Florida playing catch-up in SEC recruiting

New Florida coach Jim McElwain is battling former Gators coach and current Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp for several elite Sunshine State prospects.

SEC Recruiting Rankings

1. ALABAMA -- The Crimson Tide were scheduled to host defensive end Tyrone Wheatley Jr. of Buffalo, N.Y., offensive tackle Isaiah Prince of Greenbelt, Md., and receiver Daylon Charlot of Patterson, La., this weekend. Charlot, a top-15 receiver nationally according to Rivals.com, is a former Alabama commitment who also is considering LSU and Miami. Wheatley, the No. 22 tight end nationally, has USC, UCLA and Oregon in the picture, while Prince, the No. 6 tackle, is down to the Tide, Ohio State and Maryland.2. TENNESSEE -- The Volunteers entered this weekend with the No. 3 class nationally according to 247Sports.com and already have seven commitments for 2016. Scheduled in this weekend were Quarte Sapp of Alpharetta, Ga., the nation's No. 13 outside linebacker according to Rivals.com, and John Kelly of Oak Park, Mich., the No. 28 athlete prospect. Sapp is believed to be a battle between Tennessee and Michigan State, while Kelly likes Michigan State and Minnesota in addition to the Vols.3. GEORGIA -- Scheduled to visit Athens this weekend was Donte Jackson of Jefferson, La., who is rated by Rivals as the nation's No. 19 cornerback and among the top 200 players overall. Jackson has set a Wednesday announcement, with Georgia and LSU the expected finalists.4. TEXAS A&M -- Among those visiting the Aggies this weekend were a couple of undecided in-state prospects, receiver DaMarkus Lodge of Cedar Hill and defensive tackle Daylon Mack of Gladewater. Rivals ranks Lodge No. 7 nationally at his position and Mack No. 6 at his spot. Lodge will visit Ole Miss next week, and the Rebels are believed to be his favorites, while Mack will visit Auburn next week and TCU, thought to be the team to beat, on Jan. 30.5. AUBURN -- As many as 20 visitors were expected this weekend, including 10 who already have committed to the Tigers. Among the guests were Byron Cowart of Seffner, Fla, the nation's No.1 strongside defensive end; CeCe Jefferson of Glen St. Mary, Fla., the No. 2 strongside defensive end; Terry Buckner of East St. Louis, Ill., the No. 5 defensive tackle; and Ryan Davis of St. Petersburg, Fla., the No. 8 receiver. Florida has been the favorite for Cowart, Jefferson and Davis, while Missouri is the team to beat for Buckner.6. LSU -- Former South Carolina commitment Arden Key, the nation's No. 9 weakside defensive end according to Rivals, was scheduled to be in Baton Rouge this weekend. Key is expected to visit South Carolina next week and Auburn on Jan. 30. Also scheduled in this weekend was guard Zach Robertson of Bellflower, Calif., who committed to Arizona State on Dec. 26.7. SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Gamecocks have just two of the Palmetto State's top-15 prospects according to Rivals, with Summerville guard Zack Bailey ranked No. 2 and Bluffton defensive end Shameik Blackshear rated No. 5. Clemson has the state's top prospect, defensive end Albert Huggins of Orangeburg, and six of the state's top 15.8. OLE MISS -- With 16 commitments entering this weekend and 12 from high school prospects, Ole Miss was on pace for one of its smallest classes in recent memory. The Rebels had 19 commitments in 2012, a class that contained quarterback Bo Wallace, running backs Jaylen Walton and I'Tavius Mathers, and receiver Cody Core, but they've signed 27 and 25 in the two classes since. Ole Miss inked a memorable 37 signees under former coach Houston Nutt in 2009.9. MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Wednesday's announcement that Dak Prescott would return for his senior season could result in Nick Tiano of the Baylor School remaining as the only quarterback in this year's class. Prescott will be backed by Damian Williams, but the third-team spot is there for the taking. Tiano is among two Chattanooga-area players committed to the Bulldogs, with Signal Mountain tackle prospect Harrison Moon being the other.10. ARKANSAS -- The Razorbacks were scheduled to have a couple of visitors from the Houston area, tackle Toby Weathersby and cornerback Nate Dalton. Weathersby, rated No. 13 at his position by Rivals, could decide between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Dalton, the No. 42 corner, will decide among the Hogs, Oklahoma and Kentucky, so he will upset at least one of the Stoops brothers.11. KENTUCKY -- Keeping Jeremiah Dinson, a three-star cornerback from Hialeah, Fla., could be among the biggest challenges for the Wildcats between now and signing day. Dinson committed to Kentucky in September but was scheduled to be at Florida this weekend with trips to Auburn and Louisville the next two weeks.12. MISSOURI -- Outside of Missouri, the Tigers entered this weekend with as many commitments from Tennessee as any other state. Missouri has a pair of Volunteer State pledges from the Franklin area: receiver Emanuel Hall from Centennial High and kicker Corey Fatony from Franklin High. Hall selected the Tigers over SEC counterparts Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.13. VANDERBILT -- Among those scheduled to visit Nashville this weekend included three-star receiver Jared Pinkney of Norcross, Ga., and strongside defensive end Houshon Gaines of Rocky Mount, N.C., who is rated No. 44 at his position by Rivals. Pinkney is scheduled to visit Missouri next week, while Gaines is a Virginia Tech commitment who will visit Blacksburg next week.14. FLORIDA -- There are some elite prospects who could give the Gators a boost early next month, but much of the focus this weekend was scheduled to be on running back Jaason Lewis of Virginia Beach, Va., and cornerback Rashad Fenton of Miami. Lewis, the No. 17 running back nationally, committed to Arizona State in September and is scheduled to visit Tennessee on Jan. 30. The Gators have 16 visits scheduled for the final two weekends.

