- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Florida defensive line coach Greg Mattison picked up his ringing cellphone and leaped from behind his desk. It was two days before national signing day, and a recruit he'd been eager to hear from was on the line. As he spoke, Mattison looked out his window as a crane broke ground on a $28 million upgrade of the school's football facilities. On his office wall hung two rows of freshly mounted photographs from the Gators' 41--14 victory over Ohio State in the BCS National Championship 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 end wasn't, but many others were. A month after their shocking rout of the Buckeyes, the Gators staged another blowout on signing day, running away from USC, Tennessee, LSU and Texas to claim the nation's No. 1 recruiting class (as rated by Rivals.com, Scout.com and SuperPrep). Among Florida's 27 signees were 11 of Rivals' top 100 players--nine of whom ranked among the top three in the country at their respective positions. One of those blue-chippers, tight end Aaron Hernandez (Central High in Bristol, Conn.), had always assumed he would join his brother, D.J., a quarterback at UConn. But after attending the spring game at the Swamp last April, he became the Gators' first commitment. "When I walked out to the 50-yard line, I said, 'I've got to play in a place like this,'" recalls Hernandez. "I didn't realize Coach Meyer was standing behind me."
While Florida attracted more than its share of ballyhooed prospects under Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook, Urban Meyer has transformed the program into a recruiting mecca. His 2006 class finished second only to USC's. " Florida is the place to be right now," says SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace. "They're the new USC." From the moment he arrived from Utah in early 2005, Meyer has cultivated a reputation as a relentless recruiter whose tactics include bombarding recruits with almost-daily text messages and pursuing prospects even after they've committed elsewhere. "He's more like a dad," says 6'5", 283-pound offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey of Lakeland ( Fla.) High, who, along with his twin brother, Michael, signed with the Gators after originally committing to Florida State. "You wake up in the morning, there's a text message from Urban Meyer telling you, HAVE A GOOD DAY AT SCHOOL."
The 42-year-old Meyer, who says he sends 50 to 75 messages to prospects a day from his Blackberry, has a staff stocked with savvy salesmen, including Mattison (a former recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame), defensive coordinator Charlie Strong (once Lou Holtz's ace recruiter at South Carolina) and associate head coach Doc Holliday (a longtime recruiter in South Florida for West Virginia and North Carolina State). Yet even they concede that Meyer gives the Gators their biggest edge. "Other head coaches want to be the closer," says Strong. "Urban develops a relationship with every guy. He gets to know the kid." Justin Trattou, a 6'4", 250-pound defensive end from Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., who backed off a longstanding commitment to Notre Dame to sign with Florida, was impressed that Meyer invited recruits to his home for a barbecue during the player's official visit. "It's not like you just go and shake the coach's hand and say hello," says Trattou. "You meet his wife [Shelley] and his kids."
Meyer and his staff began work on the 2007 class more than a year ago. Each assistant was responsible for identifying the top prospects in his region, from which the staff assembled a working list of about 175 players. The first offers went out before signing day a year ago to a handful of so-called A1A prospects--"the best of the best," says Meyer. Then the coaches hunkered down to study video of the other recruits. (Last season 1,318 prospects sent Florida footage, 715 of them unsolicited.) Each assistant evaluated the recruits in his region and at the position he coaches: 1 for "can't miss," 2 for " SEC caliber" and 3 for "can't play at this level." The 1s and 2s were passed along to Meyer for his assessment, and by March the staff had assembled its wish list. On a pair of boards in the coaches' main meeting room, the players were ranked by position, with the number needed at each position noted.
The recruiting season, however, did not kick off the way Meyer had hoped. With Chris Leak about to enter his senior season and only one scholarship quarterback, Tim Tebow, 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 for Florida, 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 attended several games at the Swamp last fall and began having second thoughts about playing so far from home. In December he changed his pledge to the Gators.
Members of the coaching staff couldn't evaluate prospects in person until May, but when the time 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 high school," says Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "When it comes time for their official visit, they feel more comfortable with him." As with most programs, Florida's coaches hold instructional camps during the summer, and on July 21 they hosted an overnight camp called Friday Night Lights, in which prospects got to work out under the lamps at the Swamp. Having watched tape of Duke Lemmens, an unheralded defensive end from Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., Mattison invited him to camp, which he promptly dominated. "The second he left here, we offered him a scholarship," says Mattison. Lemmens committed during a visit for the Gators' Nov. 11 game against South Carolina.
Even after getting a prospect's commitment, however, the staff stays in touch. "One thing about kids is they like their egos stroked," says Strong. "The moment you stop calling, they're getting calls from someone else. They'll take that to mean you don't care about them as much."
By the end of December, Florida had put together a strong class of 17 commitments. Then things heated up. First, Lorenzo Edwards of Edgewater High in Orlando--Scout.com's top-rated weakside linebacker--announced for Florida at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 6. Two nights later the Gators beat Ohio State and the floodgates opened. On the weekend of Jan. 20 Florida hosted visits from defensive end Carlos Dunlap of Fort Dorchester High in North Charleston, S.C., long expected to attend home-state South Carolina; offensive lineman James Wilson of Nease High in Ponte Vedra, Fla., a USC commit from Tebow's alma mater; and Trattou, who had chosen the Irish in June. All three would sign.
Florida had barely been in touch with Trattou, but he caught Mattison's eye with his play in the U.S. Army game. Florida's case was strengthened by word that Notre Dame was 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 seen the way our kids played [against Ohio State]. So we invited him and his dad on a visit."