The Gators Get Richer

Florida coach Urban Meyer used relentless recruiting tactics--and the school's first national title in a decade--to put together the best class in the land
February 19, 2007

Florida defensiveline coach Greg Mattison picked up his ringing cellphone and leaped from behindhis desk. It was two days before national signing day, and a recruit he'd beeneager to hear from was on the line. As he spoke, Mattison looked out his windowas a crane broke ground on a $28 million upgrade of the school's footballfacilities. On his office wall hung two rows of freshly mounted photographsfrom the Gators' 41--14 victory over Ohio State in the BCS NationalChampionship Game. "So what do you think?" Mattison excitedly asked."Are you ready to jump in with the Number 1 class in the country?"

The defensive endwasn't, but many others were. A month after their shocking rout of theBuckeyes, the Gators staged another blowout on signing day, running away fromUSC, Tennessee, LSU and Texas to claim the nation's No. 1 recruiting class (asrated by Rivals.com, Scout.com and SuperPrep). Among Florida's 27 signees were11 of Rivals' top 100 players--nine of whom ranked among the top three in thecountry at their respective positions. One of those blue-chippers, tight endAaron Hernandez (Central High in Bristol, Conn.), had always assumed he wouldjoin his brother, D.J., a quarterback at UConn. But after attending the springgame at the Swamp last April, he became the Gators' first commitment. "WhenI walked out to the 50-yard line, I said, 'I've got to play in a place likethis,'" recalls Hernandez. "I didn't realize Coach Meyer was standingbehind me."

While Floridaattracted more than its share of ballyhooed prospects under Steve Spurrier andRon Zook, Urban Meyer has transformed the program into a recruiting mecca. His2006 class finished second only to USC's. "Florida is the place to be rightnow," says SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace. "They're the newUSC." From the moment he arrived from Utah in early 2005, Meyer hascultivated a reputation as a relentless recruiter whose tactics includebombarding recruits with almost-daily text messages and pursuing prospects evenafter they've committed elsewhere. "He's more like a dad," says6'5", 283-pound offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey of Lakeland (Fla.) High,who, along with his twin brother, Michael, signed with the Gators afteroriginally committing to Florida State. "You wake up in the morning,there's a text message from Urban Meyer telling you, HAVE A GOOD DAY ATSCHOOL."

The 42-year-oldMeyer, who says he sends 50 to 75 messages to prospects a day from hisBlackberry, has a staff stocked with savvy salesmen, including Mattison (aformer recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame), defensive coordinator CharlieStrong (once Lou Holtz's ace recruiter at South Carolina) and associate headcoach Doc Holliday (a longtime recruiter in South Florida for West Virginia andNorth Carolina State). Yet even they concede that Meyer gives the Gators theirbiggest edge. "Other head coaches want to be the closer," says Strong."Urban develops a relationship with every guy. He gets to know thekid." Justin Trattou, a 6'4", 250-pound defensive end from Don BoscoPrep in Ramsey, N.J., who backed off a longstanding commitment to Notre Dame tosign with Florida, was impressed that Meyer invited recruits to his home for abarbecue during the player's official visit. "It's not like you just go andshake the coach's hand and say hello," says Trattou. "You meet his wife[Shelley] and his kids."

Meyer and hisstaff began work on the 2007 class more than a year ago. Each assistant wasresponsible for identifying the top prospects in his region, from which thestaff assembled a working list of about 175 players. The first offers went outbefore signing day a year ago to a handful of so-called A1A prospects--"thebest of the best," says Meyer. Then the coaches hunkered down to studyvideo of the other recruits. (Last season 1,318 prospects sent Florida footage,715 of them unsolicited.) Each assistant evaluated the recruits in his regionand at the position he coaches: 1 for "can't miss," 2 for "SECcaliber" and 3 for "can't play at this level." The 1s and 2s werepassed along to Meyer for his assessment, and by March the staff had assembledits wish list. On a pair of boards in the coaches' main meeting room, theplayers were ranked by position, with the number needed at each positionnoted.

