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Into the Abyss: Florida's 2005 Recruiting Class

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It's not possible for a fan of any school to come away from Ken Denlinger's 1994 book For the Glory without a slightly conflicted or jaded view of the sport, or at least a clearer picture of the toll it takes from those who commit to the rigors that claimed the careers of most of the 28-man recruiting class Denlinger followed at Penn State from 1988-92:

Nine of the soon-to-leave Nittany Lions were both lonely and not alone. Lonely because so many who had started with them were not around to share this unique moment of glory. Each player would be introduced on the public-address system and, as he soaked in the applause, trot to midfield; the final player to hit the 50 yard line would trigger another ovation, this one for the group. But the unit that mattered most to this ninesome had long ago been broken. Quickly. Dramatically. Sometimes tragically.

There had been twenty-eight of them at the start, twenty-eight scholarship players who had come from as far away as New Mexico, twenty-eight dreamers for whom the journey to this day was wilder than they could possibly have imagined. Out of those twenty-eight, only nine were still on the Penn State roster. The fortunate ones. The survivors.
As they started to line up alphabetically, several shook hands and a few hugged. John Gerak's face was a collection of rain drops and tears. Chris Cisar swung an imaginary bat, reaffirming his belief that his athletic future was in baseball. Mark Graham winked. He had vowed on at least half a dozen occasions over the years to escape this sweaty, frenetic, incredibly pressurized rat race where any result less than a national championship was deemed a failure. Once, after intercepting a pass on the last play of a home game against Rutgers, he sought me out in the fenced-in area near the dressing room and declared: "And I'm still not coming back." Of course, he did.

Had Donnie Bunch stayed - and not been kicked out of school more than four years earlier after a series of drinking violations and then all but dropped out of sight - he would have been first on the field. Bunch had so craved attention that he had even worn uniform number 1. Instead, Todd Burger was the first to be introduced, the first to high-five the team mascot near the goalpost and dash to midfield.

The pattern continued. For every player who followed Burger onto the soggy field, an absent friend was far from the celebration - either in body or in spirit. Cisar made it all the way, though he had played far more as a freshman than any season thereafter; Chad Cunningham did not, a terrible knee injury suffered in high school having cost him the quickness so necessary for a running back. And so on. Mark Graham, yes. Anthony Grego, no. Adam Shinnick, no. Derek Van Nort, no. Tom Wade, no. Brett Wright, sort of.

I thought of that when I read the brief but interesting look last week by the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu at Urban Meyer's first recruiting class at Florida, an 18-man group that came to UF in 2005 ranked among the best in the country and within two years has fallen into a black hole - for some of them, like the presumed impetus for the story, the late Avery Atkins, blacker than others.

Atkins' legal, academic and possibly substance abuse problems before his last arrest and death last week were well-documented, as is the pending gun charge against parking lot vigilante Ronnie Wilson, who determined earlier this year his 300-plus-pound frame was an inadequate tool of intimidation when one has an AK-47 at his disposal.

But, per Andreu, more than half the class failed to make it past even the midway point of their career:

Here's a look at the players who are no longer on the team:

1 Cornerback Avery Atkins (who died in Port Orange on Thursday).

2 Linebacker Kalvin Baker.

3 Wide receiver Nyan Boateng (who left after the national title game).

4 Linebacker Jon Demps.

5 Tight end Brian Ellis (failed to qualify academically).

6 Defensive end Darryl Gresham (left the team earlier this year).

7 Safety Reggie Nelson (first-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars).

8 Quarterback Josh Portis (transferred to Maryland after the 2005 season).

9 Linebacker Eric Sledge (quit before last season).

10 Offensive guard Ronnie Wilson (suspended for the season after his arrest for firing a gun during an altercation with another man).

Nelson, the junior college transfer, was wildly successful, an invaluable catalyst of last year's championship defense and an early departure under the most promising possible conditions. Among the other nine, though, only Wilson (if he avoids prison and is reinstated) and Portis (if he shakes his stage momma and wins the starting job at Maryland) might be heard from again in a football context.

Forecasts are necessarily more optimistic with the other half of the class, the one that's still jockeying to get on the field as juniors/redshirt sophomores, but less so than you might imagine under the circumstances:

1 Simon Codrington -- He's currently a backup offensive lineman.

2 Eddie Haupt -- Like Codrington, a reserve offensive lineman.

3 Kestahn Moore -- The probable starter at tailback.

4 Dorian Munroe -- The No. 2 strong safety.

5 Louis Murphy -- He emerged in the spring and nailed down a starting role with his eight-reception spring game.

6 David Nelson -- Still developing wide receiver who should see some playing time.

7 Jonathan Phillips -- in the battle for the starting place-kicking job.

8 Ryan Stamper -- A possible starter at outside linebacker.

When I mentioned "the circumstances," I meant this: Florida is coming off an SEC and mythical championship season in Year Two under a new coach, a widely-hailed resuscitator without whom no one (aside from Senor Redacted, anyway) believes the team might have come close to either title. And it accomplished it despite the near total failure of that coach's first recruiting class. Moore, Murphy and Stamper are on course to pan out, along with, possibly, Codrington, Munroe and Phillips, though it's telling the latter couldn't unseat Chris Hetland during his infamous lull last year. None of them made any significant contributions to last year's championship, though; for all the overhauling Meyer is said to have done at Florida, the only real championship-bearing fruits of his initial harvest were Wilson and Nelson, one-year starters who may not and will not, respectively, wear a Florida uniform again.

This is counterintuitive to most revival stories and specifically to Meyer's incubating legend as a recruiter, which played very little role last year outside of the situational contributions of two members of his second class (Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin). It also adds to the confirmation of two great, now long-doctrinized truths of Florida football post-Spurrier: a) Urban Meyer is a great manager/motivator/dictator, and b) Ron Zook is a great recruiter but a lousy manager/motivator/overly-caffeinated Bill Lumbergh*. However much he overestimates his own abilities, Zook is right at least that Meyer's success has been built almost wholly with the resources of the preceding administration.

Still has not received thank you note for blueprints left in Urban Meyer's desk. Considering a suit for flecks of championship ring.
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Not that that makes it any less Meyer's success. But what's missing from that equation so far (in practice, at least) is "Urban Meyer is a great recruiter." Tebow this fall will be the first starting quarterback Meyer's led as a head coach who actually came into the program under Meyer. Given the projections for his latest haul, and the early returns on his second, the proof of his salesmanship will be in the pudding on-field soon enough, rather than only in the hypothetical glory of vague rankings. In the meantime, though, off a troubling offseason, what's Florida supposed to do about veteran leadership, an element - in addition to gobs of athleticism - it had overflowing out of metaphysical buckets last year?

"Leadership" and its like rate high among cliched intangibles I usually make it a point to avoid as an outsider, but if Meyer already has Florida to the point it can dodge the implosion of virtually an entire recruiting class, he's an even more fearsome el dictador than imagined.

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* - The guy just looks like Gary Cole, I'm sorry. I'm not the only one who thinks so.