Photo: Billy Napier; Credit Zach Goodall
When the Gators handed Billy Napier the program’s reins in late 2021, administration, alumni and fans expressed lofty expectations regarding Florida’s footprint on the recruiting trail.
He inherited a broken system that had fallen behind the curve in luring top-rated prospects to compete with the premier programs in the Southeastern Conference. That necessary fix arguably loomed larger than his on-field success. Napier cautioned the fanbase; as a result, asking for patience as he and his staff implemented their process.
“The old adage — plan your work and work your plan,” Napier said during his media availability on Monday. “We talked about that early on. We’re going to plan our work, work our plan. We’re going to be diligent. Be consistent.”
Then, he went to work.
Florida, first, pieced together a serviceable transition class by keeping a bevy of previously committed players on board, plucking Naples (Fla.) defensive back Devin Moore away from his pledge to Notre Dame, rekindling the spark for Florida in former linebacker commit Shemar James’ eyes and making a flashy late push for IMG Academy safety Kamari Wilson all before the early signing period.
Then, the Gators put an exclamation point on what seemed to be a lost cycle just a short time prior by signing nine more players on National Signing Day in February.
Napier leaned on the product Florida has to offer prospects as his reasoning for choosing the Gators for his first big-time head coaching opportunity. It’s evident he’s genuine when pitching UF to prospects.
“I think we have an incredible product to sell at the University of Florida and all that comes with that. There’s history here. There’s tradition here, there’s an elite education and experience here. We have an alumni network that can help position our players for success when football’s over. We have one of the best game days if not the best gamely venue in all of sports. I think we’ve got a prime location.”
The beginning of the 2023 cycle tested the patience he called for, with the Gators arriving late to forge crucial relationships with top talent and those close to them compared to other more established coaching staff’s.
Heading into the summer, Florida held just five commits in wide receivers Creed Whittemore and Tyree Pattersondefensive back Aaron Gates and offensive linemen Kniejah Harris and Bryce Lovett. Frustration began to build from the fanbase as the ineffectiveness of the previous regime remained intact.
However, as Napier and his cohorts use the process more, they become more familiar with how it works.
“We’re learning more about our product. I think we’re getting more comfortable with our processes in-house,” he said.
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The number of commits has skyrocketed with that familiarity. In June, July and August, 15 blue chips pledged themselves to what Napier is selling in Gainesville. They believe they can be a part of Florida’s rebuild to the top. Those 20 commits have done exactly what any program would want during rebirth: They’ve bought in.
A large part of that crucial formula is anchoring their classes with talents from the state of Florida that understand what it means to suit up for UF before working outside for must-have prospects in their mind.
“I think that, just look at the research — the numbers tell the story. We’re big into history. History is the best indicator of the future. It’s one of the reasons why this is one of the elite, iconic jobs in all of college football — player proximity. I think the inside-outside approach in recruiting – not to say we’re not going to nationally recruit – but we’re going to do a very thorough job of evaluating the personnel inside-out.”
With 16 members of the class hailing from The Sunshine State, they’re well on their way to achieving that goal. In addition, they will look to take advantage of what Napier deemed “the right time” for hauling in legacy target commitments consistently, the way he did with Woodward Academy (Atlanta, Ga.) 2024 linebacker prospect Myles Graham.
“I was joking around with somebody the other day. I said, ‘We might just be hitting this thing at the right time,'” Napier recalled. “If you backtrack to Spurrier’s days, all those guys are growing up. They have kids running around. Hopefully, they’ll be more of those to come.”
Those former Gator greats are starting to take notice of the efficiency with which the staff is operating to the point of entrusting their children’s academic, athletic and personal development.
Current players have also seen the shift. Namely paying attention to the progress is a current starter who has a brother committed in the class of 2023.
“I think this staff has just shown a real commitment to recruiting and that’s what it takes, is to go out there and pursue kids throughout the year and they are doing that so far and it’s really paying off,” current Gators wide receiver Trent Whittemore said about the escalating production and momentum.
Now, the staff will attempt to take the next step in the talent-acquisition department by pulling in the elite, program-altering prospects. Florida is currently in the mix for two of the top three prospects in the nation, according to SI All-American’s SI99.
Longtime Gators defensive back target Cormani McClain and newly available edge rusher Keon Keeley are the pieces needed to expedite the process formed by Napier and Co. to return to national prominence. Both of whom fall into the category of in-state prospects.
The days of limited football recruiting efforts to a season are officially over at Florida. Thus, so is its non-existent presence on the trail.
“I think what you’re seeing here is the Gators aren’t going away on the recruiting trail.”
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