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Anatomy of a No. 1 class

How Meyer and Florida won this year's recruiting war

Posted: Tuesday January 31, 2006 7:51PM; Updated: Wednesday February 1, 2006 7:27PM
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Urban Meyer's second recruiting class at Florida will likely be regarded as the No. 1 group of prospects in the nation.
Urban Meyer's second recruiting class at Florida will likely be regarded as the No. 1 group of prospects in the nation.
Bob Rosato/SI
Signing Day Aftermath
When all was said and done, Florida signed 27 players Wednesday. The Gators went into the day holding out hope of landing two more elite prospects, offensive lineman Andre Smith and running back C.J. Spiller, but the pair chose Alabama and Clemson, respectively. Two previously committed players, cornerback Patrick Robinson and receiver Damon McDaniel, signed instead with Florida State, but Florida also got one big last-minute addition, top-20 running back Mon Williams.

"A couple recruits got away today, which kind of stings a little bit," Gators coach Urban Meyer said late Wednesday afternoon. "But if I told you a month ago that we would have Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Mon Williams, would we take that? Of course we would."

Despite the late defectors, Florida's class held on to its No. 1 ranking by both Scout.com and SuperPrep. "The difference for Florida is Tim Tebow," said SuperPrep's Allen Wallace. "When you can bring in an elite quarterback like that, it really helps make the class special."

While acknowledging that recruiting classes can't be truly measured until years later, Meyer admitted to keeping tabs on the Gators' lofty ranking. "I hate to say this, but I actually hit a Web site a little bit ago and saw where we were ranked. The competitive part of me wants to see where we end up."
--Stewart Mandel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a small, nondescript meeting room off the main hallway of the Florida football office there is The Wish List.

Written in black marker on one of three adjoining dry-erase boards is the coaching staff's desired roster breakdown, the number of returning players at each position and the number of recruits they need to sign at each to reach their goal. To the left of that is a more complex list. It is a pyramid of the staff's top recruiting targets at each position -- blue for in-state prospects, orange for out-of-state. When a player commits to the Gators, he is moved to another board on an adjoining wall.

By late January, there weren't a whole lot of names left on the pyramid. When you land the nation's consensus No. 1 recruiting class, The Wish List is pretty much complete. Wednesday is the first day high-school seniors in the Class of 2006 can sign national letters-of-intent. For a program like Florida, however, the process of securing those signatures began more than a year ago.

Identifying the 'A1As'

Florida head coach Urban Meyer had been on the job only about a month (much of which he'd spent preparing his former team, Utah, for the Fiesta Bowl) when he attended the annual American Football Coaches Convention in Louisville last January. He'd already heard all about a vaunted high-school junior quarterback in Florida named Tim Tebow, and he'd heard Tebow's coaches from St. Augustine's Nease High School were among the 6,000 attending the convention. Meyer had yet to see tape of Tebow, had no idea what the coaches looked like, but he knew one thing for certain: He had to meet them.

"I eventually found them," said Meyer, "and we talked in a hallway for a bit."

Meyer saw tape of Tebow -- Scout.com's third-rated QB -- shortly thereafter and quickly came to the conclusion that the heady and mobile shotgun passer was the one quarterback the Gators had to have in the Class of 2006. In early February, shortly after last year's signing day, Tebow became one of roughly a dozen so-called "A1A" prospects -- the best of the best, including Virginia Beach, Va., receiver Percy Harvin (No. 2 at his position), Jacksonville safety Jamar Hornsby (No. 3) and Durham, N.C., lineman Carl Johnson (No. 6) -- to whom Florida made its first scholarship offers.

Normally, offers go out to the elite players even earlier, but because the staff had just been hired (only co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong was held over from the Ron Zook regime), they hadn't yet had a chance to pare down their targets. Their initial working list, Meyer said, included more than 400 prospects, culled mostly from national recruiting lists and responses to postcards sent to every high school in the state. More than 35 running backs were put on the board for three available spots. The staff's first Junior Day (an informational session for prospects and their families) last February included approximately 300 guests. "We had no idea who the great ones were," said Meyer.

Later that month, however, the coaches hunkered down and watched tape. Each assistant was responsible for soliciting tape of the prospects in their area or at their position from the players' high schools. Director of Football operations Bob LaCivita was in charge of collecting the tapes and keeping an inventory. The staff received about 1,300 tapes, about half of them unsolicited.

Every player on the board got an evaluation -- 1 for can't-miss, 2 for SEC-caliber or 3 for can't-play-at-this-level -- from both the assistant responsible for that geographic area and the appropriate position coach (for instance, running backs coach Stan Drayton evaluated all running backs as well as all prospects in the St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota areas). The 1s and 2s were passed along to Meyer, who gave his own assessment, and by March, a pecking order had been established.

A few grainy game tapes, however, hardly paint a complete picture.

"It's the most subjective thing in the world," said Florida cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator Chuck Heater. "In the NFL they have a much more comprehensive process, and they still make colossal mistakes. We have much more limited [scouting opportunities], with much younger individuals."

To get a closer look, Gators coaches hit the road hard in May, when the NCAA allows four weeks for in-person evaluation. Meyer himself logged 14,615 air miles and visited 99 high schools, predominately within Florida, where high schools are allowed to hold spring practices. It would prove to be a crucial time not only for learning about the athletes' physical skills, but also getting a sense of their character. Though Gators coaches couldn't yet speak with the players in person, they could talk at length with their high-school coaches, teachers, principals, pastors and anyone else with first-hand knowledge about the prospects.

"I always like to ask a female at the school -- a secretary, or someone coming down the hall," said Meyer. "It's important a kid has respect women. And they [the women] will tell you the truth."

All the while, the coaches were juggling the scholarship numbers game. Florida aimed to sign roughly 30 players (25 is the limit, but because the Gators only signed 20 last February, they can count their four January enrollees toward 2005-06), and while they'd have to offer far more than that to get their desired number, they also didn't want to offer too many too soon. "We won't offer a kid unless we're sure he's a good kid," said Meyer.