A stomach flu that shouldn’t be discussed delayed my IAKOW debut, and as such, I didn’t get to dissect the 21-0 run that allowed Florida to beat Kansas at the O’Connell Center last Tuesday night, but I’m happy to join IAKOW and look forward to being a part of the writing staff and, more importantly, the community on this website.
Neil Shulman introduced me in a previous piece, and I’m grateful he’s brought me aboard. I’ll look forward to contributing consistently and should provide “day after” analysis to the Jimmy V Classic Wednesday as well- a game the Gators better be prepared for lest they ruin the goodwill of the Kansas victory in one fell swoop. Much more on Florida-Memphis in the day to come, as well, I’d expect.
For my debut—I thought I’d take a long look at Florida’s football program, which itself is just coming out of a season-long stomach flu that probably shouldn’t de discussed. Neil Shulman recently wondered if Florida had an attrition problem under Will Muschamp. Whatever your thoughts are on that, he did mention one thing that I’m particularly curious about- lots of players that Muschamp signs are leaving for various reasons. So now I’m going to take that a step further, and ask: is Muschamp even recruiting the right type of players to begin with?
First, though, let’s quickly review how we got to this point in the first place.
There are a host of reasons why Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley made the decision to bring Muschamp back as Florida’s head football coach in 2014, and on various websites, these reasons have been well-documented. Several pieces could have been linked- but I chose the Team Speed Kills piece for two reasons: 1st- I think it best demonstrates that many of the problems with the Florida football program are indeed systemic, meaning in this context they aren’t, or weren’t, directly caused by Will Muschamp and his staff; and 2nd—it reiterates a common-thread that has existed since Will Muschamp was hired away from Mack Brown’s Texas staff—Muschamp is a relentless recruiter who can bring in players to fix the problem. It is this second claim, which the Team Speed Kills piece makes with limited and careful language, but other author’s have made more aggressively, which merits more examination, and that is the goal of this piece.
Before examining the “Muschamp as relentless recruiter” who can and will “bring in the guys to fix it” claim in what I think you’ll find is tedious detail, I’d like to offer a couple of additional caveats, for purposes of “framing” this piece. First, I do not think “Muschamp as relentless recruiter” is the primary reason Foley brought Muschamp back. I think it was one factor that was of import and weighed alongside:
a) Muschamp’s impressive 11-2 2012 campaign, where Florida reached the Sugar Bowl for only the ninth time in the 107 year history of the program;
b) the “investment” factor–outlined by Team Speed Kills and several times, quite well, by Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army—which is the argument that “Florida invested in a young, talented coach who knows x’s and o’s and football and if you release him now, down the road he’ll be a dominant force who essentially got OJT at a premier program prior; and
c) “Optics”- which is a combination of the eye-test argument that Florida surely wouldn’t have gone 4-8 if it hadn’t lost 11 starters to injury over the course of the regular season and the broader “optics” argument that if Florida fired a head coach suffering that type of injury-riddled season a year removed from the Sugar Bowl after affording him only three years to fix a program the second-best coach in college football said he “broke”, well—who the hell is going to want that job?
It should also be noted that “c”, especially the broader “optics” portion, is maybe the best argument, though of course Foley shouldn’t and can’t and would never say so out loud. It’s the “c” argument that forces Florida’s hand (along with Louisville’s rather large pockets) replacement hunting, and it is naïve to suggest otherwise, given that what Florida essentially did when it hired Will Muschamp to be its football coach was hire the guy that Texas had selected to be its football coach whenever Mack Brown rode off in the sunset or was forced out by boosters who are tired of Alabama and Texas A & M and yes, Baylor.
One thing I haven’t done, during this whole ordeal, is really get a sense or feel one way or the other whether Muschamp is the right guy for the program long-term—I don’t think anyone knows that yet—but as someone who has seen my fair share of Florida football teams, I think Foley made the right decision precisely because we don’t know if Will Muschamp is the right guy long-term, but we do know the “optics” are devastatingly bad if he wasn’t the head coach in 2014.
