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
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
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
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.
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
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