- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's national championship teams had great offenses and defenses. They also had elite players, two of whom won Heisman trophies.
Plus, they were led by two of the greatest coaches in college football history.
But they also had something else: Plenty of seniors, many of whom were either stars or played significant roles. Guys like Danny Wuerffel, Chris Leak, James Bates, Lawrence Wright, Dallas Baker, Reggie Lewis and Louis Murphy.
That is what is missing from the 2011 Gators.
Nine scholarship seniors will be honored in a pregame ceremony this Saturday night. Four are fifth-year seniors, but the remaining five were part of Florida's heralded 2008 signing class. That group has failed miserably to meet expectations, and that's one of the reasons the Gators are struggling to avoid the program's first losing season since 1979.
The 22-member class was ESPNU's No. 4 overall class, trailing only Miami, Clemson and Alabama. Eleven players -- half the class -- were members of the ESPNU 150. Four years later, the Gators' Class of 2008 probably wouldn't crack the top 50.
"I think you judge a recruiting class after it's been on your campus for two or three years," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "Everybody wants to judge it in February and rank them and say this class is great. That's ridiculous to be able to rank a class in February when these guys haven't even stepped on campus yet and been through a spring practice and been in fall camp. Who knows?
"I've been around a lot of guys who were two stars who ended up playing in the NFL for a really long time. They were really good players. And I've been around some five stars who couldn't play."
Using Muschamp's theory, here's how the 2008 class that was assembled by Urban Meyer breaks down:
• Only 12 members remain. Four are starters, seven are reserves who play varying amounts, and one is injured and hasn't played a down this year.
• Five players transferred, including one during the middle of this season.
• Two were juco signees who already have graduated.
• One left early for the NFL but wasn't drafted.
• One is no longer with the team because of injuries.
• One was dismissed after his third arrest.
• Ten players redshirted, including seven for medical reasons.
The best player in the class is running back Jeff Demps, who has started 27 games and rushed for 2,448 yards and 23 touchdowns in his career.
The second-best player -- and there isn't even an argument for anyone else -- is kicker Caleb Sturgis, who recently was named one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the top kicker in the nation. Sturgis has 21 field goals this season and has made 45-of-59 field goal attempts in his career.
The two other starters in addition to Demps and Sturgis are offensive tackle Matt Patchan and linebacker Lerentee McCray, both of whom never started a game until this season.
That's nowhere close to what most coaches want to get out of a signing class. Muschamp would like at least half the class to develop into starters and five or six more become key reserves.
"There are so many intangibles that weigh into a young man coming into a program and being mature enough to handle it as a freshman and continue to mature and improve as a player [and] develop as a player," Muschamp said. "To put a number on it would be hard to do. When you sign 25, you'd like to think out of that class if you get 18, 19 players playing good football, then that's a heck of a job."
An accompanying problem with the disappointing class is the lack of senior leadership. In addition to their play on the field, the aforementioned players from the national championship teams provided that in the locker room and on the field. Several fifth-year seniors, who signed in 2007, are providing some leadership -- notably quarterback John Brantley and running back Chris Rainey -- but there isn't much coming from the 2008 group.
Then again, it's hard to be a leader when you're injured, not playing well or a quiet guy by nature. And it's unfair to expect anyone to be the kind of leader Tim Tebow was, either.
"I don't know that the requirement [to be a leader] is to be a senior," Muschamp said. "Generally, to be a leader, you never have a bad day. You positively affect everybody in the organization, and you make plays. And if you do that, then you gain a huge amount of respect from the staff and the players. That's what a leader is."
Not too much to expect out of any class.
Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.
Florida's dearth of senior leadership can be traced to the troubled Class of 2008.