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Ex-Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain returns to the state Saturday, fittingly, at Miami

Jim McElwain’s Chippewas will play at Miami. If he had recruited that area better, maybe he’d still be leading the Florida Gators.
Jim McElwain, now the Central Michigan coach, endured a rocky tenure as the Florida Gators coach from 2015-2017. He brings his Chippewas to the state to play Miami on Saturday.
Jim McElwain, now the Central Michigan coach, endured a rocky tenure as the Florida Gators coach from 2015-2017. He brings his Chippewas to the state to play Miami on Saturday. [ MORRY GASH | AP ]
Published Sep. 18, 2019|Updated Sep. 18, 2019

Former Florida coach Jim McElwain’s return to the state this weekend has a fitting destination.

Miami.

Talent-rich south Florida was a microcosm of the two on-field problems that hastened his departure from Gainesville and now have him leading Central Michigan into Miami as a four-touchdown underdog: He failed to sign enough of that area’s top recruits early, and too many of the ones he did sign failed to make a significant impact.

RELATED: Jim McElwain: Florida Gators’ Kyle Trask will ‘make the most of his opportunity’

Even though McElwain had experience landing elite south Florida players as an Alabama assistant, he couldn’t replicate the process as a head coach, especially during his first two recruiting classes.

The tri-county hotbed of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach produced 36 blue-chip prospects (four- or five-star players) in 2015-16. McElwain only signed three. Florida State signed six over those two years. Miami landed eight.

“He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t going to come in here and make a huge splash,” said Larry Blustein, the dean of south Florida recruiting.

That didn’t stop McElwain from trying.

RELATED: Jim McElwain: Big Sky to the Big Time

UF was a finalist for pass rusher Brian Burns, got a visit from defensive lineman Nick Bosa and was in the mix for defensive back Jaquan Johnson. All three went elsewhere: Burns starred at FSU, Bosa became the No. 2 overall pick at Ohio State and Johnson blossomed into an All-America candidate at Miami.

Instead of playing for the Gators, Brian Burns played against them at FSU. Burns, now a Carolina Panther, is one of the South Florida recruits that could have made a difference during Jim McIlwain's tenure at Florida.
Instead of playing for the Gators, Brian Burns played against them at FSU. Burns, now a Carolina Panther, is one of the South Florida recruits that could have made a difference during Jim McIlwain's tenure at Florida. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

McElwain’s costliest miss was a less-heralded recruit who liked his predecessor (Will Muschamp) and even lugged a blue Gators bag to his signing ceremony. Alas, McElwain’s late push wasn’t enough to pry future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson away from Louisville.

RELATED: Lamar Jackson was almost a Gator

The south Florida recruiting whiffs were a microcosm of McElwain’s general recruiting issues. His first two classes ranked 21st and 12th nationally. That created a talent gap that showed up in McElwain’s big games (Alabama, Florida State, Michigan) and still exists for Dan Mullen.

Even the initial blue-chip talent McElwain signed from south Florida comes with caveats.

Josh Hammond has been a success (26 career starts entering Saturday’s game against Tennessee), but Jordan Scarlett and Antonio Callaway had multiple off-field issues that stymied McElwain’s on-field product in his final season (2017).

While McElwain wasn’t beating FSU or Ohio State for many of south Florida’s top players, he was still signing other recruits from the area. That ended up being McElwain’s other Miami problem: His staff reached on too many mediocre players they couldn’t develop into stars.

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Jim McElwain on the sideline at his last game as Florida's head coach, a 42-7 loss to Georgia on Oct. 27, 2017. The coach and the university agreed to mutually part ways the next day.
Jim McElwain on the sideline at his last game as Florida's head coach, a 42-7 loss to Georgia on Oct. 27, 2017. The coach and the university agreed to mutually part ways the next day. [ Times (2017) ]

“They would get kids who were marginal guys,” Blustein said.

McElwain signed 15 south Florida players in his first two recruiting classes. Five transferred, and four others never started a game for him. By McElwain’s final contest against Georgia in 2017, only four of those 15 were making valuable contributions: Hammond, linebacker Vosean Joseph, offensive lineman Fred Johnson and kicker Eddy Pineiro.

RELATED: The real reason ex-Gators coach Jim McElwain took a loss on his Florida home isn’t so funny

McElwain began to have more success in Miami in his final recruiting class. Five of the seven south Florida players he landed in 2017 were blue-chip prospects, including top-100 recruit Tedarrell Slaton and UF’s top two cornerbacks this year (CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson).

If McElwain had signed a haul like that in 2015-16, maybe he wouldn’t be leading Central Michigan against Miami on Saturday. He would have already faced the ’Canes — in Week 0 as the Gators’ coach.

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