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Early Signing Day 2021: Tracking Florida’s first recruiting class under Billy Napier

Syndication: Gainesville Sun Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

This Wednesday opens the Early Signing Period for football recruits in the class of 2022. And while Florida’s recruiting class is likely to be less impressive at the end of the day than any of its previous classes in modern history, Billy Napier’s first Early Signing Day with the Gators could still provide a bit of excitement for fans.

Florida’s morning has already gotten off to a good start, with committed prospect Tony Livingston — a project at tight end or offensive tackle — signing with the Gators as expected, and former Notre Dame commit Devin Moore, a four-star defensive back, announcing his commitment to the Gators in an early-morning Instagram Live while quoting — with an amusing typo — Napier’s now-infamous quip.

Moore’s commitment is just the eighth for Florida’s 2022 class, and he is only the third four-star prospect currently set to sign with the Gators per the 247Sports Composite rankings, joining fringe top-100 defensive lineman David McClellan of Oklahoma and in-state top-400 defensive lineman Jamari Lyons of Viera.

But the Gators will be star-chasing for much of the rest of the day, with their sights set on a couple of previously committed prospects and a couple of big names.

The previous commits to watch out for appear to be linebacker Shemar James and cornerback Julian Humphrey, who each decommitted from Florida before Dan Mullen’s firing rather than during the mass exodus since Mullen’s firing and Napier’s hiring. James has not issued a pledge since, while Humphrey is currently committed to Georgia — but made note of being re-offered by Napier’s staff on Tuesday.

James may very well end up back with Florida on this Wednesday, while Humphrey seems more likely to sign with Georgia — as he publicly planned to do as of Tuesday night — than extend his recruitment or flip to Florida. But if Humphrey does hold off on signing, Florida’s chances with the talented Texas defender obviously improve.

The other big names Florida is seemingly pursuing heavily on this day are five-star safety Kamari Wilson and three-star Georgia commit Shone Washington, a talented defensive tackle from the Pelican State. Both players made official visits to Florida last weekend, and Wilson came away from it writing that he “might shock the world” with his choice — which could be scried as good news for Florida, which has apparently made up a ton of ground on long-time favorite Georgia.

And if Florida misses on Wilson because he picks the Bulldogs, perhaps Washington, currently part of a Georgia recruiting class that is busting at the seams with talent, is a potential consolation prize of sorts: Georgia’s shortage of room could be Florida’s gain.

Both Wilson and Washington are set to announce their college choices in the late afternoon, with Napier set to speak shortly afterward at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

11:00 a.m. Eastern: Both long-time commit David Conner and Louisiana flip — so long-time Napier commit — Christian Williams are officially signed.

This gives me a chance to appreciate Florida’s Air Jordan-themed graphics for these recruits, which are really nice...

...except for that Gator logo looking suspiciously like the old one, with the lighter green “underside” of the jaw. I’m very possibly the most pedantic person in the world on this one detail, admittedly, and I can concede that the rendering of a fabric patch to a graphic probably has something to do with why it looks as it does — but still, it feels juuust off.

Here’s hoping it bugs no one else.

12:15 p.m. Eastern: Two more Florida commits have become Florida signees, with Jamari Lyons and Trey Smack each being announced by the Gators.

But the real story of the hour — and the day, and the recruiting cycle — is Deion Sanders engineering the upset of a lifetime by luring No. 1 national prospect Travis Hunter to Jackson State, flipping him from alma mater Florida State.

Hunter is a tremendous talent well-deserving of his ranking, the kind of prospect who has the potential to change not just a game’s outcome but a program’s fortunes. His flip to Jackson State changes two programs, actually: It elevates the tiny HBCU to the national stage even more than Sanders coaching it could, and deals a massive blow to FSU, which was building one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and counting on Hunter to be its best player.

And whatever motivated it — Sanders’s superstardom, JSU’s recent success under his coaching, Hunter’s desire to be the biggest fish JSU’s small pond has ever seen since college football became big business, and/or possible NIL deals — will be dissected for weeks and months to come.

But for now, it’s a boulder thrown in a pool, waves rippling outward. It will be fascinating to see what happens next.

4:25 p.m. Eastern: One of the day’s most anticipated decisions came at the top of the hour — and it went Florida’s way, with five-star IMG Academy defensive back Kamari Wilson opting for the Gators in a commitment aired on ESPN.

And in the minutes that followed, Florida announced the signing — laying plain the fact that it was no real surprise to the Gators themselves — and released video of its coaches reacting to Wilson making his commitment public that reinforced that point.

There were, yes, bread crumbs pointing to Wilson ending up with Florida — but the Gators also beat out none other than Georgia for Wilson’s services, and landed a five-star prospect out of IMG Academy for the first time ever. And if Wilson picking Florida was partly dependent on the Gators hiring both defensive backs coach Corey Raymond and support staffer Jamar Chaney, then it’s fair to say hires and work by Billy Napier made this happen, rather than Napier hauling in Florida leans like predecessor Jim McElwain once did with CeCe Jefferson and Martez Ivey.

Travis Hunter’s shocking decision is obviously this Early Signing Day’s headline and biggest surprise. But Napier making the closest thing to that happen and breaking into IMG in one fell swoop is no small feat, and Wilson is the sort of player who can play right away for Florida. Benefit of the doubt granted yesterday may well have been earned on this day.

6:40 p.m. Eastern: And if you thought Kamari Wilson committing alone was impressive, Shemar James returning to Florida’s recruiting class and Napier laying out his vision again are likely to have only redoubled your feelings.

Napier’s press conference — conducted at his methodical, meticulous pace — was the sort of thing that instills a lot of faith in the ideas that he has a vision and that it can work. But the bit that made me take the most notice was the clearly granular level of involvement he took with the evaluation of tight end Tony Livingston — Napier knew how high his weight was at its highest in high school, and indicated that he’d watched some floor-level film on him from his time at a Florida basketball camp.

I do not think Dan Mullen was doing that, and though I’d argue that it might not have mattered if Mullen had been doing it so long as someone else on his staff did — and given that Livingston committed to Mullen and remained in Florida’s recruiting class, the practical impact of Napier being this detailed in this context is nearly nil. But my instinct is that attention to detail like that turns up the sorts of information or data that will pay off at some point — with some prospect that Florida can sway, or some tendency that can be exploited, or some play call that is saved for the right moment.

Maybe, in fact, that’s what got Florida in the door with Wilson, or helped the Gators retrieve James from the ranks of the uncommitted: If someone identified Wilson or James as a player Florida could reasonably be expected to sign if it pursued him hard, and someone put together that plan, and Napier executed the plan, then it all paid off.

Now consider that this sort of grinding and the fruits of this labor are only what Napier’s been able to accomplish in 10 days — or 10 and some change, if you think — as seems possible — that he got some work in on the night after his introductory press conference.

Given a long enough runway and the resources that he has already routinely referred to as allocated for his use, it might be fun to see what this guy can do.