That established, it is error to “think” Muschamp is the right guy for 2014 (and perhaps beyond) without at least considering the various indictments of his football program, as is. And make no mistake—it is Will Muschamp’s football program. Next season will mark year four of his tenure, which is commonly accepted in the sport as plenty long enough for a coach to leave his mark on a program and remove himself from both the achievement and harm of a predecessor. This means the pressure not only will be, but should be, on Will Muschamp to produce results next autumn.
Much has been written about the problems plaguing the program, notably the putrid offense that Will Muschamp conceded has “infected” the program. There is no question Florida’s offensive struggles have placed immense pressure on Muschamp’s defense to get stops and produce turnovers, and when they haven’t, Florida has lost more than it has won. You can’t argue that from a results standpoint.
A new offensive coordinator, and perhaps a new offensive system, may help matters, and surely can do no harm, but Muschamp’s issues do not start, nor end, with inept offense. And it has surprised this author that so many have fixated on the offensive woes and to a large extent stopped the interrogatories regarding Muschamp’s program there.
Florida’s problems, and a “Big, Dumb Will Muschamp FOO-BAW” (2013, not 2012 Spencer Hall connotation) offense that makes a 79 Gremlin look like a sweet whip, might be a symptom of a larger condition, which is largely about Will Muschamp, “talent evaluator” and recruiter, more than anything else.
And before you go all “But Muschamp is a relentless recruiter who has assembled two top-five recruiting classes, Neil, and it isn’t as if Urban Meyer exactly let the cupboard full, what are you talking about?”—let me explore this a bit. And let’s explore it with Meyer’s last class, the 2010 group, under the microscope too, because that’s fair given the five year personnel turnover schedule required in the sport of college football and because examining the final Meyer class directly helps address the longstanding argument of the “Meyer said the program is broken” crowd, who typically collapse most arguments about the state of Florida football to a simple “Meyer broke this, Go Michigan State, Ashtabula Jesus is the worst” lines of argumentation.
Basic premise: Will Muschamp may be a relentless recruiter, but by and large he has been relentlessly pursuing personnel he and his staff either did not evaluate properly, or should not have evaluated because they did not fit a specific need/vision for his program. This, coupled with the problems Muschamp and his staff (the offensive staff being the worst offenders) have had developing the players they did bring in, have created a situation where the fruits of Muschamp’s relentless labor have been a lousy harvest. Stopping the metaphor: Will Muschamp has failed to replenish Florida’s roster with the type of players he needs to win championships.
As noted above, Meyer’s final class is as good a starting point as any. It is (near) where the well-written Team Speed Kills piece linked above begins its analysis of the systemic problems that “have been around a long time”, although there is a discussion about the 2009 team that went 13-1 as well, but even if the Addazio arguments/skill position arguments there are true- they’re not particularly persuasive because zero skill players from 2009 could, by rule, impact Florida football in 2014, and Will Muschamp has had three, and by next summer will have four, recruiting classes to identify, evaluate and bring in talent to fix whatever issues existed on that team—which by the way, won 13 games and was part of a program that still has won more consecutive games than any SEC football team this century. So we’ll start at 2010, the last class signed, though not the last class largely recruited by, Urban Meyer.
NOTE: For formatting purposes, we’ll just note what happened with the player, how they contributed to the Florida program, whether they were a starter, All-SEC player, etc. Each recruit will be given a grade. Anyone who has ever had fun with a 24/7 sports or ESPN Top 50 Players List four or five years later will appreciate this method. Also noted at the top (in parentheses) will be the national ranking, on an aggregate basis (ESPN, 24/7, Scout), of the class. List goes from most-highly touted to least. A synopsis of the class will follow the list.
Meyer’s Last Class- 2010 (# 1)
Ronald Powell, DE/LB – # 1 recruit in country according to two services. Injuries have hurt, as have questions about his work ethic. BUT- he’s been a starter, and if he returns to school (very much in the air but the guess here is the NFL paperwork won’t be pretty), he could be a dominant player as a redshirt senior. Grade: B-.
Dominique Easley, DT– # 1 DT by all services. Two knee injuries but started a game every year he was healthy. All-SEC performer, and appeared poised for massive senior year before he was injured after the Tennessee game (which he dominated). Likely a productive pro even with the injury history, just like Ray McDonald has been. Grade: A.
