UF head coach Billy Napier made it very clear at his introductory press conference on Dec. 5 that he was going to take a patient and methodical approach to the early signing period.
The way he looks at it, there is a certain type of player that he wants to build this program around. He wants big guys that can run fast, throw the ball, catch and tackle just like everyone else does, but he also looks for guys with a team-first, competitive mentality.
He wasn’t going to compromise that standard just because he’s operating under an extreme time crunch. Quality was more important to him than quantity. He wasn’t going to fill spots in the class just to boost their rankings on the various recruiting websites.
So, Napier said that he wouldn’t be surprised if they signed “many at all” during the December signing period.
What transpired over the next week made it hard for some fans to support his plan and remain optimistic about the future. Six players decommitted from the Gators’ class in the couple of weeks since Napier was hired, including quarterback Nick Evers and speedy receivers Chandler Smith and Jayden Gibson. Napier reportedly never even contacted some of the prospects who decommitted.
Is Napier really this amazing recruiter who’s going to turn around the Gators’ fortunes, or is the sky going to continue falling for a little while longer?
Well, the events that unfolded on Early National Signing Day should make it much easier for fans to trust Napier’s process.
All six of UF’s commits who were expected to sign on Wednesday did indeed sign with the program. They beat out Notre Dame for four-star defensive back Devin Moore. They beat out Georgia to get Shemar James, one of the highest-ranked linebackers in the country, back in the class following his October decommitment despite not having a linebackers coach or a defensive play-caller on the staff.
That made for a highly successful first signing day for the Gators’ new boss.
“You’re evaluating a million players,” Napier said. “It’s like speed-dating; you’ve got to do it in a hurry. I think sometimes that can be healthy. We were fortunate that we were able to build some relationships pretty quickly, and then we had relationships with some of the kids from the past. Quite honest here, a lot of these guys just love the University of Florida. They want to play in the Swamp, and it didn’t matter who the coach was. It’s a combination of all that.
“I’ve got confidence and conviction about each of these players that signed here today. They fit exactly what we’re looking for. They’ve got redeeming qualities, and we’ve got confidence that they can do a job for our team.”
Oh, yeah, and then Napier made a gigantic splash that was heard around the southeastern United States by beating Georgia for five-star safety Kamari Wilson.
Napier is pleased with the nine players that he’s signed so far.
“I think when you look at this list of players and you see height and length, you see verified speed, I think you see functional movement, character, high production, competitive spirit,” he said. “I think this is an intelligent group that comes from really good people, great communicators. I think they’re wired right, if that makes sense, and they’re team-first people.”
Wilson, from Fort Pierce, Florida, is obviously the crown jewel of the class. His addition is significant for several reasons. From an on-the-field standpoint, he’s an extremely physical player with more than enough speed. He should be a great addition to a safeties room that hasn’t had a ton of top-end talent in recent years.
“I think he’s got incredible people around him, his mom and dad, his grandmother, his mentor, just really good people,” Napier said. “Values-based. They’ve raised an exceptional young man who’s got a good foundation. He knows right and wrong. He’s certainly talented. I think we all understand that he’s a good football player, but he’s got great charisma, great personality. He’s a leader. He’s got great presence about him. I think he’ll bring a lot to our team.”
But Wilson’s commitment was also important for morale and momentum purposes. Georgia has consistently been among the top two or three recruiting programs in the nation under head coach Kirby Smart. The Gators haven’t won many head-to-head battles on signing day against them recently. Wilson had been considered a Georgia lean for a while, and he was even a silent commitment to Georgia as recently as a couple of weeks ago if you believe the internet rumors.
Wilson’s pledge offers fans a reason to be optimistic that Georgia’s dominance of the Sunshine State in recruiting might be coming to an end, and it could also make UF a more attractive destination to future five-star recruits.
Wilson already had a great relationship with cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond from Raymond’s time at LSU, and defensive analyst Jamar Chaney, a fellow Fort Pierce native, has a good relationship with his family. Those relationships wound up putting UF over the top even though this staff has been together for less than two weeks.
“We actually were there at IMG [Academy], had a good talk,” Napier said. “He said, ‘Hey, Coach, I think you need to go see my mom,’ and we quickly made a quick trip over there. Next thing you know, I’m … talking to Mrs. Wilson, and it was really good. So, they agreed to take the visit. We had an incredible weekend, and I think Kamari made a life-changing decision. I think that this fan base, this alumni group, this is the type of guy that you rally around here that chose the University of Florida, decided to stay in this state and a guy that I think is going to go about it the right way and represent this place the way it should be represented.”
While current Gators defensive back Kamar Wilcoxson graduated from IMG Academy, he never actually played a down of football for the school. So, in a way, Wilson broke the so-called “IMG curse” by becoming the first player who played in games at the football factory in Bradenton, Florida, to sign with the Gators.
Napier hopes that signing players from IMG Academy will become a more regular occurrence moving forward.
“I think nothing that’s happened in the past is going to affect how we’re going to operate or do business,” he said. “I think we’re in the relationship business. We’re going to be transparent. We’re going to be diligent in our approach. We’re going to hire good people, let them do what they do.