The recruitingseason, however, did not kick off the way Meyer had hoped. With Chris Leakabout to enter his senior season and only one scholarship quarterback, TimTebow, set to return in '07, John Brantley of Trinity Catholic High in Ocala,Fla., the MVP of last summer's Elite 11 quarterback camp, sat atop the Gators'board. But on April 5 Brantley, whose father and uncle had both starred forFlorida, announced that he would play for Texas. "It was devastating,"says Meyer. "When you lose a kid in your backyard, it stings."Quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen remained in contact with Brantley, who attendedseveral games at the Swamp last fall and began having second thoughts aboutplaying so far from home. In December he changed his pledge to the Gators.

Members of thecoaching staff couldn't evaluate prospects in person until May, but when thetime came, Meyer took full advantage, visiting 99 high schools that month."It's a big deal to these kids to see the head coach come into their highschool," says Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "When itcomes time for their official visit, they feel more comfortable with him."As with most programs, Florida's coaches hold instructional camps during thesummer, and on July 21 they hosted an overnight camp called Friday NightLights, in which prospects got to work out under the lamps at the Swamp. Havingwatched tape of Duke Lemmens, an unheralded defensive end from Oaks ChristianSchool in Westlake Village, Calif., Mattison invited him to camp, which hepromptly dominated. "The second he left here, we offered him ascholarship," says Mattison. Lemmens committed during a visit for theGators' Nov. 11 game against South Carolina.

Even aftergetting a prospect's commitment, however, the staff stays in touch. "Onething about kids is they like their egos stroked," says Strong. "Themoment you stop calling, they're getting calls from someone else. They'll takethat to mean you don't care about them as much."

By the end ofDecember, Florida had put together a strong class of 17 commitments. Thenthings heated up. First, Lorenzo Edwards of Edgewater High inOrlando--Scout.com's top-rated weakside linebacker--announced for Florida atthe U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 6. Two nights later the Gators beatOhio State and the floodgates opened. On the weekend of Jan. 20 Florida hostedvisits from defensive end Carlos Dunlap of Fort Dorchester High in NorthCharleston, S.C., long expected to attend home-state South Carolina; offensivelineman James Wilson of Nease High in Ponte Vedra, Fla., a USC commit fromTebow's alma mater; and Trattou, who had chosen the Irish in June. All threewould sign.

Florida hadbarely been in touch with Trattou, but he caught Mattison's eye with his playin the U.S. Army game. Florida's case was strengthened by word that Notre Damewas switching from a 4--3 to a 3--4 defense. "It was a perfect fit,"says Mattison. "He knew the style of defense he wanted to play, he had seenthe way our kids played [against Ohio State]. So we invited him and his dad ona visit."

Florida pulledoff an even quicker coup with Jerimy Finch, a safety from Indianapolis whocommitted first to Michigan, then to Indiana in January. Meyer was glancing ata top 100 list when he saw that Finch went to a high school, Warren Central,that Meyer had recruited when he was an assistant at Notre Dame. He calledFinch's coach two weeks before signing day. "We visited him without evenseeing him on tape," Meyer says of Finch, who then came to Gainesville theweekend of Jan. 27 and committed on the eve of signing day.

Meyer'srecruiting success--in particular the poaching of committed prospects such asTrattou and Finch--hasn't sat well with coaches and fans of the victimizedteams. While switching commitments is increasingly common (Florida lost threesuch players last week and two in 2006), the Gators' class included at leasteight prospects who had pledged to go to other schools. "I think it'ssomething that's always gone on," Meyer says of continuing to recruitprospects who have committed elsewhere. "It just gets more publicized now.The one thing you don't want to do is be negative. We'll text a kid, write hima note, invite him to a game. Hang around, hang around, hang around."

At least onefive-star recruit suggests Meyer stepped over the line. Wideout TerranceToliver of Hempstead, Texas--the highest-ranked Florida target who got away; heopted for LSU--told Houston TV station KRIV, "Every time [Floridarecruiters] came, they said LSU doesn't qualify its players." CountersMeyer, "What some people perceive as negative recruiting is often factual.We just present statistics to people--our graduation rates and how we qualifyour guys compared with all SEC schools. We would not single out LSU."

