Matt Elam came to the University of Florida in the 2010 class which many services considered to be the top ranked recruiting class in the nation. As a five star recruit, he could be considered the top recruit of that class. Of course, the Gators signed six recruits that year considered to be five stars by the scout.com rating system. Regardless, there’s no denying the importance of Elam’s signing in that class.
His recruitment was one of the more interesting stories, though, of the last few years. He was an early commitment to then coach Urban Meyer’s team. He was their third commitment after Trey Burton and Ian Silberman, committing in October of 2008, well over a year before signing day. Asked when he thought about committing, Elam said,
“When I got the offer.”
He loved Florida and loved Urban Meyer who had coached his brother Abram at Notre Dame. Asked about his relationship with Meyer, he said,
“like a father”.
So needless to say that after the Gators surprising loss in the 2009 SEC Championship game and Meyer’s abrupt resignation citing health concerns, Elam was the recruit that was seemingly most affected by it. And in spite of Meyer’s sudden reversal of his resignation the very next day, Elam felt hurt and betrayed. Betrayed by the man that he and his mother had put so much trust in. The situation caused him to rethink his commitment to Florida. To the point he actually switched his commitment from Florida to rival Florida State with a little more than a month to go before signing day.
Seminole fans rejoiced about getting one of Florida’s most committed five star recruits. Gator fans already stunned by the loss to Alabama and Meyer’s sudden resignation and reversal were flattened by their top recruit switching allegiance to their bitter rival. Of course, by signing day Elam wouldn’t be able to resist his love for Florida and Meyer and ended up signing with the Gators.
When he got to campus as a hard-hitting safety, Elam showed his versatility as a nickel back in passing situations and on special teams playing on the kick and punt coverage teams as a true freshman. He took over at strong safety as a sophomore and has been one of the most reliable leaders on the Gators defense. Playing multiple positions depending upon the situation, Elam is the most versatile player on the Gators defense and perhaps the team as a whole.
“Matt can play a lot of positions for us,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “He plays safety, he’s an emergency corner, he plays nickel and plays the dime when we go to six defensive backs.”
He’s one of the toughest players on the team, as well, not just because of his hard-hitting nature but because of his ability to play through injury.
“Matt last year had a groin injury the last five weeks of the season and hardly practiced Monday’s and Tuesday’s because of the injury,” said Muschamp. “We had to get him and manage him to the game and play through the game then had surgery in January.”
In spite of the injury he still finished second on the team in tackles with 78, first on the team in tackles for loss with eleven, and tied for the team lead in interceptions with two.
This season Elam again finished second on the team in tackles with 65 but first in unassisted tackles 49. He also finished first on the team with four interceptions, third in pass breakups with five, and second in tackles for loss with ten behind only Sharrif Floyd’s eleven. Elam’s value is obvious stat-wise but even more so in leadership. On a defense that requires a lot of defensive backfield calls made at the line depending upon how the offense lines up, Elam is the one who makes the calls. He makes sure everyone knows the alignment, understands their assignment, and is lined up properly on each play. He’s a coach on the field.
As big of a leader as he is, though, he’s more of a quiet leader on and off the field. He’s not an in-your-face guy and don’t ask him to do a lot of talking. That’s not his style.
“You can’t ask someone to be something they are not,” Muschamp said about Elam’s quiet leadership style. “You have to let them be who they are” adding he made the mistake with Sergio Kindle at Texas of asking him to be more vocal.
“Matt is a guy that plays the game very focused, fast and physical. His leadership abilities are based on how he plays. He is not an overly vocal guy, but I am not ever going to ask a guy again to be something they are not.”
“He’s a guy that leads by example. He has a certain persona of leadership around him and certainly our guys follow it.”
He has been a steady, solid force for the Gators since he arrived and has affected so many areas of this team.
” (Matt’s) a guy that I think has just had an outstanding year with what we have asked him to do,” Muschamp said. “You look at special teams and some of the coverage things he’s been able to do for us. He just gives great effort, intensity, attitude, has the resolve that has certainly helped our team.”
“He is a good blitzer,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said about Elam. ” The close he gets to the line, the more plays that he makes.”
Under his leadership the Gators finished this season fifth in the nation in total defense, first in the nation in pass efficiency defense, sixth in rushing defense, and fifth in turnover margin. Perhaps more importantly they played suffocating defense in the fourth quarter an area they struggled at last season allowing the offense to find their way and win games late.
Elam is one of the juniors on the team that will certainly get a look at leaving early for the NFL. The early word is that he likely will stay, but that has a way of changing as junior evaluations go out and we get closer to approaching signing day. For now Elam will continue his hard work and help lead the Gators to a Sugar Bowl victory against Louisville, the Gators first BCS game appearance since the Sugar Bowl following that fateful 2009 season that almost saw Elam become a Seminole.
The decision to stick with his original commitment to Florida paid off for him and for the Gators. Hopefully, he’ll be around to lead this team to greatness for one more season in Gainesville. If not he’ll become another great Gator playing in the NFL.