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February 8, 2007

Top NSD stories: Meyer reloads Gators

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Florida's Urban Meyer already has rebuilt three programs in his brief head coaching career.

Imagine what he can accomplish once he finally has a roster full of players he recruited.

Meyer never got much of a chance to coach his recruits at Bowling Green or Utah because he only stayed two years at each school. He won a national title his second year at Florida with a senior-laden roster that featured many of current Illinois coach Ron Zook's recruits.

Now that most of Zook's guys have finished their careers, Meyer finally will have the opportunity to put together a lineup that primarily includes his players. He has put together a roster that should leave the rest of the Southeastern Conference feeling very nervous.

Florida signed the nation's top class Wednesday with a haul that included four five-star and 16 four-star prospects. That haul comes one year after the Gators finished second to Southern California in the final recruiting standings.

Consider this recruiting season a perfect storm for Florida, which won a national title the same year that Florida State and Miami went 7-6 and overhauled their coaching staffs.

"They're an up-and-coming team," four-star linebacker Brandon Hicks of Jacksonville, Fla., told GatorBait.net this week. "I think they're stacked with enough talent to keep winning the way they've been."

All that talent should help Meyer build the kind of offense he has wanted to feature since arriving from Utah.

Meyer built his reputation on offense. Utah averaged 45.3 points per game during an undefeated 2004 season that helped turn quarterback Alex Smith into a No. 1 overall draft pick.

But the Gators have relied on their defense during the first two years of Meyer's tenure.

Former quarterback Chris Leak wasn't an ideal fit for the spread option that Meyer employed at Utah, though they adjusted well enough to help Florida win a national title.

The Gators didn't exceed the 28-point mark against a BCS opponent last year until they exploded for a combined 79 points in the SEC title game and the BCS championship game. Florida won consistently because it ranked among the top five teams in the nation in run defense and pass efficiency defense.

Now the Gators should have an offense that's as good as their defense.

Quarterback Tim Tebow and running back Percy Harvin already provided glimpses of their gamebreaking potential last season. The arrival of four-star running backs Chris Rainey and Bo Williams, plus four-star receiver Deonte Thompson, should give the Gators even more playmakers on offense.

The addition of two five-star prospects on the other side of the ball defensive tackle Torrey Davis and defensive end Carlos Dunlap will help restock a defense that lost many of its top 2006 performers to the NFL.

And we hadn't even mentioned the signings of two of the top available quarterbacks (Cameron Newton and John Brantley) and the nation's No. 1 offensive guard (James Wilson).

"Obviously last year we saw a lot of production from our freshmen," Meyer said. "We have taken a new attitude toward recruiting this year that every freshman in my opinion will play next year. Obviously that won't happen, but we are taking that approach.

"It used to be, 'Boy, I will be able to save this guy,' but that's over. If it's in the best interest of the player, then maybe we will redshirt them. But we want to play them."

Florida's second national title came a decade after its first championship. The Gators may not have to wait nearly as long to celebrate again.

The Gators' ability to follow a championship season with a championship signing class headlined a recruiting season that featured a flurry of late switches in commitments. Here are the rest of the top 10 stories to emerge from National Signing Day.

2. LATER GATORS: Florida endured quite a few stomach punches on its way to putting together the nation's top recruiting class. Then again, the Gators caused even more headaches for other teams across the country.

When the Gators weren't losing one of their commitments, they were luring players who already had committed elsewhere. There were so many comings and goings around Gainesville that it occasionally seemed as though every blue-chip prospect had committed to Florida at one time or another.

For those who weren't keeping track, here's a quick recap.

Louisiana State defensive end Sidell Corley, Florida State wide receiver/athlete Bert Reed and Miami defensive back/athlete Demarcus VanDyke all were committed to Florida at one point.

Guys who backed out of commitments elsewhere to sign with Florida included Brantley (Texas), safety Jerimy Finch (Michigan and Indiana), tight end Aaron Hernandez (Connecticut), offensive lineman James Pouncey (Florida State), offensive lineman LaShawn Pouncey (Florida State), defensive end Justin Trattou (Notre Dame) and Wilson (Southern California).

3. DOUBLE SWITCH: Finch's late move from Indiana to Florida reflected a new trend in recruiting.

Every year more and more players back out of commitments to sign somewhere else. This year a few high-profile recruits took it a step further by committing to three different schools.

Finch was committed to Michigan for eight months before switching to Indiana three weeks ago and finally settling on Florida this week. Four-star offensive lineman Chris Little had committed to Florida State and Notre Dame before signing with Georgia.

Four-star cornerback Ryan Broyles performed a similar juggling act over the last few weeks, though he at least didn't throw a third school into the mix.

Broyles committed to Oklahoma State in mid-January, but he received an offer from Oklahoma almost immediately afterward and switched his allegiances to the Sooners a couple of weeks later. Broyles then committed to Oklahoma State once again on Feb. 1, but he changed his mind one more time Wednesday and signed with Oklahoma.

"People are hating on me on message boards, and people are for me," Broyles told SoonerScoop.com. "I can understand that, but I'll take the opportunity at Oklahoma no matter what anybody says about me. It's where I want to be, and I hope everyone realizes it was a hard decision."

4. NO FALL FOR TROY: Southern California's three-year run atop the Rivals.com recruiting team standings ended Wednesday, but don't shed any tears for the Trojans.

USC still finished second in the final team standings and landed the top uncommitted prospect when running back Joe McKnight rated as the No. 2 player in the nation chose the Trojans over Louisiana State.

