Florida's reversal of fortune strikes chord with recruits

Jim McElwain's successful first season is carrying over with a strong class.
Receiver Joshua Hammond, left, became more serious about UF after the coaching change. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Receiver Joshua Hammond, left, became more serious about UF after the coaching change.LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published January 7 2016
Updated January 8 2016

Four-star prospect Antonneous Clayton was on a recruiting visit at Tennessee when something on the out-of-town scoreboard kept catching his attention.

Every time the defensive end looked up, Florida was ahead.

"They're still winning?" Clayton thought.

His muted expectations came after UF struggled through five mostly mediocre seasons. But as the Gators piled up victories this past fall, their image changed for Clayton and some of the nation's other top high school talents. UF's unexpected 10-win season is poised to pay off with a top-10 recruiting class.

A year ago, Florida entered the final surge before national signing day with eight oral commitments and only one four-star recruit. Its class was ranked last in the SEC and outside the top 80 nationally by 247Sports.

With 21/2 weeks left until prospects sign this year, the Gators' haul features 26 prospects. At least nine of them are considered four-star recruits, including former Blake High defensive tackle Shavar Manuel.

After Manuel committed this week, 247Sports and Rivals ranked UF's class No. 6 nationally. Scout moved the Gators all the way up to No. 1.

The four UF commits in Orlando for last week's Under Armour All-America Game point to the turnaround in coach Jim McElwain's first season as one of the biggest reasons why the Gators rebounded on the recruiting trail.

"I think the big thing for this class was the season they had," said Brett Heggie, a three-star offensive lineman from Mount Dora. "It was huge. I think it got a lot of guys excited for the future."

UF's recruiting momentum began to change in February with a late push that landed two five-star prospects, offensive lineman Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson.

Although the Gators still had their worst recruiting ranking of the Rivals era, those two decisions helped repair UF's reputation to the next wave of blue chippers, who were unsure of what to make of the new coaching staff.

"I would say CeCe and 'Tez kind of started the trend," Heggie said. "Those are two big-time guys coming into Florida."

Not long after signing day, the Gators' new staff began working on the next big-time talents they wanted to land. One of their spring targets was four-star receiver Joshua Hammond.

The Hallandale native watched his brother Frankie go from the Gators to the NFL. Even though he said UF was always "the dream school," he admits the Gators' inattention to offense under former coach Will Muschamp probably would have kept him away from Gainesville.

"If Muschamp was there, I wouldn't say Florida would have been one of my top priorities," said Hammond, ESPN's No. 89 overall recruit. "But when the coaching staff changed, I talked to my brother. He said to give it a try."

A few months later, Hammond committed.

Hammond said he expected a bounce-back season but "not this" — not double-digit wins and a trip to the SEC title game.

"It's the coaching," said Chauncey Gardner, a four-star safety from Cocoa. "They all came together as one and went out and had fun."

As the wins followed, prospects such as Clayton began to notice. The Vienna, Ga., native said he had a little contact with UF's old regime but didn't really begin to consider the Gators until their fast start.

Two weeks after the surprising scores he saw in Knoxville, Clayton visited the Swamp to watch UF's come-from-behind victory over the Volunteers. That was all ESPN's No. 75 overall prospect needed to see. He orally committed to the Gators a month later.

"The program's actually where it should be," Clayton said. "It's supposed to have been there, but it's really there."

And a stable of incoming recruits will try to keep it that way.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.