Billy Napier continues to close the Florida Gators recruiting gap with Georgia tight end Kirby Smart

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators suffered a big, stunning recruiting setback Thursday night when Cormani McClain committed to Miami.

Billy Napier’s Gators were widely expected to land McClain, the nation’s No. 2 prospect — so much so that a video has been circulating on social media about one national recruiting site reneging on its commitment to UF. McClain’s decision stings, and it should; he would be UF’s highest-rated recruit since the 2015 signing of Martez Ivey out of Apopka High.

Related: Florida Gators’ Anthony Richardson is ready for a second shot at Georgia

The flurry overshadows the progress Napier’s Gators have made on the recruiting trail. Although Mario Cristobal’s Hurricanes moved past UF in the 247Sports composite rankings on Thursday, UF’s 2023 class is still ninth nationally. That’s up 13 spots from where Dan Mullen had them a year ago.

The Gators have non-binding verbal commitments from 13 recruits ranked in the top 250 nationally. That would be the most since UF signed 14 in 2013.

The Gators have 18 commitments rated as four- or five-star talents. That would tie Mullen’s 2020 class for the most since Urban Meyer had 22 in his last class (2010).

“So far so good,” Napier said Monday in general comments about UF recruiting. “A lot of work remains to be done.”

AND lots of job if his gators start consistently challenging Kirby Smart’s bulldogs.

Florida failed to keep Kirby Smart recruited.
Florida failed to keep Kirby Smart recruited. [ Times (2018) ]

Georgia is the reigning national champion and on the short list of College Football Playoff contenders this season in large part because of Smart’s recruiting — his dedication to and success in it. That was shown last year when the Bulldogs blew out Florida under 27.

Related: No. 1 Georgia dominates the Florida Gators. Why? Recruitment.

Georgia’s touchdowns were scored by players who were among the nation’s top 130 prospects in their class. Six of the game’s top eight tacklers were top 50 recruits and another was ranked 103rd.

The Bulldogs’ current roster leads the nation with 15 five-star recruits. The only team with more talent is Alabama, according to the 247Sports rankings. Florida is twelfth. If you’re wondering why Florida is the biggest underdog in this series since 1948, start there.

“There’s no doubt their staff is really good,” Napier said.

Related: The story behind the last time the Gators trailed Georgia by 22 points

The question is whether Napier can make the Gators’ pitching staff really good as well. And if so, how fast?

Landing McClain would be the surest sign yet that Napier is on the right, fast track. Instead, they will have to settle for some other recent victories.

Earlier this week, Napier flipped four-star prospect Roderick Kearney from rival Florida State. In addition to adding top 150 talent, Kearney’s decision erased the blemish of the summer; the Orange Park offensive lineman committed to FSU soon after leaving Gainesville to visit. Earlier this month, Napier landed Wharton top 100 safety Dijon Johnson, a one-time Ohio State commit.

Wharton High's Dijon Johnson is among the Gators' top recruits in the 2023 class.
Wharton High’s Dijon Johnson is among the Gators’ top recruits in the 2023 class. [ SCOTT PURKS | Scott Purks, Special to the Times ]

To be clear: The Gators weren’t recruiting at Georgia’s level, even if they landed McClain. Florida’s class is seven spots behind the Bulldogs. Georgia has commitments from four more top-100 prospects than UF — including linebacker Troy Bowles from Tampa’s Jesuit High — and five more commitments from top-250 prospects. Florida’s class is good, if not great. The Georgian class is elite.

Napier’s first complete class also falls short of the stellar crop that Smart landed in his first full cycle at Georgia. The haul propelled the Bulldogs to the national title game in Smart’s second season.

Jake Fromm was part of Kirby Smart's first full recruiting class at Georgia.
Jake Fromm was part of Kirby Smart’s first full recruiting class at Georgia. [ Times (2019) ]

Smart’s recruiting efforts have increased since then, creating a talent gap that was evident in last year’s failure. The difference will likely be insurmountable this weekend in Jacksonville as well.

Related: We struggled to find a Florida Gators defense that bad on third down. We couldn’t get any closer.

Napier missed a chance to close that gap on Thursday before suffering a stunning setback at Lakeland. It’s a sign that for all the progress he made in Year 1, his Gators have plenty of room to grow.

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