Matt Elam, S/ATH – # 2 at “Athlete” out of high school on aggregate, and one of a wave of players Meyer reeled in from powerhouse William T. Dwyer in Palm Beach County. Elam was a two-year starter and three year contributor who had a massive junior year that landed him on the All-SEC team and some All-American lists. A quiet leader, he was the heartbeat of Florida’s vaunted 2012 Sugar Bowl and SEC East co-champion defense. First round draft pick and rookie starter in the NFL. Grade: A +.
Jonathan Dowling, S – Ranked # 1 or # 2 by most services at his position, Dowling was supposed to anchor the secondary with Elam for three years. Instead, Meyer kicked him off the team (yes, Meyer did kick people other than Avery Atkins and Cam Newton off the team) for rules violations shortly before stepping down (again). Muschamp tried to persuade him to come back; Dowling refused. The Bradenton Southeast product surfaced at Western Kentucky, where this year he was First Team All-Sun Belt for the second consecutive year. In 2012, he had three interceptions in one game to help the Hilltoppers defeat the University of Kentucky, a game that more or less sealed current Florida WR coach Joker Phillips’ fate in Lexington. He declared for the NFL draft this week Grade: F.
Shariff Floyd, DT – # 2 at his position, behind Easley, out of high school. Part of what Tom Luginbill called “the greatest defensive recruiting class ever assembled” on signing day. Floyd was a two-year starter, a three-year contributor, and an All-American and awards banquet invitee as a junior. A fan favorite and a wonderful person, Floyd was a first round draft pick and is, like Elam, now a starter in the NFL as a rookie. Grade: A +
Joshua Shaw, CB – # 3 or # 4 at his position by most services- one of two California signees from this class that showed Meyer’s ability to sell Florida in 50 states to elite talent. Started one game as a freshmen for Urban Meyer in 2010, and played in ten other games. Transferred to Southern California because of family issues. Started for USC at corner and nickel this fall. Grade: D (purely at Florida- though he left through no fault of his own)
Mack Brown, RB – Consensus top-five tailback who had threatened Herschel Walker’s state rushing records in high school out of Lithonia, GA. Struggled to grasp multiple different offenses until this season, where he was a reliable contributor on a bad football team. Will play a role in proceedings in 2014,though how much depends less on him and more on Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor, and perhaps, Dalvin Cook. Safe to say he’s been a bit of a disappointment, given considerable hype. Grade: C
Gerald Christian, TE- # 2 TE and second of the William T. Dwyer commits, Christian redshirted as a freshmen after repeated statements by Meyer that he was “close” to ready to play. Christian stayed after Meyer departed and played in eight games for Muschamp, mostly in goalline packages. Transferred to Louisville after the Gator Bowl win over Ohio State. Had a catch in every game in which he played (11) for Louisville this year and started several games for the Cardinals. Caught four touchdown passes. Grade: D-
Chris Dunkley, WR – Highly-regarded burner from football factory Pahokee. Struggled with injuries immediately when he arrived at Florida and then with grades, leading to a suspension by Muschamp for academic reasons. Transferred to South Florida, where he has caught only 11 passes in two years and been suspended for domestic violence charges once. Grade: F
Ian Silberman, OT- # 3 or # 4 OT out of Fleming Island High in greater Jacksonville, Silberman was one of only two OL signed by Meyer in recruiting class some called the “Greatest Ever.” Silberman played sparingly for Florida after redshirting in 2010, and started this year only after Florida had lost Chaz Green, DJ Humphries and Tyler Moore to injuries. Silberman graduated in four years and will transfer next year, a sign he understands it is unlikely he’ll start once the line is fit. Grade: D
Jaylen Watkins, CB – Another kid who was top-five nationally at his position. Watkins played special teams extensively for Urban Meyer as a freshmen, and started 29 football games the following three years for Will Muschamp. Watkins will be largely remembered for slipping and allowing Georgia’s Tavares King to catch a critical touchdown in the 2011 Georgia game, capping a UGA comeback, but should be remembered as a very good, flexible football player who never complained, graduated, and was an outstanding tackler and three-year starter. That’s what you hope for on signing day. Grade: B
