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Is Billy Napier closing Florida Gators recruiting gap with Georgia?

Napier says college football is a talent-acquisition business. This is a good time to gauge his early returns.
 
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier knows recruiting is key. So how has he done in talent acquisition so far?
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier knows recruiting is key. So how has he done in talent acquisition so far? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Oct. 19, 2023|Updated Oct. 19, 2023

With one line during his first public comments as the Florida Gators’ football coach, Billy Napier showed he understood the job in a way his predecessor, Dan Mullen, did not.

“This is a talent-acquisition business,” Napier said during his introductory news conference 22½ months ago.

The Gators’ talent deficit under Mullen never seemed as large as it did in a 34-7 loss to Georgia two years ago. And with Napier preparing to face Georgia next Saturday, this is a fitting time to assess his performance. If college football is a talent-acquisition business, what are his early deliverables?

The numbers

Jason Marshall is the Gators' only five-star player, according to the 247Sports composite. He was a Dan Mullen signee.
Jason Marshall is the Gators' only five-star player, according to the 247Sports composite. He was a Dan Mullen signee. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]

247Sports takes the recruiting ranking of every player on every roster and applies a formula to come up with an annual ranking of every team. It’s called the team talent composite, and it’s an imperfect but helpful starting point.

By that metric, Florida is faring worse under Napier than in Mullen’s final season (2021):

Five-star players

Mullen’s final team: 6

Napier’s current team: 1

Four-star players

Mullen’s final team: 50

Napier’s current team: 42

Blue-chip ratio of four/five-star players

Mullen’s final team: 66%

Napier’s current team: 64%

Team ranking

Mullen’s final team: 7th (fourth in current SEC)

Napier’s current team: 15th (fifth in current SEC)

Average player rating

Mullen’s final team: 91.09

Napier’s current team: 89.39

But the talent composite uses transfers’ ratings from high school, not the portal, and the blue-chip ratio excludes them entirely. Factor them in, and the numbers change:

Florida running back Montrell Johnson was a three-star recruit out of high school but a four-star transfer from Louisiana.
Florida running back Montrell Johnson was a three-star recruit out of high school but a four-star transfer from Louisiana. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]

Five-star players

Mullen’s final team: 2

Napier’s current team: 1

Four-star players

Mullen’s final team: 51

Napier’s current team: 45

Average player rating

Mullen’s final team: 90.34

Napier’s current team: 90.68

Florida focus

Gaither High product Eugene Wilson was one of the top 20 Florida natives in the 2023 recruiting class.
Gaither High product Eugene Wilson was one of the top 20 Florida natives in the 2023 recruiting class. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]

Napier vowed his recruiting “will start with a major emphasis in this state.” It has improved there.

Mullen’s final class featured only four top-250 national recruits from Florida. Napier doubled that in his first full class (2023). But Napier still only signed three of the top 20 Florida natives; Georgia got six, including Jesuit High’s Troy Bowles.

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Evaluation

Wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, a transfer from Arizona State, is a positive sign of Billy Napier's talent evaluation.
Wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, a transfer from Arizona State, is a positive sign of Billy Napier's talent evaluation. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]

Napier stands by a “very thorough evaluation process” over star ratings. We can’t get a full accounting of that process’ success until his freshmen become upperclassmen, but the early returns are encouraging.

Napier additions (as transfers or prep recruits) account for 974 of the team’s 989 rushing yards. Only one of UF’s top eight receivers and one of its top five tacklers were Mullen holdovers. Nine true freshmen have appeared in all seven games — the most of any team in the country.

Though some of those statistics are based more on opportunity than talent, there are obvious hits. Florida’s top players on SEC stat boards — Trevor Etienne, Ricky Pearsall, Graham Mertz and Shemar James — were all evaluated and signed by Napier.

The Football Writers Association of America put five Gators on its midseason freshman All-America watch list; no other school had more than two. The Gators’ honorees include three-star recruit Knijeah Harris and Arlis Boardingham, a three-star receiver/linebacker Napier converted into tight end.

Harris and safety Jordan Castell were named freshman midseason All-Americans by 247Sports and On3, respectively. Those lists did not include Eugene Wilson, the Gaither High alumnus who, when healthy, has shown flashes of being the Gators’ most exciting athlete since Kadarius Toney.

Florida’s 2024 recruiting class

Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes is among the non-binding oral commitments in the Gators' elite 2024 recruiting class.
Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes is among the non-binding oral commitments in the Gators' elite 2024 recruiting class. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Napier’s best recruiting argument is his elite 2024 recruiting class. Its No. 3 national ranking would be Florida’s best finish since 2013, and its average player rating (92.38) would be the Gators’ best since 2010. Napier has commitments from a pair of five-star recruits, quarterback DJ Lagway and defensive back Xavier Filsaime, but only two of the top 20 Florida natives (Gainesville’s Myles Graham and Largo High’s Adarius Hayes).

Standard disclaimer: Oral commitments are non-binding, and recruiting developments and rankings remain fluid until signing day.

The bottom line

How will Billy Napier's Gators match up with Kirby Smart's Bulldogs on Oct. 28?
How will Billy Napier's Gators match up with Kirby Smart's Bulldogs on Oct. 28? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2022) ]

Napier has shown a higher recruiting ceiling than his two immediate predecessors, and there’s evidence to suggest his evaluations have been strong, too. But some of his transfers have underwhelmed, and he’s responsible for the bulk of a roster that sits outside the top 25 midway through Year 2.

The returns will become clearer — one way or another — in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs exposed Mullen’s deficiencies, which means they’ll be a good gauge for what Napier has done to fix them.

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