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Recruiting Battlegrounds: Florida's Top Prospects

SI looks at the 10 most intense college football recruiting battles in The Sunshine State

Over the course of the spring, Sports Illustrated will break down elite football talent in the most critical states in the country. With a focus on the very best each state has to offer and the success of in-state programs keeping talent close to home, the conversation begins in Florida. 

A sell on why the state of Florida is important in college football recruiting is seldom needed. 

The talent production is arguably the best of any state regardless of measure, including among those on current NFL rosters, with south Florida among the most fertile of recruiting grounds in the country. Population growth in Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando, along with longstanding strength in rural areas, continues to bolster the depth of talent statewide.

At the very top of the Sunshine State, among the most coveted recruits, the recruiting battles have long had more of a national feel. Couple it with the South's domination of the sport, claiming every national title but one since 2006, elite Floridians have been leaving the state in higher frequencies over more than a decade. National championship runs at Alabama, Clemson and Georgia have been fueled by Floridians who fled home to play for Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart and other top coaches. 

Of the nine Florida natives in the 2022 SI99 rankings, just two remained within state lines on National Signing Day. New Florida head coach Billy Napier was able to keep a pair of secondary talents close to home in safety prospects Kamari Wilson and Devin Moore–and that was it. Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Cincinnati signed the other seven Sunshine State natives ranked among the best in the country. In the 2021 class, 14 Floridians made the SI99 rankings and just five signed with programs in the state. 

The Power Five and FBS programs in the state kept only seven of 23 SI99-ranked Floridians home over the last two recruiting cycles. (Stats exclude IMG Academy or prospects from other states or countries.)

Recent coaching changes at Florida and Miami emphasize the need to keep Sunshine State talent home, and both Napier and Mario Cristobal have reiterated as much early in their tenures. Mike Norvell and Florida State has a trio of Floridians on board early in the 2023 recruiting cycle, Miami and UCF have one, and Florida's sole pledge is from the state of Georgia. South Florida has yet to reel in a verbal pledge while Georgia, Clemson, Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan have already broken through in the state commitment front. 

Those numbers will change in favor of more Floridians making in-state picks, but the perceptional change starts at the top. With the most coveted recruits from the state, who already project as national recruiting battles in the class of 2023, there is still plenty on the table. Excluding IMG Academy or programs with players from other parts of the country, there are heavyweight battles at top of mind among the state's top rising senior recruits.

Lake Gibson DB Cormani McClain

Arguably the top non-quarterback recruit nationally, the entire Power Five wants in on the lengthy Lakeland native. He spent last weekend at Florida and took trips to USC and Alabama prior to what seems to be a recruitment that could go the distance. Georgia and Miami, each also in the hunt, got McClain on campus in January and figure to be in position to stay in the hunt for the foreseeable future. When he released a top group back in the fall, Ohio State and BYU were also on the list, so the race appears to be relatively open at this time. In terms of the most recent buzz, both Alabama and Florida have commanded additional attention. 

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Berkeley Prep DE Keon Keeley (Notre Dame Commit)

The only recruit we'll highlight among those currently committed, Keeley continues to entertain options beyond the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Alabama, Florida and most recently Ohio State have been able to get the elite pass rusher on campus of late, although Keeley continues to say the right things about sticking with Marcus Freeman's program. SI sources recently hinted at Florida being the top threat to the Irish, though the pass-rushing success at both 'Bama and OSU in recent years won't be easy to hold off down the line, either. Keeley may be the most fascinating committed recruit to track in the cycle.

Edgewater RB Cedric Baxter

The battle for top running back in the state may also project out nationally between Baxter and fellow Floridian Richard Young. Each is different in size and skill set, but the offers lists and amount of programs jockeying for position with each is similarly intense. Baxter is fresh off of a Florida trip but also saw Miami, USC and UCF earlier this month. Ohio State, which likely projects as a legitimate contender for the Orlando native, will get him on campus for the first time in April. Other programs are working to get involved as the year wears on in a recruitment that should have some twists and turns due to the sheer volume of programs legitimately pushing for face time with the well-rounded Baxter.