Chaz Green, OT—Tampa Catholic product who was rated below Silberman at his position by all services. Redshirted as a freshmen but started nine games for Will Muschamp as a redshirt freshmen and was named a Freshmen All-American by the AP. As a sophomore, Green graded out at 80 percent or higher the final four games of the season, and was the only lineman to do so in the Sugar Bowl loss. Started eleven games, missing two with injury. Injured in the preseason, Green began the domino-effect of UF injuries, and there’s an argument that his injury was, outside of Easley’s, the most costly to the Gators in 2012. Will return, as either a senior or medically-redshirted junior, in 2014. Grade: B
Cody Riggs, S – Less highly regarded secondary member of this class, but came from Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, a place Urban Meyer once said “gives you players who are already ready to play for the Gators.” Put on nearly thirty pounds after enrolling at Florida and played immediately for Meyer, appearing in 13 games and starting alongside Ahmad Black by season’s end. 2012 was a washout, as Riggs broke his foot, earning a medical redshirt. Otherwise, 26 starts since he’s been enrolled and has played in every game when healthy enough to do so. Good student, sometimes team captain. Football player is best way to describe him. Grade: B +
Leon Orr, DT – Again, less highly thought of than contemporaries Floyd and Easley, but still a four-star player by all services. Redshirted in 2010 as Meyer tried to move him to offensive line. Muschamp arrived and immediately moved him back to defensive tackle. Appeared in ten games in 2011, and every game in 2012 before becoming a starter (eleven starts) in 2013. Was particularly good in second half of 2012, including big games against Georgia and South Carolina. Grade: B –
Solomon Patton, WR – Late addition to class from Mobile. Chose Florida over Auburn and Alabama, who both recruited him heavily (Bama for the role filled by Kevin Norwood!!) Patton was a quiet special teams player for two years before becoming part of the offense in 2012, running jet sweeps that were very effective for the Gators throughout the first half of the season. Injured against Georgia and missed the remainder of the season. Started 13 games as a senior and had an enormous season as one of only playmakers on dreadful football team. Fast enough for next level, but durability and size questions will matter. Should be drafted though. Grade: B
Chris Martin, DE – Top-five or ten at his position, depending on the service–Meyer flipped him from California with much fanfare after signing day, and then moved him to linebacker. Muschamp moved him back to DE, but Martin had off-the-field issues and transferred after spring football, citing “homesickness.” Was a bit of a nomad for a while, eventually turning up at Kansas for Charlie Weis. After a spring that had various preseason magazines touting his potential, Martin was arrested for aggravated robbery and dismissed from the Jayhawks program. He will stand trial for those charges this March, and if convicted, could serve up to fifteen years in state prison. Grade: F
Michael Taylor, LB – Atlanta product who chose Florida over Georgia and LSU. Redshirted for Meyer’s last team, but has since played in 36 games for the Gators, mostly at middle linebacker, starting 14. Registered ten tackles against LSU this past season, and had six, including a crucial second-half sack, against Texas A & M last year as the team’s fourth linebacker. If healthy, should start as a senior. Grade: B
Trey Burton, ATH- Not overwhelmingly highly-touted because of questions about what position he’d play, Meyer moved him to H back in summer camp, and Burton became a legend three games into his freshmen year when he scored FIVE touchdowns against Kentucky. In hindsight, that may have been a disaster—Alabama scouted him and stuffed him on the opening drive in Tuscaloosa the next week and the season suffered from there… Burton started 29 games and appeared in fifty for Florida, finishing his career with 20 touchdowns rushing or receiving, 700 yards plus rushing, 900 plus receiving, and one game-changing (season-changing?) touchdown run at Tennessee in 2012. Probably not a pro, but will be a fine coach. Grade: B+
