Florida’s new coach makes Georgia a bigger priority

Florida's Jim McElwain (AP/Phil Sandlin)

Florida’s Jim McElwain (AP/Phil Sandlin)

After Florida signed zero football prospects out of Georgia in last year’s recruiting class, new Gators coach Jim McElwain made this state a bigger priority in only a few months on the job.

And Florida had success with that strategy.

Florida finished with five Georgia signees in last month’s 22-member class, including two dramatic wins out of the Atlanta area around signing day. The Gators beat out heavy competition for both offensive lineman Nick Buchanan of Dunwoody and cornerback Chris Williamson of Gainesville.

“I think (it was due to a) couple of things,” McElwain told the AJC on Monday. “There were pre-existing relationships with some guys on our staff who recruited that area in the past. That obviously helps.

“But for us, our thought is a five-hour radius of Gainesville. And with that being said, that (radius) goes up into Georgia, and that will be something that we’ll try to continue to make Gator Country.”

Will that trend continue for Florida in Georgia in the future? Florida is one of the nation’s top three manufacturers of college football talent, along with California and Texas. Florida usually produces twice as many D1 prospects as Georgia every year (but it also has nearly double the population).

“Kind of how we look at everything is that each player is evaluated on his own merits,” McElwain explained. “For us, it’s important that they fit the criteria that we deem to help them be successful at whatever position it might be.

“And there are obviously great players in Florida, and we want to try to recruit those guys as hard as anybody. At the same, we’ll try to think in the footprint of the SEC. There’s really good coaching and really good players in Georgia as well.”

Chris Williamson was arguably the “state’s hottest prospect” over the final month before signing day, picking up last-minute offers from more than a dozen big schools, including Michigan, Notre Dame, UGA and Florida. The Gators had an inside connection with Williamson, as his high school coach was also the high school coach for Florida’s new co-defensive coordinator, Geoff Collins.

OL Nick Buchanan (AJC)

OL Nick Buchanan (AJC)

Nick Buchanan was also a big win for Florida on signing day. He originally committed to Cal in December, but he got a late offer from UGA and appeared to be headed to the Bulldogs. Buchanan nearly shut down his recruiting after the UGA visit, but McElwain convinced him to take a visit on the final weekend.

How did Florida’s new coach feel about edging out UGA for a Georgia kid? What won it for the Gators?

“Who knows?” McElwain said. “It’s recruiting and you never know what the decision-making part is.

“Yet in our case, we don’t look at necessarily as we beat somebody. We kind of look at it as whatever the fit is for that particular player. We felt that the things at the University of Florida are going to help Nick be successful in life. Believe me, we’re excited that he chose us.”

Florida’s other 2015 signees from Georgia were defensive end Jabari Zuniga of Sprayberry, tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe of North Gwinnett and offensive guard Brandon Sandifer of Northside-Warner Robins. Florida also had two Georgia prospects flip to other schools, linebacker Adonis Thomas (to Alabama) of Central Gwinnett and offensive lineman Mike Thornton (Auburn) of Lakeside-DeKalb.

Florida, like UGA with Roquan Smith, had some drama after signing day. CeCe Jefferson, a 5-star from Glen St. Mary, Fla., committed to Florida but waited until five days after signing day to turn his letter of intent. He had held off because the Gators had changed defensive line coaches.

“At that point (when delays like that happen), you can’t take any of it personal,” McElwain said. “You move on and do the best you can. In that particular case, he always wanted to come here. And it was a good fit. So it worked out in the end. Yet he wasn’t the first one that hasn’t signed on signing day. That’s happened before.”

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