By Wednesday morning, it had changed to Arkansas or Florida.
Cleveland committed to the hometown Cougars in early December. His former high school coach, Corby Meekins, is an assistant on Houston’s staff, and some close to Cleveland felt he was pressured into his pledge by Meekins.
Cleveland’s aunt, who is his biggest supporter and advised him throughout the process, was strongly opposed to Houston and pushed for Arkansas. When he told her just before the ceremony that UF was his choice, she broke down.
Even after the signing, Yancy was still in disbelief over her nephew’s decision.
“Florida was not my No. 1 choice. I wanted Arkansas,” she told reporters. “At the end of the day, he’s one who has to attend college.”
— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) February 3, 2016
Cleveland, however, was all smiles. He said coming out on the stage in his Gators gear to a crowd of cheers was one of the best moments of his life.
“It was a great feeling,” Cleveland said. “I grew up watching them, so I always had a feeling in the back of my mind, ‘I want to play here.’ So I went with my heart and did what I thought was best for me.”
His commitment was just as exciting for the Florida coaches, who did not know of Cleveland’s decision prior to his announcement.
“The night before signing day, I told them my options were still open but I didn’t let them know I was coming,” Cleveland said. “It was a surprise commitment to them. When I got on that stage, nobody knew where I was going. They called me afterward and told me how fired up they got.”
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) February 3, 2016
Cleveland’s flip to UF was the highlight of the Gators’ signing day, and he’s the biggest offensive recruit they’ve landed in several years.
“He’s had a lot of interest in the Gators, right there in Duval County before he moved to Texas,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “So, he’s not necessarily stuck in the Texas part of it. For him, it’s a little bit of a homecoming.
“Here’s a guy who grew up wanting to be a Gator, playing in The Swamp. I’m really happy he’s back in this part of the country.”
As Kerstetter mentioned, having a support system in place was important to Cleveland. His primary recruiter, Kerry Dixon II, and the UF staff made him feel comfortable in Gainesville.
“The big thing for me was the coaches,” Cleveland said. “They never pressured me or did anything fake. They were real from the jump, especially coach Dixon. I asked questions and he answered them honestly throughout the whole recruiting process.
“Even when I committed to Houston, he kept recruiting me and I could see he cared about me. I can also relate to him because he’s from Houston.”
Dixon, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are getting a talented and unique offensive weapon in Cleveland, who was the top performer at his position during the Under Armour practices. Cleveland runs a 4.36 40-yard dash (watch) at 6-foot-3, 194 pounds.
“It’s rare when you see those guys that long with such speed,” Dixon said of Cleveland in this video interview. “It’s just a rare combination of size and speed, and his ball skills are unbelievable. When I first saw his film, I knew this was a guy that I wanted in this class.”
Cleveland comes to UF with high expectations and will be expected to make an immediate impact as a freshman. He’s already being called Florida’s most promising incoming wideout since Percy Harvin, a player he once idolized.
“That’s a great feeling to be mentioned with him,” Cleveland said. “But at the same time, I have to come in and work for everything. I want to make the program better at the receiver position and help the team win. Hopefully, I can bring championships to Florida like Percy did.”
I’m proud to say I’m a #ChompChomp
— Cleve (@Tyrie_1) February 4, 2016
All player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.