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Florida's task: Keep in-state recruits, starting with Tampa Bay

Malik Davis (20) of Jesuit, Gator chomps in celebration of a touchdown during the second half of the game on Friday November 4, 2016 at Tampa Catholic High School.  Jesuit defeated Tampa Catholic, 34 to 14.
Malik Davis (20) of Jesuit, Gator chomps in celebration of a touchdown during the second half of the game on Friday November 4, 2016 at Tampa Catholic High School. Jesuit defeated Tampa Catholic, 34 to 14.
Published Jan. 24, 2017

TAMPA — Jim McElwain's recruiting plan starts with locking down the state of Florida.

If McElwain is serious about that — and making Florida a legitimate College Football Playoff contender — reestablishing a pipeline from Tampa Bay to Gainesville is a good place to start.

"When there's a great one, that guy's going to come to Florida," McElwain said during an Outback Bowl trip to Tampa. "A lot in the past have been flying out of here."

Almost all of them, in fact.

McElwain's first UF class in 2015 featured only one player from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando (Pasco High lineman Andrew Ivie). His second, in February, had none — the first time the Gators were shut out of Tampa Bay since 2004.

It's a far drop from 2012-13, when UF signed four locals in each class, or 2006, when the Gators landed five (including receiver Riley Cooper).

The issue hasn't been talent. Local stars have simply chosen to go elsewhere.

Like Clemson, where three former Tampa Bay recruits — Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott — posed for photos together in the Raymond James Stadium locker room after helping the Tigers win their first national title in 35 years.

Or Auburn, where the Tigers have landed the area's top prospect each of the past two seasons (Tampa Catholic receiver Nate Craig-Myers and Armwood defensive end Byron Cowart) and flipped Pasco cornerback Jayvaughn Myers from UF.

Or Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher's 2015 class included blue-chip receivers Auden Tate (Wharton) and George Campbell (East Lake).

But this year's class could mark a shift, in part because McElwain's staff has been targeting some local recruits for almost his entire time in Gainesville.

"We plan on going there and changing things," Jesuit running back Malik Davis said.

Davis is part of a UF class that includes three of the Tampa Bay Times' top 25 local recruits.

The headliner is Hillsborough High defensive end Zachary Carter, a top-150 national recruit who would be the Gators' biggest local signee since former five-star recruit Vernon Hargreaves jumped from Wharton in 2013. Davis is Hillsborough County's all-time leading rusher, and Tampa Bay Tech receiver Daquon Green — an Under Armour All-American — has been committed to UF since July 2015.

"In Tampa, we're trying to get all our athletes in one spot and make a tradition," Green said.

If that happens, it could compensate for the step back the Gators' recruiting has taken across the state.

UF's loaded 2006 recruiting class included 10 of the state's top 25 players; it signed only three each of the past two seasons. Since McElwain's arrival, UF has signed less than half as many in-state blue-chip recruits as FSU, and fewer than Miami and Auburn, too.

The in-state drain explains why the Gators' last three recruiting classes have all finished no higher than sixth in the SEC. Rankings and stars aren't perfect, but they're clear indicators of a talent gap that has been glaring in UF's biggest games. McElwain is 0-2 against Fisher (with losses by a combined 43 points) and 0-2 in the SEC title game (with losses by a combined 52 points).

The Gators can't start challenging FSU and Alabama without better in-state recruiting, and they can't accomplish that without more success in a prospect-laden area two hours away.

That's why, after watching Tampa Bay's top talent go elsewhere, McElwain is trying to fix a leak in UF's pipeline to one of Florida's biggest talent reservoirs.

"Our deal is to try to keep them," McElwain said.

The Gators' future might depend on it.

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

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