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Gators Add Size and Power Muschamp Wanted on National Signing Day

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The official letters-of-intent from running back Matt Jones and defensive lineman JaFar Mann had arrived a few minutes earlier in Florida’s football offices Wednesday afternoon. They were the last two to check off the list – at least for now – giving Florida head coach Will Muschamp a chance for a quick breather on the leather sofa in his office.

A year ago National Signing Day came and went in a blur for Muschamp, who had about a month after he took over the program to finalize his first Florida recruiting class. The process went much smoother the second time around.

As Muschamp reviewed a sheet of paper listing the 17 players the Gators signed on Wednesday and the six early enrollees that count toward the 2011 class, he sounded confident that the Gators took a big step toward being more competitive in the SEC than a year ago.

“I’m really pleased with what we were able to do and adding the players that we added to our program,’’ Muschamp said. “More than anything, we needed to address our line of scrimmage, and we signed 14 big-skill and mid-skill guys as far as offensive/defensive linemen, tight ends and linebackers.

“That was the biggest need that we needed going into this class. This is a physical league and we needed to improve our physicality and our size and our athleticism, and we’ve certainly done that.”

In Muschamp’s first season, the Gators started 4-0 before running into the heart of their SEC schedule. A four-game losing streak started with losses to Alabama and LSU, programs that featured rosters much bigger and stronger than the one Muschamp inherited.

With the addition of players such as 6-foot-3, 263-pound defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, 6-3, 261-pound linebacker Dante Fowler, 6-6, 270-pound defensive lineman Dante Phillips and Mann, who is listed at 6-3, 293 pounds, the Gators definitely got bigger on Wednesday.

Florida’s class is currently ranked No. 5 nationally in the latest Scout.com rankings, providing the program with more momentum after its win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl secured a 32nd consecutive non-losing season last month.

“I think as much as anything, with such a young football team and most of our guys coming back, it shows having this type of class that there is some excitement in our program right now,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s headed in the right direction. I’m really pleased obviously in winning the bowl game and finishing on a positive note, but also finishing out recruiting this way.

“We have some outstanding football coaches and men on this staff, but they are also excellent recruiters. I’m very pleased with the production today.”

A key addition on offense Wednesday was Jones, who helped Armwood High near Tampa win a state title last season. Jones is listed at 6-2 and 213 pounds, providing the Gators with a much different option in the backfield than a year ago when undersized speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps were the team’s most dangerous threats.

Jones is versatile enough to play receiver and big enough to take on a middle linebacker head-to-head.

“We needed to get bigger at the running back position and we wanted to add Matt from the standpoint of a downhill runner and create the physicality you need to in the SEC,’’ Muschamp said. “Matt was a guy that we targeted when we first got here as a guy that was critical in moving forward in what we want to do offensively in being physical.”

Let’s get physical has been a constant motto around the program in recent months.

The Gators recruited for size and power. Muschamp also recently hired new strength-and-conditioning coach Jeff Dillman, who has implemented an Olympic style lifting program designed to increase power.

Muschamp expects contributions from some of the new recruits immediately, but only time will tell which ones emerge before the season opener in September against Bowling Green.

He does believe the team addressed its No. 1 concern.

“The biggest concern as you watched our football team this year was along the line of scrimmage,’’ Muschamp said. “Going against two of the more dominant teams in our league, we had trouble. We’ve got to get better up front and we’ve got to create more depth up front. We’ll see if some of these guys can come in and contribute.”

The Gators also made a late push for Pennsylvania prep quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg that paid off. The interest in Mornhinweg picked up with the arrival of Brent Pease as offensive coordinator in January.

Mornhinweg had originally committed to Penn State and joins returning quarterbacks Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett on the roster.

“He’s a guy we got on late,” Muschamp said. “We really liked Skyler early in the process. We decided at the end of November, first of December that we needed to bring another quarterback into the program and he was what we were looking for as far as a decision-maker and a winner. He also plays defensive back, so he’s a good athlete and has great toughness.”

The Gators added Fowler, a longtime FSU recruit, to the mix late as well.

With his second National Signing Day with the Gators in the books, Muschamp is ready to get back to work at the key to making any class worth its lofty ranking.

“This class will be determined in two or three years from now,’’ he said. “It’s not going to be determined today. I said the same thing last year, and you know what, I’m going to say it again next year. Football is a developmental game. We’ve got a good young football team, and in my opinion, we’ve added some really good players in the fold. We’ll know how good these guys are when they are here for a while.

“I feel very comfortable about the type of young man we’re bringing into this program. I’m real proud of the staff. There was a lot of time and effort into this to finish with the type of players we need to have to win a championship here at Florida.”

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