GAINESVILLE — When Will Muschamp was asked what message he had delivered to the Gators when he met with the team for the first time since the football season ended, he summed it up succinctly: He's a 4-8 coach and they are a 4-8 team that desperately needs to get better.
It's that stark reality that was expected to make the height of the recruiting season very challenging for the Florida coach and his staff.
While Florida State can roll into living rooms with its national title swagger, and UCF can talk about its history-making season, the Gators are coming off their first losing season since 1979.
But with under three weeks remaining before national signing day, Muschamp believes the Gators have fared well.
"Considering we didn't have a great season, I feel very comfortable where we are recruiting-wise," he said.
With good reason — in some respects.
"It doesn't appear to be the case (poor season affecting recruiting), at least not right now just because the class they are putting together they have added a bunch of big-time commits since the season ended," said Derek Tyson, college football recruiting reporter for ESPN.
"I think kids see an opportunity to play at Florida. They see that Florida had a string of injuries, bad luck really, and Will Muschamp has been able to sell the kids on the fact that they can come in, play early and help contribute, help turn things around at Florida."
Florida has nine members of its 2014 signing class already on campus, early enrollees that include four-star North Carolina quarterback Will Grier. And the Gators have picked up several surprise recent commitments, including defensive end Gerald Willis, a Louisiana native who chose the Gators over LSU.
And this past weekend, the Gators hosted an official visit with highly-touted Miami quarterback (and FSU commit) Treon Harris. Also on Monday, Jefferson three-star athlete Deiondre Porter made his oral commitment to the Gators, choosing Florida over Miami, UCF, and USF.
The losing season can't be ignored, but it can be used as a very effective recruiting tool.
"To a kid that's 17 years old, in their lifetime Florida has generally been really good," said Keith Niebuhr, national recruiting reporter for 247Sports.
"In their formative years where they became football fans, that's who was winning national titles. So, in their minds, Florida is still an elite program and when an elite program has a down year — and it's just one year right now — it sometimes can come back strong because kids see opportunity to play immediately at an elite program. So Florida uses that to their benefit."
That spin, and some lucky breaks, have helped the Gators flip three touted prospects over the past few weeks: five-star cornerback Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C., running back Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach and Brooklyn, N.Y., defensive tackle Thomas Holley, the No. 51 prospect in the nation according to ESPN.
Tyson credited the coaching staff's steady commitment and hard work down the stretch.
"It's Florida's work ethic," Tyson said. "They had the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) convention (recently) in Indianapolis and Florida didn't send any coaches, they sent quality control coach Chris Leak. The rest of the time they were burning up the phone lines trying to recruit guys, and it paid off because they got three guys to switch their commitments in a week."
But while Florida is on an upswing of late, the recruiting class remains heavily weighted toward defense. And that's where the Gators may have a problem that must be addressed.
"If you look at the commit list for Florida, the top-rated guys are mostly defensive guys," Niebuhr said. "There are not a lot of skilled guys other than the quarterback. They still need some playmakers. First and foremost they need playmakers. If that's what you've been missing, that's what you need to find. They are going to have a Top 10 class, it's going to be a good class. But they are searching high and low for offensive playmakers in the stretch run here."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]