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Billy Napier’s elite Florida Gators recruiting class caved. Now what?

The Gators kept five-star quarterback DJ Lagway but lost 8 blue-chip recruits in the last month and a half.
 
Carrollwood Day four-star receiver Izaiah Williams started national signing day committed to the Florida Gators but flipped to Texas A&M.
Carrollwood Day four-star receiver Izaiah Williams started national signing day committed to the Florida Gators but flipped to Texas A&M. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2023|Updated Dec. 21, 2023

GAINESVILLE — Four-star receiver Izaiah Williams walked to a Carrollwood Day lectern carrying a Florida Gators hat in his hand for his national signing day ceremony. Then the nation’s No. 327 overall recruit did what seven other blue-chip UF commits have done in the last six weeks.

He chose somewhere else.

Williams’ flip to Texas A&M and the Aggies’ brand-new staff completed the erosion of what had been the biggest selling point of Billy Napier’s Florida tenure — an elite 2024 recruiting class. A haul that spent much of the season ranked third in the nation slid from fifth Sunday to 10th Monday and finished Wednesday 16th in the 247Sports composite rankings (eighth in the SEC). The only lower-rated classes UF has signed in the Rivals era came during coaching transitions.

“It’s a battle, no question about it,” Napier said.

And it’s one he lost too frequently, starting as his Gators skidded to an 0-5 finish.

The eight blue-chip decommits include five-star defensive back Xavier Filsaime, three other top-100 national recruits and a pair of others in the top 150.

If those numbers don’t do the exodus justice, these two should: The defections by themselves would have been the nation’s No. 62 crop, sandwiched between Utah and Washington State. And Napier lost as many blue-chip recruits in the last month and a half as he added in his first class.

The losses began last month when top-100 defensive lineman Jamonta Waller switched to Auburn. Wardell Mack (Texas), Nasir Johnson (Georgia), Kendall Jackson (Texas A&M) and Filsaime (Texas) followed.

Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes flipped from Florida to Miami on national signing day.
Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes flipped from Florida to Miami on national signing day. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

Wednesday’s defeats started when Largo High linebacker Adarius Hayes tacked Miami graphics to the end of his highlight reel. A few minutes later, high-end defensive lineman Amaris Williams flipped to Auburn. And late in the afternoon, Izaiah Williams put a Florida hat on a table and left it there.

Another blue-chip talent, gone.

Napier tried to downplay the flips Wednesday evening.

“I think you see it all across the country,” Napier said.

But not at this level, at least among Florida’s peers. Florida State had a rough day when its only five-star commits (safety KJ Bolden and defensive lineman Armondo Blount) were poached by Georgia and Miami, but the Seminoles have lost only one other commit since the season began. Georgia lost two. Texas lost one.

Napier said the shuffling of defensive assistants — Will Harris has replaced Corey Raymond in the secondary, while the Gators haven’t announced a new line coach — wasn’t much of a factor. Beyond that, Napier didn’t want to talk about the players Florida missed out on.

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“We’re here today to talk about the players that we got,” Napier said, “and we got some elite players.”

Florida Gators recruit LJ McCray of Daytona Beach Mainland stuck with Billy Napier.
Florida Gators recruit LJ McCray of Daytona Beach Mainland stuck with Billy Napier. [ CHRIS HAYS/ORLANDO SENTINEL | Orlando Sentinel ]

He’s right. Five-star defensive lineman LJ McCray can be dominant. Four-star running back Jadan Baugh picked Florida over Alabama. Five-star quarterback DJ Lagway is MaxPreps’ national player of the year and UF’s biggest recruit since Tim Tebow. Lagway spurned late interest from USC, Clemson and others because he believes in Napier.

“I can see him doing amazing things,” Lagway said on ESPN2. “I feel like I’m the piece of the puzzle to complete it.”

The problem is, Napier’s future is teetering thanks to a recruiting record that’s, well, puzzling. The Gators were looking for a coach two years ago in part because Napier’s predecessor, Dan Mullen, was not an elite recruiter. Since Mullen’s firing, Florida has opened a standalone football complex, boosted its support staff and overhauled its approach to name, image and likeness — all things that should help attract players.

Mullen’s third class finished ninth. Eighteen signees were four- or five-star prospects, so 75% of his recruits were blue-chippers.

Napier’s third class sits seven spots lower, and 11 of his 18 signees are blue-chip recruits (61%).

If Napier can’t sell recruiting victories and can’t sell an 11-14 record, what’s left?

Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier has an 11-14 record and a middling SEC recruiting class.
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier has an 11-14 record and a middling SEC recruiting class. [ DERICK HINGLE | AP ]

One answer Wednesday was change. A new defensive line coach will be announced soon. Strength coach Mark Hocke is being reassigned, and the nutrition department is getting new leadership. Napier is still evaluating the offensive staff — potentially his role as play-caller.

“This is a production business,” Napier said.

It’s also, as Napier said in his introductory news conference, a business of talent acquisition. There was some of that Wednesday.

Just not enough to overshadow six weeks of talent depletion.

Times correspondent Scott Purks contributed to this report.

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