A huge battle in the Sunshine State will come to an end Wednesday morning, as cornerback Tracy Howard is set to make his commitment to either Florida, Florida State or Miami. Florida is the long-time favorite. Florida State is the wildcard. And Miami is the hometown team, but also the newcomer. The Miramar (Fla.) High quarterback is 5'11", 180 pounds, and is rated four- or five-stars by all of the major recruiting services. He's almost certainly the best cornerback in the state. And there are legitimate reasons why he would, and would not, attend each school.
Florida has been there for Howard since day one. Most still consider the Gators to be the favorite. There's a family connection to Gainesville. The Gators play in the SEC. And, perhaps most importantly, UF plays a lot of man coverage. Howard is thought to want to play in a predominantly man coverage scheme. Of his three finalists, only UF does so, as it is a key part of Will Muschamp's scheme, Florida's defensive-minded head coach. And Howard should be able to play early at Florida.
That said, a starting job is not guaranteed in Gainesville like it might be elsewhere. And many other top talents will be competing for those spots as well. And Will Muschamp's job is perhaps also not guaranteed for Howard's four years. After a six-loss campaign in year one, Muschamp must show significant improvement if he wants to stick around for Howard's career. But Florida has the talent to make the improvement, bringing in 38 blue-chip players (consensus four-star or better) in '10, '11 and '12, compared to 36 by Florida State and 18 by Miami.
Howard will pick Florida if: He really wants to play in a man-coverage scheme for Will Muschamp, and is confident that Muschamp will last through Howard's three or four seasons.
Miami also offers a lot for Howard. It's the hometown school, and geography is often the top factor in a recruitment. Miami is a good academic school, and it often uses its private tuition cost to argue that it is a much better value than Gainesville or Tallahassee. Miami doesn't play as much man coverage as the Gators, but they do offer some serious job security for Howard. He would almost certainly start for the Hurricanes from day one, as Miami has little talent at the position and its returning starters are starting quality in name only. And unlike Gainesville, where Muschamp is under enormous pressure to win and win now, Miami head coach Al Golden recently signed a massive extension, guaranteeing that he will be in Miami for the next 10 years. And some of the top local players, including Duke Johnson and Deon Bush, have been heavily recruiting Howard to join them as 'Canes.
But there are also reasons why Howard might not pick the Hurricanes and wasn't even thought to be considering them seriously until a visit to Coral Gables over the weekend. The main reason is the quality of the football program. After losing the Orange Bowl to demolition, Miami must drive an hour to Sun Life stadium. And while the team makes the trip, many fans do not. The abysmal attendance and subsequent egregious inflation when it comes to reporting said attendance by Miami's sports information department have become a weekly joke on Twitter and other social media outlets. Miami does not have the same commitment to football as its two in-state rivals. And recruits notice. As Josh Harvey-Clemons, a top Georgia linebacker, recently told the AJC:
"The scholastic level down there is better than the rest of them. But with the football program, they seem like they are on a different level than Florida, Georgia and Florida State. "
And that level of football is not likely to go up, as Miami's recruiting has been quite average over the last three classes, bringing in just 18 blue-chip recruits compared with the 38 signed by UF and the 36 signed by FSU. The talent level isn't increasing in Coral Gables.
And then there's the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is the looming NCAA sanctions, likely to be crippling, as punishment for a major Miami booster giving tens of thousands of dollars in cash, gifts and trips to Miami players over the course of a decade. Miami has not won a bowl game since Howard was in the sixth grade. The odds are not in favor of him being able to play in one if he chooses Miami. There is a reason Howard only recently considered Miami as a serious contender for his signature.
Still, that won't keep him from getting an excellent degree and being an immediate star for the hometown Hurricanes.
Howard will choose Miami if: He is not as concerned with winning as he is with academics and a likely starting job for the hometown team.
Finally, the Seminoles. Florida State is the two-time reigning state champion, having beaten the Gators and 'Canes by a combined score of 123-50 over the last two years. Florida State offers the chance to play for an excellent defensive coordinator in Mark Stoops, who has a tremendous track record of producing excellent defensive backs and sending them to the NFL. And after winning 19 games in his first two seasons, Jimbo Fisher looks to be pretty safe in his position. Florida State had a dominant defense last season, and is primed to win for the foreseeable future, thanks to very good recruiting. The 'Noles have brought in 36 blue-chip recruits over the last three classes, while UF claims 38 and Miami just 18.
But there are also arguments against the 'Noles. Despite being in-state, Tallahassee is an eight-hour drive from Howard's home. That's a long way for his family to come see him play, and distance often plays a major in recruiting. There's also the fact that Howard is thought to want to play in a largely man-to-man scheme. The 'Noles once ran more man-to-man than anyone under legendary defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. But no more. Under Mark Stoops, the 'Noles are primarily a zone team. And while FSU certainly plays some man-to-man, Howard might not like that the defense doesn't do what he does best as its bread-and-butter. Then, there's the high likelihood that defensive coordinator Mark Stoops gets lured away to become a head coach before Howard finishes his career in Tallahassee. And with Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes bypassing the NFL draft to return to Tallahassee for one more season, Howard isn't likely to see early playing time -- at least not in big games.
Howard will choose FSU if: He values winning, is more about the program than the coach and doesn't mind waiting his turn to start.
All three schools have a lot to offer Howard. What matters most, be it distance, academics, football style, playing time or football success, will decide his choice on Wednesday.