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National signing day: Can the transfer portal save Florida recruiting?

The state’s top programs keep letting the state’s top prospects get away. But the portal can bring some of them back.
Deuce Spann was a three-star recruit at Lakewood High. He signed with Illinois before transferring to Florida State.
Deuce Spann was a three-star recruit at Lakewood High. He signed with Illinois before transferring to Florida State. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]
Published Feb. 1

Florida enters Wednesday’s traditional national signing day with no programs in the top 10 of the latest recruiting rankings. Including transfer portal additions, Florida State has the best haul in the state; the Seminoles sat 15th Tuesday afternoon, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

For a state that expects to contend for national championships, that’s not good enough.

Related: What does it take to recruit like Alabama and Georgia? ‘Total commitment.’

There are, however, some signs of optimism, beyond some early flashes from the first-year staffs with the Gators and Hurricanes. Consider what three FSU transfers said last week as they explained their decisions to come to Tallahassee.

Defensive back Greedy Vance: “I just felt like I needed to get back closer to home.”

Running back Trey Benson: “I wanted to come back closer to home.”

Receiver Deuce Spann: “I kind of did want to come back to home …”

Deuce Spann was a promising college prospect out of Lakewood High.
Deuce Spann was a promising college prospect out of Lakewood High. [ Times (2019) ]

Historically, being able to play in front of their families is a major factor for recruits. But other considerations can get in the way.

Spann said he “always wanted to come to Florida State,” but the Seminoles’ transition from Willie Taggart to Mike Norvell happened late in his recruiting process at Lakewood High. The former three-star prospect instead chose Illinois in December 2019.

When Spann was looking for a new place to play after transitioning from quarterback to receiver, FSU quickly became an option. He liked what he heard from Norvell and his staff about how they could use him as a playmaker, yes, but the pull of family mattered, too.

“It’s been good, being back in Florida,” Spann said.

Defensive back Greedy Vance is a Louisiana native who played at Louisville before transferring to FSU to get closer to his family.
Defensive back Greedy Vance is a Louisiana native who played at Louisville before transferring to FSU to get closer to his family. [ TIMOTHY D. EASLEY | AP (2021) ]

Vance and Benson aren’t from Florida, but their stories are similar. Both are Southerners (Vance is from Louisiana, Benson is from Mississippi) who originally signed with schools up north (Louisville and Oregon) and wanted to come back to see their families more. It helped that Benson had a previous connection with Norvell, who gave him his first scholarship offer when he was coaching at Memphis.

“I wanted to give him an opportunity, but I had bigger plans at Oregon,” Benson said. “But now I got the chance to give him the opportunity, so I’m in Tallahassee now.”

And that leads to the lesson that applies in Gainesville, Coral Gables, Tampa and Orlando.

Related: Five Florida recruiting takeaways from the early signing period

The Sunshine State remains one of the top four producers of high-end football talent. Neighboring Georgia is in that mix, too, while other Southern states also punch above their weight. There’s enough nearby talent to make Florida’s teams great again … if Florida’s teams can sign more of the top ones.

In this 2022 class, UF, FSU and Miami have combined to sign only eight of the state’s top 20 prospects (excluding players who transferred to IMG Academy or Clearwater Academy International from other states). That figure will grow to nine if Opa Locka five-star defensive lineman Shemar Stewart chooses the ‘Canes over Texas A&M and Georgia on Wednesday. Still, the numbers are unimpressive, just as they’ve been for the past five years.

The long-term solution is to prioritize local recruiting and win at a high enough level to start beating Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State for more elite local prospects. But the transfer portal can help in the meantime, if Florida schools can add more of the top players they missed out on the first time.

Trevon Grimes became a major contributor for the Florida Gators after transferring from Ohio State.
Trevon Grimes became a major contributor for the Florida Gators after transferring from Ohio State. [ Times (2018) ]

Like Trevon Grimes. He signed with the Buckeyes as a top-50 national recruit out of Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas. The Gators got him as a transfer, and his nine touchdown catches helped them win the SEC East in 2020.

USF’s transfer class — ranked No. 1 in the country on the early signing day — features five Tampa Bay area natives, including former four-star defensive lineman Clyde Pinder from Armwood High. Maybe he and the Bulls’ other newcomers will have a Grimes-like homecoming, just as Spann hopes to do in Tallahassee.

If the state is going to start winning championships again, it won’t do so with recruiting classes outside the top 10, like the ones that will wrap up Wednesday. But until Florida’s rebuilds are farther along, the transfer portal is a viable way to start injecting more homegrown talent back into the state.

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