This Year, The Battles Were Won Early

A year ago, in the wee hours of the morning before the faxes started rolling in on his first recruiting class at the University of Florida, Urban Meyer was on the telephone doing one of the more remarkable sales jobs you'll ever see to save linebacker Jon Demps of Pensacola from signing with arch-rival Florida State. The coach was sweating bullets, turning on the charm and firing away with every logical counter-point he could think of on short notice.

One minute he was selling Jon, the next minute he was on the phone with Millicent Demps, Jon's mother, a teacher who connected immediately with this coach who spoke her language --- education. This went on for a few hours. Millicent teamed up with Meyer and their tag-team approach bombarded Jon with so much logic that it made no sense whatsoever to say no to Urban Meyer. Jon Demps would be a Gator and three or four hours later, his fax came streaming in to the football office at the University of Florida.

In the few weeks that Meyer and his new staff had to put together the Florida recruiting class of 2005, there was a lot of hit and miss. For every triumph it seemed there was a tragedy. Florida got some good football players but when he addressed the media on that Wednesday night that was National Signing Day, Meyer looked like a guy who deserved a purple heart. The battle for the heart and mind of Jon Demps personified what he had to go through as the new guy on the block in the state of Florida and in the Southeastern Conference. The fact that he wound up with a well above average class was probably a first clue that this isn't a coach who will allow a lost skirmish take away from the big picture that he sees.

When it comes to recruiting, he is the total animal, relentless and always on the hunt, never too tired or too busy to evaluate another prospect.

A year later, when Urban Meyer stepped to the podium on National Signing Day, he once again looked like a coach in serious need of a week of sleep. He looked plenty tired but he didn't resemble the walking wounded. Last year, every single loss hurt deeply because there was not enough time to put together backup plans. There was nothing to cushion the fall when a battle was lost.

That is the big difference in the recruiting class of 2005 and the one Meyer introduced Wednesday evening. This year, there was adequate time to implement a master recruiting plan. This year there was enough success early on in the process that fall back plans weren't all that necessary. The battles were won early through preparation, quick strikes and innovative planning.

Even though there were some last day whiffs, a couple of de-commits and a signing day surprise, it wasn't enough to take the luster off a class that found its way to the top of Scout.com's rankings. The class was exceptional because Meyer and his staff of assistants won the bulk of the battles long before signing day. The foundation was set to the point that any last week decisions may have bruised a few egos but they weren't the kind of deep wounds that we saw last year when the Gators came up short a few times in the final 72 hours before signing day.

"Chuck Heater our recruiting coordinator said that a couple of recruits got away today, which kind of stings a little," said Meyer at his press conference, "but if I told you a month ago that we would have (Tim) Tebow, (Percy) Harvin and Mon Williams, would you take that? Heck yeah we'd take that."

A month ago, Florida already had 22 of its signing class in place. Nine committed prior to the Gators' 34-7 shellacking of Florida State on Thanksgiving weekend, 13 committed in the next month, and only five were added after January 1. The bulk of the class was already secured and in place before signing day ever arrived.

In the final week, the de-commitments of wide receivers Damon McDaniel (Florida State), Damian Williams (Arkansas) and corner Patrick Robinson (Florida State) did sting but there was enough talent already in place that Meyer didn't have to scramble for replacements at the last moment. McDaniel and Williams would have been nice additions, especially Williams, but with Harvin, Justin Williams, Jarred Fayson and Riley Cooper already solid, those were losses Florida could afford. Robinson would have been nice because he would have given Florida that fourth corner that would have been nice for the depth chart, but again, it's not a critical loss. It simply puts a premium on recruiting more corners next season.

When C.J. Spiller shocked the recruiting world by choosing Clemson over the Gators Wednesday, it was another sting but Spiller, even with his marvelous talents and excessive speed, was a luxury and not a necessity. Had Florida whiffed on either Chevon Walker or Mon Williams it would have been disastrous but with both of them solid and in place, Spiller's loss was a bruise and not an open wound.