Toliver wasn'tthe only big fish to slip off the Gators' line. Five-star wide receiver RonaldJohnson of Muskegon (Mich.) High chose USC over Florida, cornerback DeMarcusVan Dyke of Pace High signed with hometown Miami after committing to Florida,and athlete Bert Reed of Bay High in Panama City, Fla., bolted for FloridaState. However, the last-minute addition of wideout Deonte Thompson from GladesCentral High in Belle Glade (Fla.) gave the Gators seven of the top eightprospects in the Sunshine State, according to Scout.com's rankings. Floridaundoubtedly benefited from the recent struggles and coaching changes at Miami(Larry Coker was fired in November and replaced by defensive coordinator RandyShannon) and at Florida State (Bobby Bowden recently replaced more than halfhis staff). Both programs figure to fare much better next season.

Nine new Gatorsenrolled in school last month so that they would be able to participate inspring practices. But don't expect Meyer to let up anytime soon. On Feb. 3,four days before signing day, Florida hosted 35 of the state's top high schooljuniors. That night Meyer and Strong flew to Miami to attend the Super Bowl,where they enjoyed a respite from pursuing recruits--more or less. Says Meyer,"I spent half the game texting them."

EXTRA

Signing Bonus

Get more analysis of the top recruiting classes fromStewart Mandel and Rivals' rankings of the top juniors.

ONLY AT SI.COM

Rivals.com's Top 5 Classes

1 FLORIDA

5**4 Signings
4**16 Signings

A deep and balanced class with potential stars on bothsides of the line in defensive tackle Torrey Davis of Seffner, Fla., and guardJames Wilson of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

2 USC

5**6 Signings
4**10 Signings

A strong haul of skill position players; also filled aneed for playmakers on defense, most notably with top-rated outside linebackerChris Galippo of Anaheim.

3 TENNESSEE

5**5 Signings
4**11 Signings

Attracted quality defensive talent, especially in thesecondary with top-rated cornerback Eric Berry and juco transfers NevinMcKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham.

4 LSU

5**2 Signings
4**19 Signings

Missed out on running back Joe McKnight but stillreloaded the offense with blue-chip receivers and a top 10 quarterback inJarrett Lee of Brenham, Texas.

5 TEXAS

5**2 Signings
4**16 Signings

Brought in the nation's premier crop of offensivelinemen, including 6'4'', 305-pound guard Tray Allen of Grand Prairie, Texas,and a trio of four-star recruits.

Surprise!

Joe McKnight shocked LSU by running off to theTrojans

IN PURSUING Joe McKnight, the nation's top-ratedrunning back, USC seemed to be at a disadvantage to LSU for two reasons: time(USC brings back four quality runners and has commitments from two more) andplace (McKnight is from River Ridge, La.). But McKnight says, "I justwanted to see what it's like in another part of the country." And the lureof USC may have been irresistible for a 6-foot 180-pounder called "the nextReggie Bush." Last week the two were less favorably linked--McKnight said(and later denied) that USC had set up a phone call with Bush during hisrecruitment, which would be an NCAA violation. But that's unlikely to stopMcKnight (below) from setting up a new home in the Trojans' backfield.

Fast Starts

These newly hired coaches made strong firstimpressions

BUTCH DAVIS, North Carolina
Signing the nation's top defensive tackle, Marvin Austin, and prying wideoutGreg Little from Notre Dame was pure magic.

DENNIS ERICKSON, Arizona State
With five key junior college transfers, he may be trying to re-create thejuco-fueled quick fix he had at Oregon State in 2000.

STEVE KRAGTHORPE, Louisville
He held on to Bobby Petrino's key pledges, including quarterback MattSimms.

NICK SABAN, Alabama
Elevated the Tide's class from the mid-20s to No. 10 after arriving inJanuary.

PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierTHE GANG'S ALL HERE Florida's haul included nine players (surrounding Meyer in blue jerseys) who are already enrolled in school and star QB Brantley (right). PHOTOERIC GAY/AP[See caption above.] FIVE PHOTOS PHOTOSCOTT WHEELER/THE LEDGERWINNING FORMULA Chris Rainey, a game-breaking back, was one of seven players from state champ Lakeland to sign with Florida. PHOTOROBERT DEANGELO/BEACHES LEADER (WILSON)CHANGE OF HEART A teammate of Tebow's,Wilson (76) decided to stay close to home after originally committing toUSC. PHOTORUSTY COSTANZA/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE (MCKNIGHT)

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