One of the bigger surprises in the recruiting world this summer came on Tuesday night when Powell (Tenn.) defensive lineman Walter Nolen released his top three schools, which failed to include the Florida Gators.
UF, as well as Michigan, being left out of Nolen's trimmed-down list was something that very few, if any, people from the college recruiting landscape could have foreseen. Both programs had been considered front-runners for Nolen throughout the summer after official visits resumed and made his top five schools in July. And any time that Nolen would discuss his favorite programs with reporters, Florida was in the conversation.
Yet, it was Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas A&M who made the cut on Tuesday night, even though A&M was not one of the five schools that the 6-foot-4, 325-pound defensive lineman favored just last month.
Now, perhaps Florida, Michigan, maybe Alabama, or other non-top three schools still have a chance to land the No. 1 defensive tackle and No. 2 prospect in the nation. Nolen tweeted on Wednesday morning that he will be announcing his commitment after reaching 11,000 followers on Instagram (he went from the 8,000-follower range on Tuesday night to over 10,000 on Wednesday morning), and followed up with a note that his recruitment is "still wide open" despite releasing his top three.
To make matters even more... interesting? Confusing? Whatever the right word may be, Nolen's father explained to Inside the Gators on Wednesday that his son's lists of schools this summer have been "based on emotion" and aren't totally set in stone.
Nolen Sr.'s comments are certainly conceivable, as Nolen Jr. tweeted in June that he was going to shut his recruitment down and make a college decision while on UF's campus conducting his official visit. Obviously, that did not end up happening.
Whether Nolen Sr.'s statement is true or not, though, Florida is expected to continue pursuing Nolen until he signs his letter of intent and enrolls at the college of his choice. After hosting Nolen twice over the summer on an official and an unofficial visit, with another reportedly in the plans for the UF vs. Alabama game on Sept. 18, the Gators plan to remain in the thick of Nolen's recruitment until it is officially over.
That being said, it's hard to imagine Florida won't ramp up their recruitment of other defensive tackles in the class of 2022 with Nolen leaving UF on the outside looking in at the moment.
Namely, Florida is sure to continue pushing for Owasso (Okla.) defensive tackle Chris McClellan, Viera (Fla.) tackle Jamari Lyons, and Madison Prep Academy (La.) lineman Quency Wiggins, among other prospects at the position. McClellan and Lyons officially visited UF over the summer - Lyons stopped by another two times unofficially and considers the Gators as the leader in his recruitment - while Wiggins made one unofficial trek to Gainesville in June.
Florida has options elsewhere to fill their long-term needs at defensive tackle in the class of 2022, which makes being left out of Nolen's (current) top schools easier to stomach.
Still, Nolen is a rare talent. Not only would he fill a long-term need at defensive tackle if he opted for Florida, but is polished and explosive enough to play immediately upon enrolling. As the Gators continue to retool their defense following a miserable 2020 season for the unit, the ability to play Nolen in the 2022 season is extremely appealing.
Therefore, whether Nolen commits in the coming days, releases a new list of top teams, or even goes quiet on the recruiting front amid the confusing process swirling around his college decision, you can bank on Florida remaining in his ear.
You can read Sports Illustrated All-American's evaluation of Nolen below.
Nolen has fantastic lateral movement and exceptional balance. One of the strongest linemen in the country, in and out of the weight room. We haven’t noticed an ounce of stiffness (common in taller defensive lineman), and he’s a missile out of his stance. He doesn’t get washed, he doesn’t over pursue. Nolen maximizes his talents within his team’s system, yet he remains the star of the show whenever he steps on the field -- in any setting. His motor combined with his size/speed is enough for any college coach to drool over. Will make any college defensive line unit deeper the second he steps onto campus.
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