By: Ken LaVicka
ESPN 106.3 Staff Writer
The University of Florida has been nothing short of a constant presence at Dwyer High School over the past several years, but a recent rash of transfers out of UF indicate a growing schism between the state's most prominent college football program and the preps powerhouse out of Palm Beach County.
Three Dwyer grads have left Gainesville for new schools in the past three seasons: QB Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State), TE Gerald Christian (Louisville), and WR Robert Clark (Louisville), departures that have left Panthers head coach Jack Daniels, a Gator alum, questioning Will Muschamp and his coaching staff.
Two other non-Dwyer Palm Beach products have left Florida early since 2011: Pahokee WR Chris Dunkley and, most recently, Boynton Beach OL Jessamen Dunker.
Dunkley, who also played at Royal Palm Beach, is believed to have had academic issues that led to a transfer to USF, where he was arrested on domestic violence battery last September. Dunker was taken into custody in January after allegedly stealing a scooter near Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
The Dwyer trio, however, are signficantly more perplexing because not only were they more sought-after coming out of high school, they also didn't run afoul of the law, and by all indications, were meeting expectations in the classroom.
“None of my guys, thank God, have gotten in trouble, I just didn’t think they were treated fairly,” says Daniels.
While the “Dwyer-to-UF pipeline” was recently punctuated by safety Matt Elam's All-American career in the orange and blue, culminating in him being taken in the first round of April's NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, Daniels is still plenty salty about how his players have been treated by Muschamp and Co., especially Brissett.
“I've said all along, I don’t think he’s been given the fair shot which was said was going to happen,” Daniels says of Brissett's time at Florida.
Brissett was a highly-touted Class of 2011 prospect who followed close friend Elam to Florida. Initially recruited by Urban Meyer, the Palm Beach Gardens native picked the Gators despite a coaching change and the prospect of entering a quarterback log-jam with incumbent John Brantley and big-name incoming freshman Jeff Driskel.
After the Gators started an eye-opening 4-0 in '11, Brantley was injured in a loss to Alabama, paving the way for Brissett to make his first ever start, a blowout defeat at LSU. Brissett would once again get the opening assigment the following week as Florida fell to Auburn, but he would only see one more start (Jacksonville State, '12) in the final 19 games of his Gator career. It's a timeline of events that rubs Daniels the wrong way.
“It was made clear to him, and to everybody else, that it didn’t matter what Jeff Driskel did, it was [Driskel's] job and going in to next fall, it’s going to be the same way. I think Jacoby had no choice. If I was quarterback on that team last year, I might have been able to get some wins, the way their defense was playing.”
In nine games in a Florida uniform, Brissett passed for 455 yards (11.4 yards per completion) at a 55.4% clip (41-74) and threw three touchdowns to four interceptions. With 17 games under his belt, Driskel has compiled a 61.6% completion mark, 10.4 yards per completion, and 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions. Driskel's 63.7% was 39th in the nation and 6th in the SEC a season ago.
Though many will argue that Driskel's mobility was more conducive to play behind Florida's ragged offensive line, Daniels thinks Brissett's body of work was well below what he deserved and he doesn't think that UF coaches were truthful with his former signal-caller.
“The way Jacoby was handled and the decision that was made...if it was my kid, I wouldn’t expect anybody to treat my kid like that, and I don’t think anybody should treat anybody like that. I think it was a complete lie about how he was going to be given a fair chance and I don’t think there’s anything to dispute that there wasn’t a lie.”
Daniels doesn't believe he's the only member of the Dwyer family upset with how Brissett was treated at UF. He thinks Elam was less than thrilled with the opportunity, or lack thereof, that his boyhood pal received in Gainesville.
Evidence of Elam's disatisfaction with Brissett's situation came in mid-January after the quarterback announced his intention to transfer to N.C. State. Elam took to Twitter and fired off a series of tweets that were hardly complimentary to Driskel.
“@ElamVsElo: Ay world mark my worlds please! The NC STATE WOLFPACK WILL HAVE A HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER IN THE NEXT TWO YEARS iSWEA..”
“@erikpowell: @ElamVsElo not a hater but C'MON Man!
@ElamVsElo: @erikpowell You must be a Driskel lover, sad story bro...”
“@ElamVsElo: If you a recruit and you play receiver, go to NC State..! Lol..!”
“@ElamVsElo: For all the "supposedly" Florida fans I am a @JBrissett12 fan, I can careless what that other dude can do, I'm for the fam!”
“I know Matt played this season with tons of anger because of the way Jacoby was treated and I’m pretty sure there were some run-ins with the coaching staff with Matt,” Daniels says of Elam, last year's first-team All-SEC performer, the poster child for UF's hard-hitting, play-making defense.
As for Gerald Christian, Daniels is still trying to figure out why things didn't work out for the talented tight end.
After a successful run at Dwyer, Christian headed to UF with Elam and Clark with expectations of becoming a vertical threat in Florida's up-tempo offense, but things didn't work out that way. After being used as a fullback and blocking end as a freshman, Christian began to sour on Meyer's plan for him.
The ill feelings over his role continued when Muschamp and then offensive coordinator Charlie Weis entered the picture. Christian decided to call it quits with the Gators mid-season in 2011, and he took Robert Clark with him.
Daniels was dismayed at the way Christian decided to exit Muschamp's roster, but he understood why his former star did what he did.
“[Gerald] is one of the best kids I’ve ever coached, one of the the politest, who goes to class, doesn’t get in trouble, and is very talented. He’s truthful, and every week he was taking all the reps with the 1's in practice, and when the game time comes, [Christian's not out there]. He gets his first start against Kentucky and catches [a 45-yard touchdown pass] and then they go play Alabama the next week and he plays two snaps. It got to be a point where it happened so many times to him that he was frustrated and felt like the coaches were lying to him.”
Despite obvious angst over the UF tenure's of Brissett and Christian, Daniels still sounds like someone who believes Clark should've tried to stick it out in Gainesville.
“I think some people got into Robert’s ear about leaving and him never getting a chance to be anything, and there’s guys that were ahead of him, which was wrong because Robert was playing a lot (7 games in '10, 7 catches, 1 TD) and had a bright future there. I think he would have gotten a lot of playing time. I just think he “jumped the ship” with Gerald. He regretted it. I’m not sure he regrets it now, but he regretted it at the time.”
With Dwyer spring practice underway en route to their upcoming spring game showdown with Vero Beach, the shadow of Muschamp and Florida looms large over Daniels' football team.
Rising senior WR Johnnie Dixon has held an offer from the Gators since May of last year and UF believes it has a real strong shot at an athlete Rivals rates as the 17th best receiver in the nation. Dixon is a speedster, who at 6'0” 175 lbs., also holds offers from schools like Miami, Florida State, and up to five SEC institutions including Alabama.
While Daniels may not be the biggest fan of how his guys have been handled at UF, he refuses to alter a player's decision just because he isn't exactly thrilled with the Gators at the moment.
“I can’t hold a grudge forever and I still talk to Coach Muschamp. If Johnny Dixon wants to go there, then I support it 100%. I would never steer a kid away.”
The reality is, however, that Dwyer is a close-knit football family and many of the current players have kept an eye on the path's that the school's former stars have taken through their college careers. They hear the stories. They're aware of the good and the bad.
Daniels is curious to see how his program's relationship with Muschamp's program develops as the next few months, and years, progress.
“I don’t know how hard it’s going to be to get a kid out of Dwyer to go there now.”