Gideon Ajagbe, LB – Brought in to play linebacker but tore rotator cuff in summer practice and redshirted for Meyer. In 2011, played sparingly on special teams. Injured again in 2012- this time with a knee- but moved to FB and won a starting job (when Florida started a FB) in 2013. Caught four passes this year, including a touchdown in the opener against Toledo, where he made his first start. Grade: Incomplete
Quinton Dunbar, WR – Three-star (aggregate) but well-regarded because he played at Booker T. Washington, a Miami powerhouse. Dunbar redshirted as a freshmen, but started five games for Charlie Weis’ offense in 2011, catching 14 passes and two touchdowns. Started eight more times as a sophomore in 2012, and caught at least one pass in every game- a streak that now stands at a school record 28 games—including a huge touchdown against South Carolina in 2012. His 90 career receptions are tops on the active roster, but he hasn’t scored a touchdown since the FSU game in 2012. Bizarre. As expected, he’ll return for his senior season, where he figures to remain a reliable, if not spectacular, college wide receiver. Grade: B
Neiron Ball, OLB – Another Georgia linebacker, Ball picked Meyer’s program over Alabama and Auburn, and he played extensively as a freshmen in pass-coverage situations and on special teams. Missed 2011 with a horrific medical condition that nearly caused him to lose his life, much less play football. Returned in 2012 and played in eleven games, starting against Bowling Green and LSU. Started seven more games in 2013, including four of the final five games of the year, but has struggled as a run-stopper in particular. Should factor into the rotation as a redshirt senior. Grade: C+
Tyler Murphy, QB – Late addition to class as lightly-recruited dual-threat quarterback, Meyer recruited him as a QB but more or less immediately moved him to WR. Murphy redshirted, then remained a WR (and emergency quarterback) for Charlie Weis in 2011 before becoming a full-time quarterback in 2012, behind Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. As is well-known, Murphy took over for the injured Jeff Driskel in 2013 against Tennessee, and performed admirably as a starter over the next six games before a shoulder injury suffered against LSU finally became too painful to play by the South Carolina game. Threw for 1,200 yards and six touchdowns against five picks as the starter, and was thought to be in the mix for next year’s starting role, but announced he would transfer this week. Grade: C + (Given what was expected, he did okay, and he’s probably the difference between 2-10 and 4-8, for whatever that’s worth)
Lynden Trail, DE/LB – Another guy from a powerhouse program (Booker T Washington) that embodies what Meyer values in recruits – speed, size (6’7!!!) and HS pedigree— Trail was one of the earliest commits in the # 1 class and a guy Meyer said was “instrumental” in helping keep the class together off-the-field. Trail redshirted, didn’t play for Muschamp in 2011, and transferred after failing to even dress for the FSU game. Trail transferred to Norfolk State, where he was an All-MEAC player at linebacker for the Spartans this season, registering 94 tackles and 8.5 sacks, both good for second on the team. Has started fifteen games at Norfolk State and should be team captain as a senior. Grade: F
Jordan Haden, CB – Joe’s brother, he enrolled in the spring shortly after his brother turned pro. Left Florida before dressing for a game, turning up at Toledo, where he started two games in 2012 and had a pick six. Was injured throughout 2013, playing only sparingly, but should be a potential starter for the Rockets as a redshirt senior. Grade: F
Robert Clark, WR- Third of the William T. Dwyer state champions to commit to Meyer, and the last one to commit after a lengthy recruiting battle with Louisville. Played in the slot in several games as a true freshmen, demonstrating speed and elusiveness. Caught a TD on opening drive against FSU as well in 2010. Played sparingly for Will Muschamp to start the 2011 season, mainly due to injury and Charlie Weis not knowing how to deploy him. Quit team prior to Georgia game and transferred to Louisville along with high-school teammate Gerald Christian. Played in 11 games for Louisville this season after redshirting, catching 23 passes and a touchdown. Should factor into offense as primary slot receiver in 2014 for Charlie Strong’s bunch. Grade: D
Michael McFarland, TE – A big target at 6’5, 230 who chose Florida over Duke and South Carolina. Redshirted in 2010 and transferred after spring ball in 2011. Has played in every season at USF (he did not have to sit out a year after redshirting)—catching 28 passes in three years and two touchdowns. Should start as a senior. Grade: F
