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Billy Napier still closing Florida Gators’ recruiting gap with Georgia

UF missed on the nation’s No. 2 recruit Thursday but still has the foundation for one of its best classes in years.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is building an impressive recruiting class in his first full cycle at UF.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is building an impressive recruiting class in his first full cycle at UF. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Oct. 27|Updated Oct. 27

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators suffered a major, stunning recruiting setback Thursday night when Lakeland High cornerback Cormani McClain committed to Miami.

Billy Napier’s Gators were widely expected to land McClain, the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect — so much so that a video circulated on social media of one national recruiting site breaking down his commitment to UF. McClain’s decision stings, and it should; he would have been UF’s top rated recruit since signing Apopka High’s Martez Ivey in 2015.

Related: Florida Gators’ Anthony Richardson ready for second shot at Georgia

The whiff overshadows the progress Napier’s Gators have made on the recruiting trail. Though Mario Cristobal’s Hurricanes passed UF in the 247Sports composite rankings Thursday, UF’s 2023 class still sits ninth nationally. That’s 13 spots higher than where Dan Mullen had them a year ago.

The Gators have non-binding oral commitments from 13 recruits ranked in the top 250 nationally. That would be the most since UF has signed 14 in 2013.

The Gators have 18 commits rated as four- or five-star talents. That would tie Mullen’s 2020 class for the most since Urban Meyer landed 22 in his final class (2010).

“So far, so good,” Napier said Monday in general comments about UF’s recruiting. “A lot of work left to do.”

A lot of work, if his Gators are going to start consistently challenging Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs.

Florida hasn't been able to hold Kirby Smart back on the recruiting trail.
Florida hasn't been able to hold Kirby Smart back on the recruiting trail. [ Times (2018) ]

Georgia is the reigning national champion and on this season’s short list of College Football Playoff contenders in large part because of Smart’s recruiting — his dedication to it and his success at it. That was evident last year when the Bulldogs blew out Florida by 27.

Related: No. 1 Georgia dominates Florida Gators. Why? Recruiting.

Georgia’s touchdowns were scored by players who were all among the nation’s top 130 prospects in their class. Six of its top eight tacklers that game were top-50 recruits, and another was ranked 103rd.

The Bulldogs’ current roster leads the nation with 15 five-star recruits. The only team with more talent, according to 247Sports’ rankings, is Alabama. Florida is 12th. If you’re wondering why Florida is the biggest underdog it has been in this series since 1948, start there.

“There’s no question their personnel is really good,” Napier said.

Related: The story behind the last time the Gators were 22-point underdogs to Georgia

The question is whether Napier can make the Gators’ personnel really good, too. And if so, how quickly?

Landing McClain would have been the surest sign yet that Napier is on the right, fast track. Instead, they’ll have to settle for some other recent victories.

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Earlier this week, Napier flipped four-star prospect Roderick Kearney from rival Florida State. Aside from adding a top-150 talent, Kearney’s decision erased a stain from the summer; the Orange Park offensive lineman committed to FSU soon after leaving a visit to Gainesville. Earlier this month, Napier landed top-100 Wharton safety Dijon Johnson, a one-time Ohio State commitment.

Wharton High's Dijon Johnson is among the Gators' top recruits in the 2023 class.
Wharton High's Dijon Johnson is among the Gators' top recruits in the 2023 class. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Let’s be clear: the Gators weren’t recruiting on Georgia’s level, even if they had landed McClain. Florida’s class is seven spots behind the Bulldogs. Georgia has commitments from four more top-100 talents than UF — including linebacker Troy Bowles from Tampa’s Jesuit High — and five more commitments from top-250 prospects. Florida’s class is good, if not very good. Georgia’s class is elite.

Napier’s first full class also lags behind the star-studded crop Smart landed in his first full cycle at Georgia. That haul pushed the Bulldogs to the national title game in Smart’s second season.

Jake Fromm was part of Kirby Smart's first full recruiting class at Georgia.
Jake Fromm was part of Kirby Smart's first full recruiting class at Georgia. [ Times (2019) ]

Smart’s recruiting power has increased since then, creating a talent gap that was obvious in last year’s blowout. The difference will probably be insurmountable this weekend in Jacksonville, too.

Related: We tried to find a Florida Gators defense this bad on third down. We couldn’t come close.

Napier missed out on a chance to close that gap Thursday before suffering a stunning setback in Lakeland. It’s a sign that for all the progress he has made in Year 1, his Gators have a lot of room left to grow.

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