The addition of McKnight gives USC six five-star prospects this season and an astounding 23 five-star signees over the last four years. The rest of the Pac-10 schools have combined to sign only six five-star prospects (Oregon wide receiver Cameron Colvin, Arizona defensive end Louis Holmes, California wide receiver DeSean Jackson, UCLA quarterback Ben Olson, Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart and Washington quarterback Matthew Tuiasosopo ) during that same time frame.

5. SEC SUPREMACY: The SEC promoted itself as the nation's toughest conference all season and backed that up boast when Florida won the national title.

If this recruiting season offers any indication, every other league may continue chasing the SEC in vain for many years to come.

SEC schools held seven of the top 10 spots in the final team recruiting rankings. SEC representatives in the top 10 included No. 1 Florida, No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Louisiana State, No. 6 South Carolina, No. 7 Auburn, No. 9 Georgia and No. 10 Alabama.

6. LITTLE REASON FOR JOY: Notre Dame's recruiting class took a major hit on National Signing Day with the defections of Chris Little and wide receiver Greg Little, a pair of four-star prospects who both chose to stay in their home states after verbally committing to the Irish.

As we mentioned earlier, Chris Little signed with Georgia after verbally committing first to Florida State and later to Notre Dame. Greg Little, who isn't related to Chris, signed with North Carolina.

The day could have gone worse for Notre Dame.

Defensive tackle Ian Williams of Longwood, Fla., turned down a last-minute offer from Florida to honor his commitment to Notre Dame, giving the Irish a three-star prospect at their position of greatest need.

But the defections by the Littles reinforced Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis' belief in the necessity of an early signing period.

"My biggest problem in recruiting really comes down to what the word 'commitment' means," Weis said. "I think that really is the bottom line. What my commitment is, what the player's commitment is, their parents, what our university's commitment is to them, what their commitment is to us.

"If you're asking me if I think there's evidence that an early signing period would be beneficial, I'm absolutely 100 percent in agreement."

7. BUTCH'S BREAKTHROUGH: Illinois has earned plenty of attention for landing one of the Big Ten's top recruiting classes after a 2-10 season, but another downtrodden program had a more successful day.

North Carolina coach Butch Davis landed the Atlantic Coast Conference's top class and capped a huge recruiting season with a few big victories Wednesday.

The Tar Heels beat out Florida State for Marvin Austin the nation's top defensive tackle and outdueled Tennessee for five-star receiver Dwight Jones. Greg Little gave North Carolina even more good news when the four-star receiver backed out of a commitment to Notre Dame.

Jones, Little and four-star wideout Rashad Mason will be catching passes from Mike Paulus, the nation's No. 4 pro-style quarterback. Paulus committed to North Carolina last spring and stuck by the Tar Heels after former coach John Bunting was fired.

"He coached in the NFL,'' Jones told CarolinaBlue.com. "He's coached Santana Moss and Andre Johnson (at Miami), so he knows how to put players in the league.''

8. NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN: When Big Ten fans weren't marveling at Illinois' recruiting class, they often were wondering why the top recruits in Michigan didn't want to play for the Wolverines.

As it turned out, Michigan fans really had no reason to worry about their recruiting class.

Michigan still landed the Big Ten's top recruiting class by going out of state to sign five-star quarterback Ryan Mallett of Texarkana, Texas, and five-star defensive back Donovan Warren of Long Beach, Calif.

So it hardly mattered that the top nine prospects in Michigan all signed with other schools. At least the Wolverines won't have to worry about playing against most of those guys.

The top five recruits in the state of Michigan all chose to play for schools outside the Big Ten. Michigan men leaving the Midwest included Southern California wide receiver Ronald Johnson, Florida State defensive back Dionte Allen, Louisiana State defensive tackle Joseph Barksdale, Oklahoma quarterback Keith Nichol and Tennessee offensive lineman Darris Sawtelle.

9. SEMINOLE SLUMP: Florida State paid the price for having its worst season since Bobby Bowden's first year on the job.

The Seminoles needed one of Bowden's trademark National Signing Day rushes to squeak into the Top 20 in the final team recruiting standings, though the Seminoles' class still ranked second among ACC schools.

Offensive linemen Antwane Greenlee and Jatavious Jackson, linebacker Maurice Harris, wide receiver Markish Jones and athlete Brandon Paul all waited until Wednesday before finally choosing Florida State.

Florida State's class didn't feature a single five-star recruit and was headed by Allen, the Michigan-based defensive back rated as the nation's No. 40 overall prospect. By contrast, Florida signed three of the nation's top dozen recruits and five of the top 37.

At least one five-star prospect gave Seminole fans reason for hope, even if he didn't actually sign with Florida State.

One day after committing to West Virginia, Noel Devine decided not to sign anywhere Wednesday after talking to former Seminole star Deion Sanders, who has served as a role model of sorts for the Fort Myers speedster.

Devine's change of heart revived the possibility that he eventually might follow his mentor to Florida State.

10. FINDING VOLUNTEERS: Tennessee may represent the perfect example of how the results in football season can carry over to recruiting season.

The Volunteers went 5-6 in 2005 and paid for it a few months later with a subpar recruiting class. Tennessee finished 23rd in last year's team recruiting standings while signing just one five-star prospect and four four-star players.

Tennessee turned things around last fall by going 9-4 and reaching the Outback Bowl. The nation's top high school seniors apparently noticed the Vols' resurgence.

The Vols finished third in the team recruiting standings behind only Florida and Southern California after signing five five-star recruits and 11 four-star prospects.

Tennessee's rebound should appease any Florida State fans disgruntled with the Seminoles' performance this week. If the Seminoles bounce back on the field next fall, they also should return to their customary place near the top of the recruiting standings.

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