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Jim McElwain's 2016 class is critical for Florida

2/10/2015
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McElwain on Signing Day Scramble

Florida coach Jim McElwain joins ESPN's Laura Rutledge to explain his quick build of a class for the Gators on signing day, which includes No. 1 offensive tackle Martez Ivey.

For all the solid work Jim McElwain and his coaches did down the critical 2015 recruiting stretch in the past month, those efforts should stand as a starting point for Florida's football program. That is by no means an end game or a standard for the Gators.

Not to sound like I'm getting ahead of myself too much, but Florida's 2016 recruiting class is critical to the success McElwain hopes to have during his tenure in Gainesville. The SEC is too good and the threat of sliding further and further in the SEC is nothing for the Gators to play around with. Just look at how long it's taken Tennessee to get back to relevancy, and that journey back toward the top still has a steep climb ahead for the Vols.

McElwain has yet to name a starting quarterback, let alone coach a single moment of practice, but in a fast-paced, cutthroat college football society, he and his coaches can't waste any time getting some sort of time with this 2016 class, which really could make or break McElwain's time at Florida. That might sound harsh or even like a bit of hyperbole, but look where Florida's program is now and look at the SEC around it. You can't afford to be a weak link in a conference as cannibalistic as the SEC.

The good news for McElwain is that he and his staff proved they have a clutch closing gene that helped transform a once hopeless 2015 Florida class into a top-20 group equipped with two five-stars and six ESPN 300 members. Another thing to consider is that recent new coaches in this league have had very good success with their second recruiting classes. From Urban Meyer to Butch Jones, a handful of first-year coaches in the SEC have cleaned up in recruiting with their second classes, and McElwain has to continue that trend.

What McElwain got in his first class with the Gators was a mixed bag -- some contents quality, some unknown. Landing immediate-impact five-star prospects Martez Ivey (offensive tackle) and CeCe Jefferson (defensive end) and playmaking hopefuls like running back Jordan Scarlett, wide receiver Antonio Callaway, and athletes D'Anfernee McGriff, Jordan Cronkrite and Chris Williamson gives the Gators a solid early foundation to work with, but it's no secret Florida needs more star power in its 2016 class.

McElwain desperately needed depth along the offensive line and signed five lineman, including two ESPN 300 recruits. That certainly helps with depth, but getting a little more quality there in 2016 will be essential. The same is absolutely true about the wide receiver spot, where Florida again needs legit playmakers, and quarterback, where questions abound this season.

Florida currently has just one 2016 commitment -- wide receiver Rick Wells -- but if recent history is any indication, McElwain and Co., who can sign a big class with such low scholarship numbers for this current team, could really make a statement with next year's class.

Not to immediately compare McElwain to Meyer and Nick Saban -- although Gators fans are hoping he reaches their level -- but those two went from having OK first classes at Florida and Alabama, respectively, to consensus top-five classes by major recruiting services (ESPN.com, Rivals.com and Scout.com) in Year 2. Florida ranked No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings in Meyer's second year (2006), while Alabama ranked third in Saban's second year (2008). Meyer went on to win two national titles at Florida, while Saban has won three at Alabama.

After bringing in a top-20 class during his first year at LSU in 2005, Les Miles landed a consensus top-eight class nationally in 2006 and won the national title in 2007. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik reeled in a top-25 class in 2009, then won a national title in his second year and brought home a top-five class in 2010.

Even coaches who haven't won titles have recently had second-year recruiting success in the SEC. Hugh Freeze began his time as Ole Miss' coach in 2012 with a class that barely registered on the recruiting radar and then signed arguably the school's best class ever in 2013 with headliners like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil.

Butch Jones signed a top-30 class in 2013 and now has back-to-back No. 5 classes in ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings. Of course, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has signed back-to-back top-10 classes in his two years at Auburn, but he's just bragging at this point.

McElwain has a long way to go as a coach and a recruiter at Florida, and he hasn't even seen his team run actual plays on a field yet. But having a strong second year of recruiting is essential to righting Florida's ship. Heck, even his predecessor, Will Muschamp, signed the No. 4 class nationally in his second year, so there's a formula for recruiting success McElwain can follow. And with the way the SEC is moving, McElwain can't afford to get behind and must emulate those before him.