Lehigh Acres RB Richard Young

If Baxter isn't Florida's best at the position, Young likely takes the top spot. More of a classic back in his compact build and one-cut skillset, Young has a similar group of programs tracking his whereabouts. Florida, which is clearly doing a great job of getting recruits on campus, just hosted him following trips to Alabama and Oklahoma earlier this year. Back in January, contending head coaches flooded Lehigh Acres High School including Smart, Saban, Swinney and Napier. A few programs have held some buzz in recent months, with Ohio State, Alabama and Florida seemingly the most common brought up at this time. A decision is likely not coming in the near future, so expect expansion among true contenders as the offseason rolls on.

American Heritage WR Brandon Inniss

A one-time commitment to Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, USC got him on campus of late and the connection between Riley's staff and Inniss remains strong. However, one of the most well-known recruits in this cycle for years has been coveted as long as any prospect in the class. Alabama and Ohio State are true contenders outside of state lines, with visits to Tuscaloosa and Penn State set for April. Miami gets Inniss back on campus Thursday as it appears the Hurricanes are best positioned to keep the south Florida native within state lines compared to UF and FSU, though the Seminoles did get him on campus recently on a spring practice visit that could keep them in the mix. Inniss could potentially be closer to a decision than most on this list.  

Tampa Jesuit LB Troy Bowles

The son of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Troy has long projected as a national recruit. He has been busy on the road this spring, too, with trips to Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida in the books over the last two weeks. While visiting Tuscaloosa, he picked up the offer from the UA staff in person. Ohio State, which hosted him for a game day visit in the fall, is also in the mix here while Clemson had some early buzz. Bowles is a smart and aggressive three-down, modern linebacker who helped Jesuit to a state championship run in 2021. Location won't be an issue given how much the family has moved in Bowles' lifetime due to his father's rise up the NFL coaching ranks, so keeping the Tampa talent in the state may be an uphill battle. 

Gulliver WR Jalen Brown

Early on, Brown looked like one of the more likely elites in the state to stay home. The smooth and speedy south Floridian was long high on Florida State and Miami at times. Since, Notre Dame and Michigan have commanded attention at different points. Of late, though, Miami has done a great job getting him to take quick trips over to Coral Gables to familiarize with Cristobal's new staff in town. The Hurricanes could begin trending for Brown but FSU is likely to stay right near the top of the race alongside while Texas A&M, Auburn and others stay in the hunt. The sooner the rising senior elects to end the process, the better the chances he picks a home state program, we suspect.

Jones LB Malik Bryant

The former IMG standout is back home in Orlando and his recruitment hasn't dropped off a bit. Each visit he takes in the coming weeks and months will be under a microscope, too, considering there is already a commitment date in place. Alongside area standouts Derrick LeBlanc and Payton Kirkland, Bryant plans to come off the board on July 23. Of the in-state schools in the mix, Florida has long been involved and Napier's staff has continued to court his commitment. Miami's new group has been consistent with Bryant as well, but of course, the national contenders continue to covet the off-ball 'backer. Georgia is likely to get him back on campus and Alabama isn't going anywhere in this race, either. If there is a wildcard in the race, consider USC if Riley and his staff can get Bryant on campus soon.

Venice DE Damon Wilson

The top uncommitted pass rusher in the state, Wilson is still seeing his stock rise up and recent offers from both Georgia and LSU back that up. It could begin to prolong the race for the 6'4" edge talent, especially considering a lack of visits under his belt compared to others on the list. Wilson did see Alabama in January and he has a teammate already committed to the program in Elliot Washington. Each in-state power is on the offer list early on, but so is Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State and others with yearly success in pulling elite talent from Florida. Wilson helped Venice bring home a state championship as a junior with 23 tackles for loss and 15 sacks to his name. 

Boone WR Aidan Mizell

The emerger on the list is more coveted by the day, and rightfully so. Mizell broke out in a big way in 2021, registering 1,003 yards and 18 touchdowns on just 47 receptions. A gaudy 21.3 yards per catch emphasizes speed on an intriguing 6'2" frame and he backs it up on the track with blistering times in long sprints like the 400-meter dash, where he sits in the top 20 nationally early in the season. More than 30 offers have come in since the season began. Florida, where both of his parents went to college, finally jumped in with a scholarship offer last week and the Gators immediately became a program to keep an eye on here. Also busy with track and field this spring, Mizell has tripped to Georgia, Alabama and Clemson of late.