Five Florida recruiting takeaways from the early signing period

We’re learning more about Billy Napier’s approach with the Gators, and the expectations have risen around USF.
Florida State watched five-star recruit Travis Hunter flip to Jackson State on Wednesday.
Florida State watched five-star recruit Travis Hunter flip to Jackson State on Wednesday. [ HYOSUB SHIN / AJC | Associated Press ]
Published Dec. 17, 2021

As college football’s three-day early signing period comes to an end, here are five takeaways from across the state:

1. Name, image and likeness matters.

When the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit, Travis Hunter, flipped from Florida State to Jackson State, the industry speculated that lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals were the deciding factor. Jackson State coach Deion Sanders (the FSU legend whom the Seminoles considered in their last head coaching search) denied those rumors.

Regardless, NIL deals have become part of the recruiting picture, like facilities or education.

“It’s definitely changed some of the dynamics in recruiting,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said (generally, not about Hunter specifically).

Related: Our college football bowl guide, from Florida Gators vs. UCF to the College Football Playoff

Those dynamics, which differ by state, will continue to change. On Wednesday, Rep. Chip LaMarca (R-Lighthouse Point) filed a bill that would amend Florida’s law by allowing programs to start directing outside NIL compensation to current athletes.

2. We’re learning more about Billy Napier’s recruiting approach at Florida.

Florida coach Billy Napier has specific "critical factors" he's looking for in recruits.
Florida coach Billy Napier has specific "critical factors" he's looking for in recruits. [ BRAD MCCLENNY | The Gainesville Sun ]

With only a week and a half between his hiring date and signing day, Napier took a deliberate approach. All nine of his signees “fit the critical factors at each position.”

Critical factors are a, well, critical part of Nick Saban’s Process, which Napier learned firsthand at Alabama and adopted at Louisiana and UF. Saban wants players with certain proven physical skills. A 2018 story from The Athletic detailed some of those critical factors: Saban wanted cornerbacks to be at least 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds and left tackles to be 6-foot-5 and about 300 pounds. The cornerback Napier signed (four-star Naples High product Devin Moore) is 190 pounds and almost 6-3, and his offensive tackle (Deerfield Beach High’s David Conner) is 6-5 and 295 pounds.

Related: Can Billy Napier Sabanize the Florida Gators where Jim McElwain, Will Muschamp couldn’t?

Napier is detailed enough that UF lists heights down to the quarter inch, and he knew King High product Tony Livingston’s hand size off the top of his head. That’s another sign of how seriously Napier takes measurements.

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Napier didn’t specify his critical factors, but he said the class has a lot of height, length, verified speed and “functional movement.”

3. Napier’s overall process is becoming clearer, too.

The first people Napier thanked Wednesday were the athletic department’s pilots. He also thanked, by name, the assistant director of travel, an administrative assistant and recruiting staffers before acknowledging the help of the Hilton hotel and five Gainesville restaurants — all before he mentioned the name of one recruit.

Saban’s famed Process stresses the importance of every part of an organization working toward one goal. In his introductory news conference, Napier called it a “team effort.” We’re starting to see that take shape.

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

On Thursday, UF hired Georgia director of recruiting operations Katie Turner to be the Gators’ assistant athletic director of recruiting strategy. That’s another sign of the infrastructure Napier is building.

4. USF is poised to improve quickly.

Defensive end Jatorian Hansford, right, is transferring from Missouri to USF.
Defensive end Jatorian Hansford, right, is transferring from Missouri to USF. [ L.G. PATTERSON | Associated Press ]

The Bulls landed 247Sports’ top transfer class by adding a dozen players through the portal. Two of the newcomers are former blue-chip recruits from North Carolina: defensive lineman Clyde Pinder (an Armwood High alumnus) and receiver Khafre Brown.

After plucking defensive end Jatorian Hansford from Missouri on Thursday, USF’s transfers have appeared in a combined 191 games (172 at the Power Five level) and 15 starts.

Building a roster through the portal can be risky; Miami had some success with big-name transfers (quarterback D’Eriq King from Houston, first-round pick Jaelan Phillips from UCLA) under Manny Diaz, but that didn’t stop the Hurricanes from firing him after three seasons. The immediate jolt of experienced talent raises the expectations for Jeff Scott as he enters his third year.

5. FSU’s class will be fascinating to watch.

Florida State coach Mike Norvell signed the state's best class.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell signed the state's best class. [ PHIL SEARS | Associated Press ]

The Seminoles signed the best class in the state and the No. 12 class in the country (including transfers). The addition of four-star offensive tackle Julian Armella from Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas gave FSU four players ranked in the top 126 nationally. That’s impressive for a program that has lost 13 of its last 21 games. Snagging Wisconsin offensive lineman Kayden Lyles from the portal was big, too.

But the context — Hunter’s shocking flip and seeing FSU legacy Marvin Jones Jr. sign with Georgia — makes it seem somewhat disappointing.

If FSU develops this class well enough, losing Hunter will be a mere footnote to Norvell’s tenure. But if this class doesn’t pan out, Hunter’s flip will look like a turning point of the Norvell era.

Related: Worst. Year. Ever. What went wrong with Florida college football?

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