On the night Urban Meyer announced his resignation as coach at Florida, he not only stunned the college football world but a long list of high school players who had pledged their loyalty to the Gators. Florida was coming off a national championship and had been in the running for another until the Dec. 5 loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Meyer had sold players on the promise of the future, with him leading the way. So one day after Christmas, and with 11 players scheduled for early enrollment, Meyer quit, and players were left in limbo. One day later, Meyer changed his mind, saying he would take a leave of absence instead. He had no details on when he would return, and the Gators were also losing defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and two other top assistants. Recruiting experts and national analysts believed Florida's top-five recruiting class was in peril. Turns out, nothing was further from the truth.
Meyer has since said he will return for spring practice in March. Florida held on to those early enrollees, then went on to pick up nonbinding oral commitments from some of the most coveted recruits in the nation.
"It is a bit surprising, especially considering the negative recruiting that takes place," said Barry Every, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "I'm sure there were a handful of coaches that hammered these recruits hard about coach Meyer's future at the University of Florida. But let's face it, all these kids lived a majority of this recruiting season with the Gators as reigning champs, and most kids want to play for a national championship."
With national signing day Wednesday, Florida has the No. 1-rated recruiting class in the nation among the major recruiting sites.
It's a class that includes three of the top 10 players in the Rivals.com rankings and six in the top 50, including No. 1, defensive end Ronald Powell; No. 4, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, and No. 7, defensive tackle Dominique Easley. Scout.com rates those players as Nos. 2, 6 and 12, respectively, and says the Gators have the nation's top two defensive tackles and ends, and lists four defensive backs in the top 75 overall. The Gators, who have lost seven defensive starters or players with significant playing time from last season, have loaded up on defensive talent.
"On paper, it's one of the best I have seen," said Jamie Newberg, Southeast analyst for Rivals.com. "Of course, we all said that about Florida's 2000 class with Brock Berlin, etc. How did that pan out?
"Then again, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin's class was No. 1, and they go down as one of the best ever in the SEC. This class, on paper, has that chance. All they are really missing is a big-time quarterback. They knocked it out of the park just about everywhere else. The (defensive) class of Floyd, Powell, Easley, Lynden Trail (Booker T. Washington High, Miami) and Leon Orr (Gulf, New Port Richey) is unreal. I also love what they did in the secondary. And they could potentially close very well at linebacker."
Powell, Floyd and Easley are from California, Philadelphia and New York, respectively, illustrating the Gators' ability to attract players from across the nation. That's a credit to Florida and the SEC, analysts said. And to the Gators' assistant coaches, three of whom have been on the staff for 1½ months or less. Meyer has not traveled since late December.
"I'm not traveling as much, so (the assistants) are obviously doing a good job," Meyer said. "(I'm) working the phones and talking to families on their visits. We're pretty excited about it."
Analysts and players are crediting Meyer with salvaging the class.
"There was a time when I was worried at first, but I listened, and he just told the truth," Powell said. "He said he's going to be a Gator. He has health issues, but he's taking care of that, and he's going to be a Gator."
Rivals.com's Newberg said it's a reflection of Meyer's ability to build relationships.
"I am a big believer that recruiting is about relationships,'' he said. "The Meyer announcement, coupled with the (assistant) coaching losses of Billy Gonzales, Charlie Strong, Vance Bedford and Ken Carter, we were to assume that Florida was going to take a big hit. But they didn't. In fact, the opposite happened.
"How? My theory is this: I think there are a lot of parallels to Florida and Meyer, and (Pete) Carroll and USC. Carroll over the years recruited on a different level than everyone else. Along the way he lost a ton of coaches from his staff. Still, he outrecruited everyone. How? It was Pete Carroll and the program he built at USC. Kids wanted to play for him and play for the Trojans. I get the sense that that's what's happening in Gainesville."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Follow her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.