GAINESVILLE — When Xavier Nixon announced on national television this month that he was choosing to attend Florida on a football scholarship, his father, Kenneth, was there to support and cheer him on.
Normally, that might not be considered anything out of the ordinary.
For Nixon, the four-star offensive line recruit from Fayetteville, N.C., it was a rare and very special occasion.
Kenneth Nixon, a command sergeant major in the Army, was granted a special release to come home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan so he could see his son play in the U.S. Army Bowl on Jan. 3. It was there that Nixon chose Florida over LSU and Miami.
Nixon will join a Gators squad that is losing three of its top offensive linemen — providing him with a chance to play right away.
"The deciding factor was the opportunity to possibly play early at left tackle," Nixon said.
"Nixon has tremendous upside," said Jamie Newberg, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's one of the top tackle prospects in America. He's got size, a great frame and terrific feet. He's athletic as heck for a big man. I just think he needs a redshirt to bulk up, put some weight and fill out that frame."
At 6 feet 6, 265 pounds, Nixon is the No. 1 tackle in the nation, according to several recruiting sites. Aside from being athletically gifted, he brings an attitude and maturity that far exceeds many 18-year-olds.
The son of career military parents — his mother, Fotini, is a master sergeant at Fort Bragg — he has lived in multiple places, including the Netherlands. In 1999, Nixon was separated from both parents when each was deployed to South Korea. He spent a year with an aunt in Virginia.
Kenneth Nixon was able to keep up with his son's progress this past season with game tapes sent to him weekly by the wife of his son's high school coach, Richard Bailey. Fayetteville is located near Fort Bragg, so the coach's wife had game tape to pack and send to several parents.
It's that kind of extended family situation, and the chance to play in front of 90,000 in the Swamp, that appealed to Nixon.
"The atmosphere of the games was impressive, and the coaches felt like family," he said. "I felt at home."
Florida's recruiting class won't be among the top three as it has been the past two seasons, but experts say it's not because the Gators aren't landing talented players. With a squad that returns all 11 starters on defense, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and two starting running backs, the priorities are different from previous years under coach Urban Meyer.
"UF is putting together another super class, and they should finish in the top 10," Newberg said. "Two things are hurting them. First, they won't have the overall numbers like LSU and Alabama as far as number of signees. Second, we are starting to see their young depth hurt them at certain positions like corner, where they already lost Greg Reid (No. 4 recruit from Valdosta, Ga.). But overall, they are doing well and filling needs at offensive line, and potentially linebacker if they close with Jelani Jenkins (No. 1 prospect from Maryland) and Jarvis Jones (four-star from Columbus, Ga.) on signing day."
Meyer, who by NCAA rule can't comment on recruits until they have signed (Wednesday is national signing day), said he believes two national titles in the past three seasons will help the Gators continue to attract top-level recruits such as Nixon. The Gators' current commitment list also includes Andre Debose, the nation's No. 2 wide receiver, and Gary Brown, the nation's No. 3 defensive tackle.
"What Florida has to offer a young man, let's compare us against any other school — academically, lifestyle, the location — it's going to be very good," Meyer said. "We're going to have a very good recruiting class."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.