Darrin Kitchens, LB – Least recruited player in the class who ended up being first freshmen to lose the legendary Meyer “helmet stripe” in summer camp. Played on special teams as a true freshmen, recording two tackles. Played as reserve linebacker and spot starter (6 career starts) every season thereafter, finishing his career with 59 tackles, and a critical forced fumble against FSU in 2012. Won “Fergie Ferguson” Award for leadership as a senior, was an All-Academic SEC guy three years of four, and sang the alma mater, even when no one else did. Florida football could use more guys like Darrin Kitchens, who I’d bet the house will live a fantastic life. Grade: B +
Synopsis: Meyer’s last class demonstrates that “broke” or not, the argument that the cupboard was bare when Muschamp arrived is tenuous at best. Yes, the class didn’t win a single championship (yet), so the “greatest class ever assembled” hype is far off—but at the same time, it is probably one of the ten best classes in the history of Florida football, which is something. The class featured three All-Americans, four All-SEC performers, several multi-year starters, and the attrition was “average,” with only Chris Martin really being a high-profile “bust”– and keep in mind, he was probably the fourth or at best third most highly-touted lineman in the class. In fairness to Muschamp, Meyer did miss in this class and of course where he missed was offense: of the 2 lineman, only one has been productive, and it’s the least highly touted one (Green), and of the receivers, the most-highly sought after, Chris Dunkley, never caught a ball for Florida. Throw in a dash of Mack Brown wasn’t the second-coming of Herschel Walker, and you get what we mean. But..
Here’s another thing to think about when you whitewash Muschamp failure with Meyer blame: how many of these guys started for Muschamp? You don’t need to do the counting—the answer is SEVENTEEN. And Muschamp’s vaunted 2012 defense? Well, Here’s Florida’s starting defense in 2012:
DL: Floyd, Easley, Hunter (All Meyer recruits)
LB: Powell, McCray, Bostic, Jenkins (All Meyer recruits)
DB: Roberson, Riggs, Elam, Saunders (All Meyer recruits with the exception of Roberson and Saunders, sort of)
So what does this suggest? That Will Muschamp can’t develop players?
Longtime recruiting analyst Corey Long, of ESPN and of late, 24-7 sports, who knows the Florida recruiting scene better than anyone other than Larry Blustein, suggested that’s the “lazy argument” when I asked him. “Will can coach, x’s and o’s. It’s not about development—Will had to develop and scheme that defense. He just didn’t recruit it, save Roberson and Pop Saunders, who was a commitment he held.” It doesn’t stop there, Long noted.
“Look at the top backups in 2012: Dante Fowler is a Muschamp guy (flipped on NSD 2011) and Antonio Morrison is an absolute Muschamp guy. Otherwise, Purifoy, Earl Okine, Josh Evans, Jaylen Watkins, Darrin Kitchens…none of these guys Muschamp had anything to do with getting on campus.” So, you’re saying the cupboard wasn’t bare…?
Long certainly is saying that.“They had players from Meyer. Now fast forward to 2013. The guys that returned from 2012 made the impact plays. Hargreaves (arguably the best corner prospect since Patrick Peterson) and Brian Poole are doing their part too so I’m not going to deny the impact of some freshmen.
But now in his third season wouldn’t you expect to have more contributions from freshmen and sophomores?”
That’s a fair question. And it is one about talent evaluation, which you have to be good at as a program CEO, because no matter how relentless you are selling your product, you need to be selling to the right buyers.
Maybe parts of the program were “broke”, but here is a more fascinating question: isn’t it the job of the head coach to replenish the program with players who can fix it? And has Muschamp done that? Long has his doubts: “Florida in 2014 and 2015 is going to be a big indictment on whether Muschamp was the right guy or not. When Zook got fired it wasn’t a question about his ability to bring in talent, it was about his ability to coach. Muschamp, I believe is a good coach, but I think he comes from the Mack Brown school of evaluation talent.”
Part II of this piece will explore the Muschamp classes. I do not recommend nor do I admonish anyone for enjoying part two of the piece with a holiday libation close at hand. You may or may not need it.