You really shouldn't blame Florida coach Jim McElwain if he's still displaying that comically big smile after his 2017 recruiting haul. It wasn't the best the nation -- or the SEC -- had to offer, and he didn't even sign one stinking five-star. But from a pure needs standpoint, McElwain delivered in the areas he absolutely had to deliver in 2017.
Florida had to get quality along its defensive line. McElwain signed four guys who are projected to play along the defensive line, including three in the middle.
More than anything, Florida needed both quality and quantity in its secondary. McElwain signed six defensive backs, including four ESPN 300 prospects.
McElwain likely would have liked to bolster his linebackers -- and he'll have to in his next class -- but considering that three possible early-round draft picks in Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye departed from the secondary, and the defensive line will be without a trio of major contributors in Caleb Brantley (a first-round talent), Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox, McElwain should be able to mask some deficiencies at linebacker by immediately adding to these two areas.
And what makes McElwain's haul that much more impressive is that both were areas of major need that appeared to be suffering down the stretch. Heading into the final weekend of the 2017 recruiting stretch, Florida had commitments from just two defensive linemen and two defensive backs. ESPN 300 members Fred Hansard (DT) and Elijah Blades (CB) had decommitted and eventually signed elsewhere. Five-star CB Shaun Wade -- from right down the road in Jacksonville -- was already enrolled at Ohio State and ESPN 300 DE LaBryan Ray visited the Gators on that final recruiting weekend, only to sign with Alabama a few days later.
But patience prevailed for the Gators, as Florida grabbed commitments from defensive backs Donovan Stiner (a former Houston pledge) and Brad Stewart, an ESPN 300 safety, coming off that final recruiting weekend. The night before signing day, three-star and 305-pound DL Elijah Conliffe, a player McElwain believes has a lot of upside and could contribute early, committed.
On signing day, Florida became a major winner with commitments from ESPN 300 athlete/cornerback Christopher Henderson, who spurned Miami, and three-star safety Brian Edwards, a player many believe has some of the biggest upside in this class. McElwain was also able to secure signatures from ESPN 300 offensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton, who had limited playing time at defensive tackle in high school, but he'll start his Florida career there.
When you look at the defensive line alone, McElwain hit well on players with bigger body sizes. He knew he needed girth in the middle, and he got it with the 360-pound Slaton and the 300-plus-pound Conliffe, who can play both inside and outside. He also brought in early enrollee Kyree Campbell, who is a 323-pound four-star DT who spent the 2016 season at prep school, giving him a little more experience than his classmates.
And with the addition of ESPN 300 DE Zachary Carter, McElwain came away with critical parts at a position of need in a year in which there will be a lot of turnover from last season.
"Here comes the important part now: Guys like Khairi Clark, Taven Bryan, and those guys, making sure they help, just like guys help them on the inside," McElwain said. "Just like Joey [Ivie] did with them, and Caleb [Brantley]. Being able to really push those guys and teach them what it is to play.
"Obviously, as you know, they're going to have to play against Michigan that first game. There's going to be a lot of new bodies in some of those spots. We're going to have to grow up quickly."
They'll have to grow at a fast rate in the secondary as well. Three starters, including both starting corners, are gone. So getting Henderson, who could play immediately, was huge. So was signing ESPN 300 member Marco Wilson, the younger brother of the departing Quincy Wilson. Both are excellent athletes and make their hay in one-on-one coverage.
Adding Edwards, Stewart, Stiner and Shawn Davis, an ESPN 300 corner who could play safety, to the safety spot provided the Gators with more quality depth going forward.
"I mean, just look at the numbers," McElwain said of his secondary class. "If we wouldn't have hit on a couple of those, it could have been like our O-line was [during] the first spring I was here. We weren't just trying to fill with bodies; we got some quality. That's what's exciting."
Again, this might not have been one of those elite classes from top to bottom that fans get giddy about, but it's a class that met immediate needs at two positions that are so important in the SEC. Florida's offense is the constant topic of conversation in Gainesville, but this defense took some major hits. To keep that side of the ball functioning at a high level, McElwain had to find guys he could plug in early up front and in the defensive backfield.
He did just that, when few thought he could, and it should pay off now and in the future.
So after a worrisome signing day lead-up for Florida fans, McElwain delivered in the key spots in his third class. He laughed off the negativity and got to work.