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Revisiting Billy Napier’s first Florida Gators recruiting class

Transition classes are full of attrition. But Napier’s turnover rate is disproportionately high.
 
Florida Gators star Trevor Etienne was a recruiting win in Billy Napier's first class. But Etienne is now in the transfer portal.
Florida Gators star Trevor Etienne was a recruiting win in Billy Napier's first class. But Etienne is now in the transfer portal. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 19, 2023

The first signs of Billy Napier’s patient rebuilding approach with the Florida Gators showed up through his first recruiting class.

With a week and a half between his first full day on the job and early signing day, Napier preferred safer, deliberate decisions to hasty, riskier ones.

“I think the last thing we need to do here,” Napier said then, “is make some mistakes.”

Two years later, it’s incorrect and overly harsh to say that first class was full of mistakes. But, with Wednesday’s early signing day upon us, it is fair to revisit the approach. Something about it hasn’t worked, even by the low standards of transition classes.

Transition classes — recruiting cycles that take place right after a coaching change — typically have high attrition rates. That’s because coaches and prospects cram a recruiting process that usually takes months or years into a few weeks. Napier compared it to entering a game with three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

It’s hard to win.

Florida running back Trevor Etienne scores a touchdown against Arkansas on Nov. 4 in Gainesville.
Florida running back Trevor Etienne scores a touchdown against Arkansas on Nov. 4 in Gainesville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Of the 20 high school or junior college players Napier signed during that full transition cycle, 11 have left or entered the transfer portal.

That list includes three of the class’ top four signees: top-50 recruit Kamari Wilson (now committed to Arizona State), blue-chip defensive lineman Chris McClellan (in the portal) and dynamic running back Trevor Etienne (also in the portal). Receiver Caleb Douglas (Texas Tech), the starting quarterback against Florida State (Max Brown, headed to Charlotte) and early signee David Conner (now at Colorado) are also gone.

Though some attrition is inevitable and healthy, the rate for Napier’s first class is abnormally high among comparable programs who also changed coaches during the 2021-22 cycle:

Harold Perkins chose LSU over Florida in the 2022 recruiting class and remains one of the Tigers' most talented players.
Harold Perkins chose LSU over Florida in the 2022 recruiting class and remains one of the Tigers' most talented players. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Brian Kelly’s LSU class featured three players who received first- or second-team all-SEC honors: linebacker Harold Perkins (who picked LSU over Florida) and offensive linemen Will Campbell and Emery Jones. Five of the 15 signees have entered the portal.

Mario Cristobal’s Miami class included starting linebacker Wesley Bissainthe and one of the ACC’s top guards, Anez Cooper. Five of the 15 signees have entered the portal.

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• Brent Venables’ Oklahoma class had top rusher Gavin Sawchuk, No. 2 receiver Nic Anderson and two other all-Big 12 honorable mention performers. Six of the 22 signees have entered the portal.

• Dan Lanning’s Oregon class produced a pair of starters (offensive lineman Josh Conerly and defensive back Jahlil Florence) for a top-10 team. Five of the 17 signees have entered the portal.

The only peer with a comparable attrition rate was USC’s Lincoln Riley. Five of his nine signees are out after five-star defensive back Domani Jackson entered the portal Monday.

Any assessment of Napier’s first class should also include commitments from Dan Mullen’s staff who were lost in transition. At least three defections have had minimal collegiate impacts, but two still sting: Jayden Gibson had five touchdown catches at Oklahoma, and Isaiah Bond caught Alabama’s game-winning touchdown in the Iron Bowl.

Alabama wide receiver Isaiah Bond (17) catches a touchdown pass in the final minute on a fourth-and-long play to secure a win over Auburn on Nov. 25.
Alabama wide receiver Isaiah Bond (17) catches a touchdown pass in the final minute on a fourth-and-long play to secure a win over Auburn on Nov. 25. [ VASHA HUNT | AP ]

The losses matter this week because they lead to more questions about Napier heading into his third season. He stressed the importance of continuity last offseason; how much will this high turnover rate affect that going forward? Napier regularly calls football a “developmental game.” How, then, can he make up for the loss of 11 players who spent two years developing under his watch?

If the goal of an intentionally patient approach was to reduce risk, why have the Gators had more attrition than their peers? What does this mean for Napier’s similarly methodical process with the portal?

These questions — and any uncomfortable answers — do not have to doom Napier’s tenure. Perhaps the hits from his first class (like second-leading tackler Shemar James) overshadow the losses next season. Or Napier papers over the departures by developing his 2023 class and adding more game-ready transfers.

But the disproportionately high attrition rate puts more pressure on Napier to get this 2024 class right, for this season and the rest of his tenure.

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