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The biggest week of Billy Napier’s Florida Gators tenure is here

Can the coach keep the top-five recruiting class he has assembled? We’ll find out Wednesday.
 
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier will try to keep UF's top-five recruiting class.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier will try to keep UF's top-five recruiting class. [ MICHELLE HAAS HUTCHINS | AP ]
Published Dec. 18, 2023|Updated Dec. 18, 2023

As the Florida Gators suffered through Billy Napier’s second straight losing season, any long-term optimism centered on the elite recruiting class he had assembled.

We’ll find out on Wednesday’s early national signing day whether he can keep it; it’s not hyperbole to think the answer will make or break his future.

“I think it’s vital that they hold these guys together,” said Bud Elliott, a CBS Sports senior writer and host of its Cover 3 College Football podcast. “This has got to be your selling point if you’re Billy Napier and why you deserve more time in Gainesville.”

This class must be Napier’s selling point because he can’t sell onfield results. Not after an 11-14 start to his tenure and a 2024 schedule that looks like the toughest in the nation.

He can’t sell the off-field progress. Modernized facilities and support staffs only matter so much if he keeps losing to Florida State and Georgia.

Largo High's Adarius Hayes is one of the Florida Gators' blue-chip commits in the 2024 recruiting class.
Largo High's Adarius Hayes is one of the Florida Gators' blue-chip commits in the 2024 recruiting class. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

But he can — and should — sell recruiting. It was a primary reason why the Gators fired his predecessor, Dan Mullen and replaced him with Napier, a decorated recruiter as coach at Louisiana and as an Alabama assistant. Napier memorably called the sport a “talent-acquisition business” in his introductory news conference and said the Gators will be “looking for a new coach” if he can’t sign 25 good players each year.

It’s unfair to put too much stock in a coach’s first recruiting class; the timeline is too rushed. If you’re generous, you can grade on a slight curve in the second, too, because of how much the transfer portal and name, image and likeness have changed the job.

There are no excuses for a third class. Which makes the 72-hour period beginning Wednesday so vital.

A class that was No. 3 nationally over the summer entered the week fifth in the 247Sports composite rankings and fell to 10th Monday when five-star defensive back Xavier Filsaime made his expected flip to Texas. He became the Gators’ fifth blue-chip prospect to decommit over the last six weeks, and he might not be the last.

“For Florida, I think they’re kind of fighting it right now,” said Andrew Ivins, 247Sports’ director of scouting.

And they’re fighting it with multiple players on multiple fronts.

Five-star defensive lineman LJ McCray from Daytona Beach Mainland has visited Florida State, Miami and Auburn since committing in October. The Tigers are also after four-star defensive lineman Amaris Williams.

Will Carrollwood Day senior Izaiah Williams make things official with the Gators on Wednesday?
Will Carrollwood Day senior Izaiah Williams make things official with the Gators on Wednesday? [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
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Florida’s two commits from the Tampa Bay area both visited other schools over the weekend. Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes (No. 69 overall recruit) checked out Miami, and Carrollwood Day four-star receiver Izaiah Williams (No. 324 overall) stopped by Texas A&M.

The most important piece is the same as it was a year ago: five-star quarterback DJ Lagway. The Texas native is the nation’s No. 10 overall recruit and a finalist for MaxPreps’ national player of the year. His senior season statistics: 4,600 passing yards, 975 rushing yards, a 72.1 completion percentage and 73 total touchdowns.

Lagway will be UF’s top quarterback recruit since Tim Tebow in 2006, assuming he sticks with the non-binding oral commitment he made last December. Texas A&M and Clemson have been viewed as possible flip destinations.

“Billy Napier needs to get DJ Lagway,” Ivins said. “It is vital to his future. … To me, that is the quarterback of the future for the Gators, and he’s the guy that can take them to the next level.”

After two rough seasons, the jury is, at best, still out on whether Napier himself can take the Gators to the next level. We’ll know a lot more Wednesday — one way or the other.

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