Florida is having its worst football recruiting year ever.

The year, however, is far from over.

Transitions among head football coaches can cause headaches on the prospect trail, and it's been no different for the Gators with Jim McElwain succeeding Will Muschamp. Florida has produced a Rivals.com top-20 signing class every year since the recruiting service's inception in 2002 and a top-five class on seven occasions, but the Gators entered this weekend with a class ranked 95th nationally.

The Gators are trailing the likes of Middle Tennessee, South Alabama and Bowling Green.

"Florida is actually in a good spot, all things considered," said JC Shurburtt, the national recruiting director for 247Sports.com. "Martez Ivey is the top offensive tackle in the country, and he's from Apopka and is a lifelong Gator fan. Byron Cowart is the most recruited defensive end in this class, and he's at Seffner Armwood, which is a big Gator stronghold. CeCe Jefferson is another elite defensive end prospect from the state of Florida who is a lifelong Gator fan.

"I think two of those three at the very worst will end up at Florida, just because the new staff is going to be able to go in there and sell the future as well as longevity and stability and things like that."

Ivey is rated the nation's No. 1 overall prospect in 247Sports.com's composite rankings, while Cowart is No. 3 and Jefferson is No. 5.

One sudden obstacle for the Gators is Muschamp, who is now Auburn's defensive coordinator. Muschamp developed a good relationship with Ivey during his time at Florida, and the same can be said for Cowart and Jefferson, who were scheduled to visit Auburn this weekend.

Florida currently has a collection of eight three-star commitments. The dearth of pledges can be traced back to the end of the 2013 season, when there were questions regarding whether Muschamp would receive a fourth year following an injury-ravaged 4-8 finish.

Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley felt Muschamp deserved another year, but the uncertainty surrounding Muschamp's status was evident this past season. Muschamp was fired after the 10th game, an overtime loss to South Carolina, but was allowed to coach two more contests.

McElwain was hired as Muschamp's successor in early December after guiding Colorado State to a 10-2 regular season, and he addressed recruiting with reporters last month.

"We have to capture the state of Florida," McElwain said. "A lot of kids growing up want to be in that orange and blue, and we're going to give them that opportunity. We're offering a new opportunity to be a Gator."

The Gators certainly possess more selling points than just a brand new staff that isn't going anywhere.

Florida has won more SEC championships (seven) than any other school since the league instituted Eastern and Western divisions in 1992. The Gators won the 1996 national championship under Steve Spurrier and the 2006 and 2008 national titles under Urban Meyer.

This class of Gators may never come close to resembling the 2006 crop that had Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes, or the 2007 bunch that contained Cam Newton, Carlos Dunlap and the Pouncey twins. Yet that No. 95 ranking could be very temporary.

"When all is said and done, it's not going to be a top-five or top-10 class from top to bottom," Shurburtt said, "but Will Muschamp signed some top-five and top-10 classes that were unbalanced and didn't have enough offensive skill positions, and some of their offensive linemen didn't turn out despite being rated pretty highly. I think this class will fill some needs and feature some guys who were maybe a little undervalued but performed well in their senior year.

"Florida is going to be just fine. They just need to get what they can this year, but they're in a good spot for some elite guys."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.