Something has been steaming up from the bowels of the Swamp lately, and for most Gator fans, it does not smell good.
UF recruits have been wavering on their loyalties and that, coupled with a fan base not accustomed to going through a 4-8 football season, has Gator Nation feeling a bit uneasy.
As Jalen Julius was leaving the annual Friday Night Lights Camp in Gainesville last week, he did not seem like a man standing at the foot of the stadium he will one day call home.
The Winter Garden West Orange two-way speedster committed to the University of Florida in April, but said Friday, “I'm not 100 percent, but I'm committed … I'm like 75-80 percent right now.”
Those percentages dwindled drastically within 48 hours and Julius decommitted from the Gators on Sunday. Another one dropped off Monday in Washington (D.C.) Gonzaga ATH Marcus Lewis, who was planning to transfer to Bradenton IMG Academy but changed his mind on that also.
Four players have dropped the Gators during the past week, including three defensive backs in Julius, Lewis and Jacksonville Trinity's Deontai Williams, who flipped to Georgia. Jacksonville First Coast receiver Tristan Payton also pulled out of his UF pledge and suddenly Gator Nation is starting to wonder what's going on with their beloved Swamp inhabitants.
It's human nature to think that something might be amok, but it's too soon to start jumping to conclusions. Sure, coach Will Muschamp and company have their work cut out for them in recruiting the 2015 class. On the heels of the worst season in memory in Gainesville, the Gators are looking to right a sinking ship.
“As an average fan, sure, I would be concerned,” said Derek Tyson, ESPN's SEC recruiting reporter who has covered Florida recruiting for much of the past decade. “My dad is an average fan and he called me and said, ‘Hey, what's going on with Florida?' That's the response.”
The Gators don't need to start circling the wagons. Sure, they lost some commitments, but they weren't necessarily ones that caused UF coaches to lose sleep if you listen to those close to the program. Considering the players thought to still have UF high on their list, the recent exodus is a bit easier to swallow.
The Gators are putting tons of recruiting energy into landing several of the state's top players, including the Sentinel's No. 1-ranked player Byron Cowart, a defensive end from Armwood. They're also in the mix for Tarpon Springs East Lake receiver George Campbell, Apopka offensive tackle Martez Ivey and Glen St. Mary Baker County defensive end CeCe Jefferson.
All four players are in the top 10 of the Sentinel's 2015 Florida Top 100, and the Gators are right in the hunt, but they have to produce to land them all. Another of the state's top players nixed teh Gators on Monday night. ATH Ray-Ray McCloud III of Tampa Sickles committed to Clemson over UF.
“Recruits have told me they are in a wait-and-see mode. After a 4-8 season last year, they're saying, ‘Let's see how Florida does offensively this year and how they do as a team,'” Tyson said. “So I think when you see a rash or a string of decommitments, yes, it looks bad publicly, but to me, I just don't think it's near as bad as it looks.
“I think they are still feeling OK with where they sit with this class, but with a bad year on the field, all that could change.”
So let's look at the schedule. UF can probably enter a Sept. 20 clash at Alabama with a 3-0 mark, but nothing is easy after that. The Gators have 'Bama, Tennessee, LSU, Missouri and Georgia in the next five games and those eight weeks will determine where Muschamp will be sitting come next season. With a coach on the hot seat, recruits are likely to get uneasy.
“If Muschamp's job is in jeopardy, yeah I think they can lose those guys,” Tyson said. “But if they go 8-5 or something like that, which is certainly not ideal, but if recruits see that they are competitive in every game and they look like they are turning the corner, then they'll still get some of those guys.”
So the recruits are really no different than the fans. Before they can make any judgments, everyone wants to see this offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper. If it shows promise, then star players are likely to show a commitment.
If things get ugly, this class could be one of the worst in the SEC. It's already turned strange for the Gators. They only have seven players committed to the 2015 class, the least in the SEC, and it's almost August. Mississippi State has 26.
Makes a person wonder, for sure.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.