- Mike DiRocco, ESPN Staff Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Signing classes are evaluated based on how many elite recruits are signed. The more stars, the better.
But the number of stars isn’t always an accurate predictor of success. Sometimes the highly-rated recruits don’t work out. Sometimes the lower-rated ones do. In fact, sometimes those guys go on to become big-time players. Those are the gems that every coach hopes he finds.
GatorNation went back to 2006, which is when ESPN began tracking signing classes, and found the five biggest sleepers:
1. Ahmad Black: Florida’s 2007 signing class had some big names in it -- OLs Mike and Maurkice Pouncey, CB Joe Haden, DE Carlos Dunlap, TE Aaron Hernandez and QB John Brantley -- but Black wasn’t one of them. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound safety, one of seven players from Lakeland (Fla.) in the class, was the nation’s No. 49 safety. The Pounceys, RB Chris Rainey and DT John Brown were the studs everybody wanted from Lakeland. Black, LB/FB Steve Wilks and WR Paul Wilson were practically tag-alongs.
At first, Black could only get on the field on special teams. He seemed to make every tackle on kickoffs, but then-coach Urban Meyer wasn’t impressed. He liked Black’s toughness and attitude, but didn’t believe Black could ever become a regular player on defense. "Too slow," Meyer said after being asked about Black midway through his freshman year.
But when the 2008 season began, Black was the Gators’ starting strong safety. He went on to start 39 games, led the team in tackles in 2010, recorded 13 interceptions, and earned All-American honors from several outlets. He made one of the biggest plays in school history when he ripped the ball away from Oklahoma receiver Juaquin Iglesias with the Gators clinging to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter of the national championship game. Florida went on to beat the Sooners 24-14 and capture the school’s second national title in three years.
2. Brandon James: ESPN had James listed as the nation’s No. 111 running back, which made him the lowest-ranked recruit in the Gators’ 2006 signing class. In fact, Meyer didn’t want to sign James. St. Augustine (Fla.) coach Joey Wiles had to convince Meyer to take a chance on the 5-foot-6 James. Meyer reluctantly agreed, in part because he wanted to sign CB Jacques Rickerson, James’ teammate and one of the state’s best players.
It didn’t take Meyer long to be thankful he took that chance. James became a dynamic returner and earned honorable mention Freshman All-American honors. By the time he finished his career, James owned 11 school and four SEC records for kickoff and punt returns. He is also one of only two players in school history to have returned a punt and kickoff for a touchdown (Harvin Clark). He earned All-American honors from several organizations and was named All-SEC twice and was the league’s special teams player of the year in 2008.
3. Jon Halapio: ESPN ranked Halapio as the nation’s No. 144 guard when he signed with UF in 2009 out of St. Petersburg (Fla.) Catholic. All he’s done is start 33 games at right guard, including 28 in a row. After redshirting in 2009, Halapio started seven games in 2010, including the last two. Barring injury, the 6-3, 321-pound Halapio be the starter in 2013, too, and could potentially finish his career with 42 consecutive starts.
4. Jonotthan Harrison: Harrison was regarded as only a slightly better prospect than Halapio in 2009: He was ESPN’s No. 111 guard. After redshirting his first season, the former Groveland (Fla.) South Lake standout played in every game in 2010 and earned his first career start in the Outback Bowl against Penn State. That started his current streak of 27 consecutive starts (26 at center, one at left guard). Barring injury, the 6-4, 299-pound Harrison will be the starter in 2013, too.
5. Trey Burton: Burton was a quarterback at Venice (Fla.) when he signed with Florida in 2010. He quickly became an invaluable part of the program. Burton showed an amazing ability to absorb the offense -- and not just at quarterback, either. He quickly learned what every player’s responsibility was on each play. That, combined with the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Burton’s athleticism, made it impossible to keep him off the field. He’s not a good enough passer to play quarterback, but he is very good as a wildcat quarterback. He’s also able to line up at running back, fullback, tight end and receiver. Two coaching staffs have been moving him around to take advantage of mismatches he creates and Burton has accounted for 767 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns in his career.
2dSam Khan Jr.