Florida got itself into this luxurious position of abundant wealth by using every resource available from in person visits, text messages, junior days, football camps and the innovative Friday Night Lights one-evening mini-camp to sell kids on the Florida coaching staff as well as familiarizing them with the Florida campus and what the university has to offer.

Credit Meyer and his staff for just good old-fashioned hard work and the ability to sell the many positives of the University of Florida through a variety of methods.

"We killed ourselves as far as doing some people say too many things," said Meyer, "but now that you evaluate and you talk to the families of the people --- the Jarred Faysons, Justin Williams, Jamar Hornsbys, Carl Johnsons and Tim Tebows --- a lot of those decisions were made quite a long time ago.

"Florida has so much to offer these guys and you can't see it in a 48-hour visit and one of the great things we have to offer is our players and the families of our coaches. That's something that I think we do better than any school in the country. We're going to do that again. We're going to start junior day and this weekend we'll have some guys in. We've already started recruiting, texting and working. It's already begun. A big part of this class was having them around our players and our families at those junior days."

Another plus was the big-time game day atmosphere at The Swamp. When the Gators took the field against FSU on Senior Day back on that last weekend of November, the atmosphere was zoo-like. The noise level was deafening and the Gators responded like a team charged on by the abundance of electricity in the air.

Florida took control of the game early and then proceeded to make a rout out of it, taking the Seminoles to school before a sellout crowd and recruit benches overflowing with some of the top prospects from all over the country. When the game ended, after the Gators sang the fight song and the alma mater in the northeast corner of the stadium, the team poured into a locker room that was filled with excited prospects. What happened next can only be described as commitment frenzy.

"Brandon Siler sang the fight song and Jamar Hornsby was the first one to start the onslaught," said Meyer. "Jarred Fayson was right there and I shook his hand. Jacques Richardson, Brandon James were also there. I'm not sure who else was in there, but then a couple of hands started showing up saying they wanted to come to Florida. It was nuts. It was the way a locker room is supposed to be."

The win over Florida State coupled a month later with the Outback Bowl victory over Iowa have given Florida the perception of a team on the rise and a team with real momentum going into offseason drills and spring practice. Meyer knows that the success of this recruiting class would not have been possible if the Gators had stumbled against FSU.

"We hit a couple of bumps (Alabama and LSU) in the road in the middle of the season but we finished strong," he said. "We were sliding a little bit, but the team rallied back and won the last two games. If we would have lost the last two there was no chance we would have had the recruiting class like we had. We would have signed the same number, but the quality would have been no where close if we would have stumbled."

The excitement the Florida program generated on the field was coupled with the salesmanship of Meyer and the Florida staff. They sold Florida every chance they got and the results are there for everyone to see --- a top-rated class that is probably within two players of meeting every single need the Gators had for this recruiting season. Sure, the Gators could have used one more cornerback and it surely would have been nice to have one more offensive lineman, but the numbers will be markedly improved as will the talent levels not only at those two positions but all over the field. It's a well balanced class that takes steps toward creating the kind of talented depth that Meyer knows you need to build and sustain championship programs.

When he stood before the media Wednesday afternoon, tired from the final days of the recruiting ordeal, this wasn't just a football coach. This was a successful sales manager and closer who had convinced 27 of the nation's best high school football players that they should spend the next four years in Gainesville.

"I was once on a staff when a coach said selecting a university is a lot like buying a car or buying a home and I thought what the heck are you talking about?" said Meyer. "It's nothing like that! You can sell a car. You can sell a home. I equate it to selecting finding that bride because you're not supposed to trade in your bride. You're supposed to be stuck with that person the next four years of your life."

From a standpoint of potential, the next four years should be a wild ride. This is potentially the best recruiting class in Florida history. The talent is there along with speed and athleticism greater than or equal to anything that's ever been brought into Florida in one class. It's enough to earn Meyer a well-deserved rest.

He may allow himself to sleep late Thursday morning and he might even spend a little extra time with Shelley and the kids on Friday but he'll be back on the recruiting trail Saturday. He'll be there a lot in the weeks and months to come. One top-rated recruiting class isn't going to cut it for this guy. He's a recruiting animal. He's already gearing up for the excitement of the hunt.


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