“It’s right down the road, and, certainly, we’re going to want to do business there in the future, and we’re going to make it a priority and try to build relationships with the leadership there but also the individual players there. There’s no reason we can’t continue to get players out of there. We’re going to work hard at it. Each one of these situations, they’re individual players and their families. I don’t think we need to get too caught up in that. Just work hard at it and do our very best.”
Napier couldn’t comment on James because his press conference took place prior to his signing, but he had high praise for Moore (Naples, Florida), who was committed to Notre Dame for nearly eight months before decommitting in late November. He can play anywhere in the secondary, but UF plans to start him out at cornerback, where his 6-foot-3 frame and track speed should work to his advantage.
“He was one of the first players that we evaluated, and, man, what an impressive young man,” Napier said. “We all know he’s a big corner that has length. He’s physical. He can play man-to-man coverage. He’s certainly a good tackler.
“I think the thing that’s most impressive about Devin is he’s extremely driven. He’s a hard worker. He’s got an incredible attitude. He’s extremely bright. He’s just a first-class young man and an incredible family. I think when you meet his mom, his dad, got a chance to meet his brother this weekend, these people, they have priorities. They’ve raised their family a certain way, and they’re very impressive.
“Patrick Toney obviously was the first to go in there, and I can remember him calling me after the home visit and just raving about Devin. And then the school visit during the day, this guy has got a presence about him, and just seeing him interact in that school with his teachers, the administrators, the students, this is the type of player and, more importantly, the type of person that we want on our team.”
Perhaps the biggest unknown in the class is Tony Livingston, who calls Tampa home. He committed to UF’s previous coaching staff as an offensive tackle, but Napier and his staff plan to work him as a tight end. He’s listed at nearly 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, and Napier said that he’s never weighed more than 250 pounds, which made playing tackle in college unlikely for him.
However, Livingston is a great athlete. He’s a talented basketball player who played point guard at times. He began his high school football career as a wide receiver. So, he should have the necessary physical attributes to play tight end in the SEC, but he’ll need a lot of refining once he gets on campus since he hasn’t focused on football exclusively until now.
“I think Tony is a survivor, when you guys start digging into his story, all the things that he’s overcome,” Napier said. “He came up unofficially this weekend. We had a chance to spend time with him and just got a really good feeling from him about the type of person he is. He’s got a good heart, and I think he’ll be a good player here. Now, he’s a developmental player. I think he’s got to work really hard this spring and certainly show up, but I think he’s a unique athlete.”
While Wednesday is being hailed as a tremendous achievement for Napier, the first thing he did at his signing day press conference was thank all of the behind-the-scenes people who made this day a success.
“I think specifically the UAA pilots, man, we’ve got some of the best in the entire country, and we’re very thankful for that,” he said. “The university community, so many people contribute when you have a young man and his family on campus. We were able to have one official visit, and, certainly, a lot of people at the university did a lot to contribute to that. I think the community of Gainesville, as you’re out and about, their positive energy can contribute to what you’re selling and certainly your vision for the program, and we’re thankful for those people.
“A couple people in particular, Bonnie Hooper and Kim Adams, just from a logistical standpoint behind the scenes, I know Director of Player Personnel for high school Jacob LaFrance is thankful for the job that they did. I think that the current recruiting and personnel staff, I think it’s important to recognize there were a lot of people here from the previous regime that contributed to some of the things that happened today. I don’t think we need to overlook that. The previous staff developed relationships with a lot of these young men that we signed today and put us in position.
“I think Lee [Davis] and Charlie [Skalaski] and Shawnee [Sellers] in particular were first class. Kevin Camps in creative media is an absolute all-star, his crew of people behind the scenes and all the things that they do to impact recruiting. Reuel Joaquin and his video staff and so much behind-the-scenes from an evaluation standpoint and the video department and that evaluation process, they contributed in a major way. The Hilton here in Gainesville was outstanding. Spurrier’s restaurant, Prime and Pearl, Gator’s Dockside, Blue Water Bay. Heck, we had the best of the best. We’re thankful to all those people.”
Don’t let the Gators’ class ranking fool you; Napier won the early signing day. He landed everybody that he was expected to land and a couple that he wasn’t supposed to.
But Napier knows that he and his staff still have a ton of work to do. Between the February signing period and the transfer portal, he can add another 15-20 players if he wants to.
“I think the approach we’ve taken with the staff is to secure as many good players as we could today, and then our personnel department will just start the process of compiling all the players that are left over throughout the entire country, and then we’ve got a college personnel group that will be working on the transfer portal, junior college players, the walk-on roster,” he said.
He should have his full staff in place by early-to-mid January, which would put the Gators on a more even playing field heading down the home stretch.
Napier is excited about the challenge of finishing this class strong.
“I think we’ve got a little bit of a feel for how we’re going to operate here,” he said. “We’re very system-oriented, so we’ve got a long way to go to kind of refine our systems here, but we’re off to a good start. We’ll continue to improve our approach and our process. We’re going to add to this group. We’ve got a lot of work left to do here with plenty of room.
“We’ve got to keep building here, and I think it’s important for us to realize this is going to happen one day at a time and one person at a time. Off to a good start here but certainly a lot of work left to do.”