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The grading curve is over for Billy Napier, Florida Gators

The 6-7 season wasn’t all his fault. But what happens next, starting with Wednesday’s early signing day, is all on him.
Billy Napier is trying to lead the Florida Gators back to glory, starting with recruiting success.
Billy Napier is trying to lead the Florida Gators back to glory, starting with recruiting success. [ L.E. BASKOW | Las Vegas Review-Journal ]
Published Dec. 20, 2022|Updated Dec. 20, 2022

Though Billy Napier’s inaugural 6-7 Florida Gators season was a dud, it wasn’t all his fault. His team’s disappointments were measured against the reality that Napier didn’t control the roster, facilities or culture he inherited.

Not anymore. When the early signing period begins Wednesday, the grading curve disappears. This is, fully, Napier’s program.

Its success or failure hinges largely on what happens with this recruiting class.

Related: With Florida’s $85 million football facility open, Gators’ excuses are over

Napier is in this position because his predecessor, Dan Mullen, did not land enough of the elite players required to win championships. Napier understands the job — he called college football a “talent-acquisition business” in his introductory news conference — and recruited well enough as an Alabama assistant and Louisiana’s head coach to suggest he could thrive at Florida.

The reality, so far, is nuanced. Napier’s first full class sits 11th in the 247Sports composite rankings. That’s fifth in the SEC (seventh, if you include future members Texas and Oklahoma).

That’s also not much different than other recent UF classes. Mullen’s final three national rankings were ninth, ninth and 12th. Jim McElwain’s two full classes were 11th and 12th.

But there are underlying reasons for optimism. Jaden Rashada is set to become UF’s highest-rated quarterback signee since Will Grier in 2014. The Gators also have an oral commitment from one of 2024′s top passers, five-star recruit DJ Lagway.

ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said the Gators have a deeper-than-usual group of upper-tier players. The numbers back him up. Napier has 18 commitments who are four- or five-star recruits. That’d tie Mullen’s 2020 class for the most since Urban Meyer signed 22 in 2010.

Wharton High's Dijon Johnson is a top-100 national prospect and Gators commit.
Wharton High's Dijon Johnson is a top-100 national prospect and Gators commit. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Eleven of them are ranked among the nation’s top 250 players, according to the 247Sports composite. That’d be UF’s most since Will Muschamp landed 14 in 2013.

“Making progress,” Luginbill said. “Obviously what they’re doing and what they’re trying to accomplish is resonating with prospects, even though you have to do it under difficult circumstances and without a lot of wins to show for it in Year 1.”

The problem is that another new coach is making even more progress with even worse results.

Miami’s Mario Cristobal is poised to sign a top-four class after his Hurricanes finished 5-7. Some of his biggest recruiting wins came against Napier. Though UF flipped Rashada from Miami, No. 2 overall recruit Cormani McClain shocked the recruiting world by picking the Hurricanes over UF in October.

Related: Billy Napier still closing Florida Gators’ recruiting gap with Georgia

Five-star Massachusetts offensive lineman Samson Okunlola and four-star Plantation American Heritage running back Mark Fletcher both picked Miami over UF in the last week.

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Napier’s first full class looks good. Cristobal’s first full class looks elite.

Miami Hurricanes coach Mario Cristobal is poised to sign a top-five recruiting class.
Miami Hurricanes coach Mario Cristobal is poised to sign a top-five recruiting class. [ AL DIAZ/ADIAZ@MIAMIHERALD.COM | Miami Herald ]

Though Wednesday is our best gauge yet of Napier’s recruiting ability, the talent acquisition will continue after the initial wave of paperwork. The Gators are finalists for four-star Jacksonville defensive lineman Jordan Hall, who’s expected to announce his decision Thursday.

Five-star cornerback Desmond Ricks from Bradenton’s IMG Academy will also make his choice Thursday; he visited Florida earlier this month.

Napier used the transfer portal last year to add Florida’s leading receiver (Arizona State’s Ricky Pearsall), leading rusher (Louisiana’s Montrell Johnson) and All-American offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence. The Gators are expected to be even more active in the portal this offseason.

Related: What’s the NCAA transfer portal window like? ‘Insanity’

Napier will have more room to operate because more than two dozen players with remaining eligibility have left since October, according to 247Sports’ tracker.

“Now with those guys going out the door, you’ve now added scholarships back into the fold,” Luginbill said. “How do you allot those scholarships?”

Napier’s answer will go a long way in shaping his Florida future.

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