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Florida keeps losing recruits under Billy Napier. It might not be as bad as it seems.

Napier didn’t sign any recruits in his first signing day at Louisiana. His class still shined.
 
Florida coach Billy Napier promised his Gators would be conservative and patient in their first recruiting class.
Florida coach Billy Napier promised his Gators would be conservative and patient in their first recruiting class. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | AP ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021

Florida coach Billy Napier said taking over the Gators 10 days before recruiting’s early signing period is like entering a game with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

If you believe the recruiting rankings, then his Gators are losing. Four prospects have decommitted since Tuesday: four-star quarterback Nick Evers, four-star receivers Jayden Gibson and Chandler Smith and three-star defensive lineman Francois Nolton.

Their defections dropped UF’s class to 76th, two spots behind former coach Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan Chippewas. The Gators are down to seven commits, and only three are blue-chip prospects (including King High offensive lineman Tony Livingston).

But if you believe Napier and recent history, then things are not as bleak as they appear.

“I think the last thing we need to do here is make some mistakes,” Napier said Sunday.

And transitional recruiting classes are disproportionately full of mistakes.

Related: More misses than hits in new coaches’ first recruiting classes

Dan Mullen’s first UF class (2018) had some big hits. Kyle Pitts was the best tight end in program history. Cambridge Christian alumnus Richard Gouraige has started 28 games on the offensive line, and Dameon Pierce led UF with 12 touchdown rushes this season. Nine of Mullen’s first 20 signees became major contributors.

Which means 11 of them did not. Even if you ignore medical disqualifications, nine haven’t made significant impacts. Six left early; top-100 recruit Justin Watkins never even made it to preseason camp.

The numbers from Willie Taggart’s first Florida State class are worse. Twelve of his 21 signees in 2018 have bolted for non-medical reasons, excluding Asante Samuel (who departed early for the NFL draft).

Warren Thompson signed with Florida State from Armwood High in Willie Taggart's first class. He has since transferred to Arkansas.
Warren Thompson signed with Florida State from Armwood High in Willie Taggart's first class. He has since transferred to Arkansas. [ Times (2018) ]

That’s still better a better rate than Texas A&M, where 14 of the 23 players Jimbo Fisher signed in ‘18 are gone (also excluding NFL departures and medical disqualifications).

The attrition is a byproduct of the condensed calendar. Coaches and recruits usually build relationships over years. Trying to do so in a few weeks gives them have less time to figure out how a player’s skills and personality will fit into the program (and vice versa).

“I think it’s an injustice to them and it’s an injustice to us to all of a sudden just hurry up and elope right here at the last second,” Napier said.

Related: Florida’s Billy Napier isn’t the first Sun Belt coach to jump to a bigger job.

Rather than elope, Napier vows to be conservative and patient as he evaluates his new roster and the recruits who might help it. He said UF might not sign many players next week.

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However many he lands will still be more than the zero he signed in his first month as Louisiana’s head coach. Because he took over the Ragin’ Cajuns only five days before the early signing period in December 2017, he chose not to add anyone.

“I would equate it to marrying a girl that you’ve never met before,” Napier told The Advocate at the time.

Napier’s patient and conservative approach did not look great in the recruiting rankings. His class finished No. 105 nationally and fifth in the Sun Belt. But it looks much better four years later.

Related: Billy Napier: Florida Gators showed ‘willingness to invest’ in his vision

Napier added 18 players on or after the traditional February signing day. Only six are gone.

At least 11 of the other 12 were either starters or key contributors on this season’s Sun Belt championship team. Six earned all-conference honors, including standout offensive tackle Max Mitchell, leading rusher Chris Smith and leading tackler Lorenzo McCaskill.

Chris Smith signed with Billy Napier in his first Louisiana class and developed into an all-Sun Belt performer.
Chris Smith signed with Billy Napier in his first Louisiana class and developed into an all-Sun Belt performer. [ CHUCK BURTON | AP ]

Does that mean a light December class will work this year at UF? Not necessarily.

Recruiting in the Sun Belt is drastically different from recruiting in the SEC. The already shallow pool of elite prospects will dry up even more next week. Top recruits that don’t sign in the early period are often still available for a reason.

But Napier’s first transitional class held up better than the industry standard. Maybe his second one will, too.

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