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Lamar Jackson, Saturday's likely Heisman winner, was almost a Gator

Lamar Jackson, in FSU’s DeMarcus Walker’s grasp, soured on UF when Will Muschamp was fired, still considered the Gators, then chose Louisville.
Lamar Jackson, in FSU’s DeMarcus Walker’s grasp, soured on UF when Will Muschamp was fired, still considered the Gators, then chose Louisville.
Published Dec. 10, 2016

Barring an enormous upset, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson will be announced as the 82nd Heisman Trophy winner tonight in New York.

It will be a fitting award for Jackson, the most exciting quarterback since 2005 Heisman runnerup Vince Young. It will also serve as an unfortunate reminder of what might have been for the quarterback-starved program that tried to poach him.

Florida.

"We obviously tried," Gators coach Jim McElwain said this week.

The push began with the previous regime.

Former UF coach Will Muschamp's staff offered Jackson a scholarship during his senior year at Boynton Beach High, after Jackson orally committed to Louisville that August. But the Gators' ties to Jackson disappeared when Muschamp was fired before the 2014 season ended.

"I think he would have gone to Florida if Muschamp had stayed," Jackson's high school coach, Rick Swain, told 247Sports this year. "When you don't know anyone at a school, it makes it pretty tough."

McElwain inherited that tough position when he took over on Dec. 4.

He had two months to evaluate UF's recruiting class and identify prospects that might not have been on his radar at Colorado State. McElwain and his staff started by targeting the best players in the state.

"He was obviously one of them," McElwain said of Jackson, one of the nation's top 20 dual-threat quarterback prospects. "We felt that obviously the best players sitting there, we've got to try to recruit them."

The plan had some success. On signing day or the days leading up to it, the Gators landed two of the state's top five recruits (offensive lineman Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson) along with this season's leading rusher (Jordan Scarlett) and leading receiver (Antonio Callaway).

Jackson was trickier.

"By the time we got in here, he had already been pretty down the road and committed (to Louisville)," McElwain said.

UF still had a shot. The Gators got Jackson on campus the weekend before signing day for his final official visit. Jackson later told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he thought about decommitting. He even wore a blue Gators backpack to his signing ceremony.

But Jackson stuck with the Cardinals, where he played as a true freshman and then as a sophomore this season, keeping his team in the College Football Playoff hunt into November. He set an ACC record by accounting for 51 touchdowns this season, and he became the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,500 yards and pass for at least 3,300.

Other schools also missed out on Jackson, who was only considered a three-star prospect by some recruiting sites. Some recruiting experts initially thought he was headed to Nebraska. Miami made a late charge, and Florida State wanted him, too.

Things worked out for the Seminoles, who signed ACC rookie of the year Deondre Francois instead. But the Gators are still stuck in their post-Tim Tebow quarterback rut.

Transfers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby became the ninth and 10th different starters since Tebow left for the 2010 NFL draft. Jackson, meanwhile, single-handedly amassed more yards in the first half against FSU (263) than the Gators' entire team did in last month's loss to those same Seminoles (207).

While Jackson will be back at Louisville next year, Florida remains unsettled at the position. McElwain said it wouldn't be fair to burn freshman Feleipe Franks' redshirt in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl, so the Gators won't get a glimpse of how their future quarterback looks.

But they can still wonder about Jackson and what might have been.

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