Putting Billy Napier’s early signing day performance in perspective

If you could tell Gator fans at the start of November that Florida would sign just nine players on the early National Signing Day, you’d probably have them worked up. You could raise the anxiety even more by mentioning that QB Nick Evers and WRs Isaiah Bond, Chandler Smith, and Jayden Gibson would not be among the nine. For the coup de grâce, at least among the real recruitniks, you could reveal that the two lowest-rated non-kickers were mid-range 3-star offensive linemen, one a flip from a Sun Belt school — and that’s after firing John Hevesy.

Yes, things can change a lot in six weeks.

The key difference, of course, is that the guy in charge of the operation has turned over. It’s not Dan Mullen and his underwhelming staff of recruiters, but rather Billy Napier and his ever growing army of support staff. Most importantly, Napier has a plan for seemingly everything.

What happened Wednesday was part of the plan. When he said in his introductory press conference that the Gators might not sign many at all, I guessed at the time they’d have fewer than the nine letters of intent they actually received.

Other coaches have talked about not taking players just to take players. Mullen himself did so, but that was on the February signing day after landing 20 players and having a couple of months to recruit for the class. It was not ten days before the early signing day on the first occasion he spoke as head coach of the team.

Though Napier did do a good job of managing expectations ahead of time, he was not alone in signing a small number of recruits among new coaches. Only three teams with coaching changes currently sit in the top 25 of the 247 Sports Composite.

One is Notre Dame, which promoted the best recruiter on its staff to head coach. In terms of the 2022 class specifically, Marcus Freeman was perfect for continuity. We shouldn’t be surprised to see that a previously top ten-rated class remained as such with him taking over.

The other to land in the top ten at present is Oklahoma. Though the Sooners did experience some decommits, they picked up some highly ranked newcomers that include Gibson and Evers. Lincoln Riley had lined up a fairly large and well regarded class to begin with, and incoming head coach Brent Venables was a perennial figure in lists of the best recruiters among assistant coaches. With those tailwinds plus several recent College Football Playoff appearances, OU was in good shape to retain a high ranking.

The final top 25 class came at the place where the former Notre Dame head coach ended up, LSU. The Tigers clocked in a No. 19 with 13 players signed. It’s something of a strange situation, with the fired head coach still sticking around the program in a hazily defined ambassador role of some sort. Plus Ed Orgeron is a legendary recruiter, so at the least Brian Kelly didn’t need to clear out questionable takes among the preexisting class.

That’s not to intimate that every Mullen commit who flipped elsewhere was someone Napier chased off, mind you. The new Head Ball Coach, by all reports, did try to keep some of them in the fold. His personality is very different than Mullen’s is, so it should be no surprise that he didn’t click with some of them in the way that his predecessor did.

You can find some situations where a new head coach did sign a large class. New Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry, for instance, had 21 letters of intent make it to his desk. Florida never came close to having that many commits in its ’22 class even before Mullen was let go.

But look at Riley out at USC. He had six players sign this week. New Miami head coach Mario Cristobal got eight on Wednesday before landing a ninth today. He replacement out at Oregon, the outgoing Georgia DC Dan Lanning, had seven. The nine that Napier signed doesn’t sound so small, even if it’s still about 31% smaller than the group of 13 that Mullen signed on his first early NSD.

There is still a lot of work to be done for Napier, though new transfer rules make the job different than in the past. Mullen was fortunate to get three immediately eligible transfers his first year, as Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes both needed NCAA waivers (Adam Shuler didn’t as a graduate). Now, if Napier brings in just three transfers, it’ll be a surprise that the count is that low. UF will again be short at defensive tackle without veteran help from elsewhere, and other positions like offensive line and cornerback could use an extra experienced hand or two.

Napier will continue to go after high school prospects up to signing day, though per usual, a lot of the best ones signed early. There are only 15 remaining unsigned Composite top 200 recruits within the SEC footprint, and the only one of them from the state of Florida appears to be a lock to Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M. Napier has visited a pair of top 200 running backs in Louisiana, but Florida still needs a lot more than just tailbacks.

Napier got a lot of fans excited by closing strong. Breaking the IMG curse by landing a guy Georgia really wanted in Kamari Wilson is the kind of result Gator fans have been craving for years. He prepared the way for this outcome to be celebrated by setting modest expectations early and delivering something that exceeded them. It’s a good start, and when combined with the relentless pace of coaching and support staff hires, Napier has won the early perception battle and created a vibe of momentum around the program.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2