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Early signing period a new wrinkle for Florida's coaching search

Elite football prospects like Calvary Christian's Amari Burney now must decide if they'll stick to their Florida commitment after the recent coaching upheaval. (Scott Keeler, Times)
Elite football prospects like Calvary Christian's Amari Burney now must decide if they'll stick to their Florida commitment after the recent coaching upheaval. (Scott Keeler, Times)
Published Oct. 31, 2017

GAINESVILLE — Sunday's split between the Gators and coach Jim McElwain served another purpose beyond ending a relationship that was fractured beyond repair.

It gave Florida a head start and two potential advantages in what could be a chaotic coaching carousel.

The first benefit is obvious: The Gators have a month to vet potential candidates before the market begins to heat up.

Athletic director Scott Stricklin said he won't contact coaches until after the final game of their regular season (or conference title game). That explains the string of routine denials from USF's Charlie Strong, UCF's Scott Frost, Oregon's Willie Taggart and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen during their news conferences this week.

But Stricklin can talk to unemployed candidates (like former Oregon coach Chip Kelly) while other schools are still weighing their coaches' futures.

He can also do background work on active coaches. He can chat with their agents. He can put out back-channel feelers. He can call friends in the business to see if potential candidates might fit UF better than McElwain did.

All of that is beneficial legwork in a competitive market that already includes Ole Miss and Oregon State, with Tennessee, Texas A&M and Nebraska expected to come open, too.

"We can do our homework. We can do a lot of research," Stricklin said. "So from that standpoint, it's helpful."

The bigger help will come on the recruiting trail as programs scramble to be ready when the early signing period begins Dec.?20. Because the early window is new to football, it's hard to predict how many recruits will want to sign then instead of waiting until February.

"I've been asked that a lot," Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell said, "and the honest answer is, we have no idea what's going to happen."

But we do have a pretty good idea of what will happen if the Gators fail to hire a new coach by mid-December: It'll be a lot harder for them to start finalizing a top-10 recruiting class.

Phone calls from interim coach Randy Shannon probably won't be enough to convince commits to join a program without a head coach, and that leaves them open to offers from rival schools.

"Any chance you have of getting a kid to sign early is gone if you don't get a coach in place," Farrell said.

Stricklin knows that. He doesn't want to put a timetable on his decision because making the right long-term hire is bigger than any recruiting class. But he also said that he'd ideally have a new coach in place with enough time "to positively affect the ability to sign players for the early signing period."

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher expects other administrators to have the same idea.

"You may see teams push that up more and make their changes as soon as the year is over instead of waiting. …" Fisher said. "You'll probably know who those coaches at those places are going to be a lot quicker, too, because of the early signing period."

The Gators have already expedited the first part. Don't be surprised if they speed up the second part, too.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Class action

The Gators currently have a projected 2018 recruiting class of seventh nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. A closer look:

17 Hard commits

0 5-star recruits

10 4-star recruits

7 3-star recruits

1 Quarterback commit (California's Matt Corral, a pro-style QB ranked third in the nation at his position)

2 Class rank in the SEC for UF, behind East rival Georgia

3 Tampa Bay commits (Cambridge Christian OT Richard Gouraige, Calvary Christian S/WR Amari Burney, St. Petersburg ATH Jalynn Williams)