- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN’s GatorNation brings you the 30 things you need to know about Florida’s upcoming 2012 season. For 30 weekdays we’ll preview games, talk about trends, spotlight players and positions, and give you pretty much everything you need to know to be ready for the season before the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida is one of only five SEC programs to make the top 25 in ESPN’s team recruiting rankings in each of the past five seasons.
In fact, the Gators finished in the top five in four of those five years. But somehow that hasn’t translated to consistent on-field success.
Florida lost just two games combined in 2008 and 2009, but very few of the members of those signing classes contributed significantly -- which shows how good UF’s roster was in those two seasons. Since then, however, the Gators are a combined 15-11, and while some of those highly touted signees have turned into very good players, UF has slipped from its spot among the national elite.
But things are looking brighter entering 2012. The core of this year’s team is comprised of members of the 2009 and 2010 classes, and several members of the 2011 class appear to be ready to become significant contributors or are on the verge of being elite players.
Here’s a look at those signing classes (see chart below):
ESPN’s ranking: No. 4
Number of players ESPN ranked in top 10 at their position: 10
The top signees: S Will Hill (No. 1 at his position), S Dee Finley (No. 2), CB Janoris Jenkins (No. 4), DT Omar Hunter (No. 2), K Caleb Sturgis (No. 1), DE William Green (No. 5), WR T.J. Lawrence (No. 10), ATH Jeff Demps (No. 4), OLB Lerentee McCray (No. 6), ILB Brendan Beal (No. 10).
The skinny: With Jenkins being dismissed before the 2011 season began because of off-field problems, the top player out of that class turned out to be Demps, who finished his career eighth on the school’s career rushing list (2,470 yards). The second-best player turned out to be Sturgis -- and it’s not even close. He has a chance to become the school’s all-time leader in field goals and field goal attempts this season. Finley, Beal and Lawrence transferred, and Hunter and McCray are solid players. Patchan and Brown have battled injuries, but Patchan is a projected starter in 2012. Hammond has been solid. Hines was moved to running back in the spring.
ESPN’s ranking: No. 5
Number of players ESPN ranked in top 10 at their position: 6
The skinny: This class turned out to be pretty good because eight members are projected starters in 2012. Brown was arguably the best prospect in the class, and he lasted just one season. He was dismissed from the team following a February 2010 arrest. Jenkins and Bostic have developed into two of the SEC’s better linebackers. Nixon and Debose have had consistency issues. Alajajian was moved to DT this past spring. Gillislee finally gets his chance to be the main back in a system that fits his skill set. Halapio has 10 career starts. Harrison started every game last season. Evans has steadily improved. Reed has the potential to be an All-SEC tight end.
ESPN’s ranking: No. 1
Number of players ESPN ranked in top 10 at their position: 15
The top signees: ATH Ronald Powell (No. 1), DT Dominique Easley (No. 1), ATH Matt Elam (No. 2), S Jonathan Dowling (No. 1), DT Sharrif Floyd (No. 3), CB Josh Shaw (No. 3), RB Mack Brown (No. 4), TE Gerald Christian (No. 2), WR Chris Dunkley (No. 7), OT Ian Silberman (No. 3), CB Jaylen Watkins (No. 5), OT Chaz Green (No. 4), CB Cody Riggs (No. 7), DT Leon Orr (No. 8), DE Chris Martin (No. 10).
The skinny: Eight members of the signing class have either transferred or were dismissed from the team -- including Dowling (dismissed), one of the four five-star recruits in the class. This class came in with an attitude and entitlement problem, too, but that seems to have been fixed under coach Will Muschamp. Easley, Elam and Floyd are big-time players who could leave school after this season for the NFL draft. Powell likely would have joined them as a potential early departure had he not torn his ACL in the spring. Brown and Silberman have been under-achievers, while Watkins, Green, Riggs and Orr have been productive players who have been in the starting lineup at one time or another. Burton has been a valuable player because of his versatility and football IQ. Dunbar and Ajagbe are players who need to produce in 2012.
ESPN’s ranking: 12
Number of players ESPN ranked in top 10 at their position: 9
The top signees: QB Jeff Driskel (No. 1), WR Ja’Juan Story (No. 6), ATH A.C. Leonard (No. 7), RB Mike Blakely (No. 7), ATH De’Ante Saunders (No. 10), S Jabari Gorman (No. 8), S Marcus Roberson (No.9), K Kyle Christy (No. 4), FB Hunter Joyer (No. 7).
The skinny: Three players have already transferred from the class (Blakely, LB Graham Stewart and WR Javares McRoy) and there likely will be a third -- the loser of the QB battle between Driskel and Brissett. Roberson (at CB), Saunders and Joyer started last season. Christy won the punting job midway through the season. Gorman and Purifoy had great springs. Leonard is UF’s most talented tight end, but he was suspended in the spring after his arrest and his status for the fall is still uncertain. Story is still transitioning from high school quarterback to receiver.
ESPN’s ranking: No. 4
Number of player ESPN ranked in top 10 at their position: 10
The top signees: OT D.J. Humphries (No. 1 OT), DE Jonathan Bullard (No. 4), G Jessamen Dunker (No. 4), DE Dante Fowler, Jr. (No. 10), CB Brian Poole (No. 7), TE Colin Thompson (No. 2), TE Kent Taylor (No. 4), S Marcus Maye (No. 8), S Rhaheim Ledbetter (No. 9), K Austin Hardin (No. 1).
The skinny: Obviously it’s impossible to judge this class since most haven’t even donned pads yet, but there are some early highlights. Humphries, Dunker, Morrison, Bailey, Jacobs and Pittman enrolled early. Pittman had a great spring, shot up the depth chart and could be a starter on opening day. Morrison is a big hitter who earned praise from Muschamp. Fowler and Bullard will get a chance to play early because of Powell’s injury. Thompson and Taylor could get early work, too, because of the uncertainty of Leonard’s situation and the lack of playmakers in the passing game. Hardin should handle kickoffs.
5dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough
10dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf