Florida’s long rebuild under Billy Napier reached a key mile marker Dec. 21 on Early Signing Day.

The Gators inked a 20-player class ranked No. 12, according to 247Sports.

Napier and Co. aim to add to the class before Signing Day Feb. 1.

“We’re going to continue to be aggressive,” Napier said. “We’ll evaluate every player that’s left over. Typically about 85 percent of the players will sign early.”

Offensive line is an even higher priority following the transfer of veterans Ethan White and Michael Tarquin. White announced his decision Dec. 24, two days after Tarquin.

Florida did sign six defensive backs, four of them ranked among 247Sports’ top 230 prospects, to help offset attrition in the secondary.

The latest departure is safety Rashad Torrence II who is leaving a year early for the NFL after leading the Gators with 84 tackles. On Dec. 23, the Gators secondary lost starter Tre’Vez Johnson along with reserve Jordan Young.

The Gators bolstered their defensive front a day later when Cam’Ron Jackson announced his transfer from Memphis to Gainesville. The 6-foot-6, 340-pound Jackson was a first-year starter for the Tigers in 2022, recording 41 tackles and 20 quarterback hurries to earn third team All-AAC honors from Pro Football Focus.

Jackson is a redshirt sophomore and native of Haynesville, La., who committed to LSU in 2020 as the nation’s No. 56 defensive tackle before landing at Memphis.

Florida signed several defensive linemen in the 2023 class, headlined by Kelby Collins of Gardendale, Ala., Orlando Olympia’s Kamran James and Will Norman of Camden, N.J.

The 2023 team is currently to track to replace 12 starters following draft decisions, transfers and the expiration of eligibility.

The Gators have seen many players seek greener pastures following a 6-7 season. Meanwhile, Florida has signed two transfers, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and Louisville defensive lineman Caleb Banks. Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell also plans to transfer to Gainesville, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

Florida also is likely to target players currently playing in bowl games.

Napier said last spring he and his staff planned to be “very aggressive” in the transfer market and bring in players totaling in the double-digits. Following those comments, Arizona State receiver Ricky Pearsall was the only impact player to sign. He joined offensive linemen O’Cyrus Torrence and Kamryn Waites along with tailback Montrell Johnson Jr., who followed Napier from Louisiana in January. Last December, quarterback Jack Miller II transferred from Ohio State.

Stay tuned …

Rashad Torrence

Vitals: 6-foot, 202 pounds

Resumé: Torrence was a 4-star prospect out of Marietta, Ga., ranked the nation’s No. 33 safety and No. 335 prospect overall by 247Sports.

Role: Torrence started 23 games during 34 appearances in three seasons at Florida. Torrence led the 2022 Gators with 84 tackles, and finished with 186 during his career. He added 3 interceptions, 6 passes defensed and 2 fumble recoveries.

Outlook: Florida must replace both its starting safeties, including Trey Dean, the team’s second-leading tackler. All told, the Gators lose their top five tacklers. Torrence was a solid player, but at times a step slow to the football and missed tackles. Even so, Florida returns just two safeties with experiences, promising Kamari Wilson, the top recruit in the 2022 class, and fellow freshman Miguel Mitchell.

Ethan White

Vitals: 6-foot-4, 331 pounds

Resumé: White was a 3-star prospect out of Clearwater considered a project. 247Sports composite rated him the No. 103 offensive tackle prospect and No. 795 overall in the 2019 class.The 2023 team is currently to track to replace 12 starters following draft decisions, transfers and the expiration of eligibility.

Role: White arrived weight nearly 400 pounds, but shed more than 50 pounds and evolved quickly. White was projected to be the starting center in 2020, but a knee injury cost him the majority of the season. He eventually started 20 games at guard, including 13 in 2022 when he earn second-team All-SEC honors.

Outlook: White’s announcement was a Christmas Eve stunner and major loss. He did not allow a sack in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus. With White and Tarquin’s departures, the Gators must replace four of five starters on the offensive line. All-America guard O’Cyrus Torrence left for the NFL while fifth-year senior Richard Gouraige also moved on.

Tre’Vez Johnson, Jordan Young

Vitals: Johnson 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, Young 6-0, 192.

Resumé: Johnson was a 3-star prospect out of Jacksonville many considered an under-the-radar signee in the 2020 class. Young was 4-star recruit out of Tampa in 2021 rated the nation’s No. 30 cornerback prospect.

Role: Johnson, a third-year sophomore, was forced into action as a first-year player, suffered serious growing pains and failed to ultimately fulfill his potential, even though he is the only Gator to record an interception each of the past three seasons. In 2022, he started nine games at the team’s STAR position, a quasi-nickel back. He recorded 26 tackles, recovered 2 fumbles and recorded 2 pass breakups and an interception. Young’s best performance at Florida was during the 2022 spring game. A 4-star recruit out of Tampa in 2021, Young appeared in 13 games with the Gators, recording 11 tackles, a pass breakup and a blocked kick during the Dec. 17 Las Vegas Bowl, a 30-3 loss to Oregon State.

Outlook: Florida should weather the losses. The Gators return starting cornerbacks Jason Marshall and Jaydon Hill, along with Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, who broke his hand and never fulfilled his promise. Napier also signed six defensive backs in the 2023 class.

Michael Tarquin

Vitals: 6-foot-5, 320 pounds

Resumé: A fourth-year redshirt sophomore from Ocala, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Tarquin was the nation’s No. 22 offensive tackle prospect in the 2019 class.

Role: Tarquin primarily spent his career as a reserve. He stepped in at right tackle for Jean Delance this season and started seven games, but also suffered a Week 2 foot injury that held back Tarquin.

Outlook: Tarquin announced Dec. 30 he signed with USC after transferring from Florida a week earlier. Florida faces major questions at offensive tackle. Redshirt freshman tackle Austin Barber enjoyed a breakout season for Florida, but experienced depth is a major question mark. Florida signed one offensive tackle in the ‘23 class, 3-start prospect Bryce Lovett of Rockledge. The 6-foot-5, 336-pound Lovett is viewed as a project. “Bryce is very young for his age,” Napier said “Probably should be a junior. Still very much growing. His senior film is really impressive. Certainly he’s a guy who gets in the program and grows a bit. He’s got a bright future in front of him.”

Graham Mertz

Vitals: 6-foot-3, 225 pounds

Resumé: Mertz was a 4-star prospect and the nations’ third-rated pro style quarterback out of Mission, Kansas.

Role: The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Mertz started 32 games for Wisconsin. He completed 59.5% of his throws and compiled 4,405 passing yards with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions during his career. The Badgers finished just 6-6 in 2022. Mertz completed 57.3% of his throws with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Outlook: Mertz will help Napier address a critical need and a bridge to the future. California high school Jaden Rashada is the centerpiece of the 2023 class while fellow 5-star prospect DJ Lagway committed for 2024. Rashada join Ohio State transfer Jack Miller II and true freshman Max Brown as the team’s scholarship signal callers. Miller, who did not play this season after breaking his thumb in August, and struggled during a 30-3 loss to Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Anthony Richardson left for the NFL and Jalen Kitna’s dismissal after his arrest on child pornography charges.

Teradja Mitchell

Vitals: 6-foot-2, 232 pounds

Resumé: Mitchell, a former 5-star recruit from Virginia Beach, has one year of eligibility remaining after playing in just four games this season.

Role: One of six team captains in 2021, Mitchell recorded 63 tackles, 7 for loss and recorded a pass break up during 43 games (eight starts) over five seasons for the Buckeye.

Outlook: The Gators’ linebacker room will lose its anchor, Ventrell Miller, and one of the top playmakers on defense, Amari Burney. Promising first-year player Shemar James gives hope for the future while redshirt freshman Scooby Williams played plenty of meaningful snaps. Meanwhile, Derek Wingo, the second-rated player in Florida’s 2020 class, finally showed some positive signs. 2023 class member Jaden Robinson, a 4-star prospect from Lake City, is the nation’s No. 31 player at his position.

Caleb Banks

Vitals: 6-foot-7, 300 pounds

Resumé: Banks was a 3-star prospect out of Southfield, Mich., rated the nation’s 117th defensive lineman and No. 968 overall prospect in 2021.

Role: Banks did not see the field much during two years at Louisville, appearing in eight games. He recorded 2 tackles, a sack and forced a fumble.

Outlook: Banks appears to be a project, but will provide interior defensive line depth the Gators need after Gervon Dexter left for the NFL and Jalen Lee transferred.

Lloyd Summerall III

Vitals: 6-foot-5, 231 pounds

Resumé: Summerall was a 4-star prospect out of Lakeland High rated the nation’s No. 15 weakside end prospect and No. 243 overall recruit in the 2019 class.

Role: Summerall appeared in all but one game in 2022 primarily on special teams, finishing with 6 tackles. Following Brenton Cox Jr.’s dismissal, Summerall saw a bit more playing time and recovered a fumble on Nov. 5 at Texas A&M and recorded 3 tackles, 0.5 for loss, Nov. 25 at Florida State. He also played in 12 games in 2021, recording 5 tackles, including a half sack.

Outlook: The emergence of Princely Umanmielen and Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr., along with the expected return of Justus Boone, gives the edge of the Gators defense something to build on. St. Petersburg Lakewood’s T.J. Searcy, the nation’s No. 28 edge player per 247Sports, has committed to the Gators.

Chief Borders

Vitals: 6-foot-4, 241 pounds

Resumé: Borders was the nation’s No. 37 linebacker prospect and No. 328 overall recruit in 2021 out of Heard County (Carrollton, Ga.).

Role: Borders appeared in all 12 games this season, mostly on special teams, and recorded 2 tackles. In 2021, he played four games before redshirting.

Outlook: Borders was unable to impact at a position of need. Even with the loss of Miller and Burney, Borders did not see at future given the emergence of James, Williams and Wingo.

Jalen Lee

Vitals: 6-foot-2, 299 pounds

Resumé: Lee was the nation’s No. 37 defensive tackle prospect and No. 365 overall recruit in 2020 out of Live Oak.

Role: Lee started Florida’s first three games of the season at nose tackle before losing the starting job to Desmond Watson. Lee, a sophomore in his third year, finished the year with 8 tackles in 12 games.

Outlook: The Gators’ interior defensive line is a top priority. Along with Lee’s transfer, top tackle Gervon Dexter is leaving for the NFL draft. Florida’s 2023 class features several with potential, including Alabama’s Kelby Collins, Kamran James of Orlando Olympia and IMG Academy’s Will Norman. The 6-foot-5, 415-pound Watson, a sophomore, aims to improve his conditioning and lateral movement to build on a season when he totaled 23 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. Chris McClellan was increasingly effective as a first-year player, finishing with 21 stops (2.5 sacks). Redshirt freshman Tyreak Sapp showed promise while recording 19 tackles.

David Reese

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 238 pounds

Resumé: Reese was the nation’s No. 20 linebacker prospect and No. 297 overall recruit in 2018 out of Vero Beach High.

Role: Reese appeared in 12 games in 2022, making 2 tackles, after not playing in 2021. This after an injury plagued two seasons. He tore his Achilles tendon in 2019, returned in 2020 and appeared in five games before another season-ending injury.

Outlook: Reese is not a major loss, but the Gators’ linebackers room has many question marks going forward.

Donovan McMillion, Corey Collier

Vitals: McMillion: 6-foot-1, 205. Collier: 6-1, 179.

Resumé: McMillion was a 4-star prospect out of Canonsburg, Pa., rated as the nation’s No. 12 safety and No. 187 overall recruit in the 2021 class. Collier was the No. 6 safety prospect and No. 106 overall in 2021 after a decorated career at Miami Palmetto playing alongside future Florida cornerback Jason Marshall.

Role: McMillon appeared during Florida’s 12 games as a reserve and a special teams fixture, totaling 20 total tackles. He had 5 against Eastern Washington and a tackle for loss at Texas A&M. The sophomore’s lack of top-end speed limited him. Collier appeared in four games, including Nov. 25 at Florida State. He managed just 1 tackle this season on Oct. 2 against Eastern Washington. Collier struggled to put on the bulk required a the position.

Outlook: The Gators seek answers on the back end of the defense. Veterans Trey Dean and Rashad Torrence II were productive on paper, finishing first and second in tackles with 77 and 76, respectively. Florida’s safeties also missed too many stops and suffered coverage breakdowns. Dean is in his fifth year, while Torrence, a three-year starter, has another year of eligibility. First-year freshman Kamari Wilson, the top-rated member of the 2022 class, is a future force coming off a career-high 8 tackles at FSU. Freshman Miguel Mitchell II also will compete for snaps on the back end of the defense.

Lorenzo Lingard, Nay’Quan Wright

Vitals: Lingard: 6-foot, 209 pounds; Wright: 5-9, 202.

Resumé: Lingard: A 5-star prospect out of University High School, Lingard was the nation’s 2nd-rated running back and No. 25 overall prospect in the 2018 class, per 247Sports composite rankings. Wright: A 4-star prospect and No. 16 running back prospect in 2019 out of Miami Carol City, where he averaged 10.8 yards a carry as a senior in 2018.

Role: Lingard’s ineffectiveness has baffled since his 2020 arrival from Miami, where he played one season. Lingard remained a fascination for a segment of fans. Consider his Oct. 15 performance against LSU when Lingard capitalized on meaningful snaps during a 45-35 loss. He ran with authority to total 23 yards on 4 touches, including 7 on a 3rd-and-6 screen pass after dragging a defender several yards. But Lingard did not build on the effort, totaling 14 yards on 2 carries the regular season’s final five games.

Meanwhile, Wright enjoyed a larger role and started the season’s first four games until Johnson and Trevor Etienne eclipsed the redshirt junior. A season after he totaled 504 yards from scrimmage, Wright missed much of the spring with a foot injury requiring surgery and never found his stride. He finished this season with 190 rushing yards on 47 carries, averaging just 4 yards an attempt — more than 2 yards fewer than Johnson and Etienne.

Outlook: No skill position is in better shape. Johnson and Etienne form a formidable 1-2 punch. The duo combined for 1,532 rushing yards, including 42 runs of 10 yards or longer (Johnson 25, Etienne 17), and 16 touchdowns. Jacksonville 4-star prospect Treyaun Webb also committed in the 2023 class. Webb, the nephew of former Florida cornerback Dee Webb, is the nation’s No. 12 running back prospect.

Daejon Reynolds

Vitals: 6-foot-2, 204 pounds

Resumé: A 4-star prospect out of Loganville, Ga., Reynolds was the nation’s 24th-rated receiver and No. 293 prospect in the 2021 class.

Role: The redshirt freshman announced his decision Nov. 30, less than two weeks since a career day at Vanderbilt. During a 31-24 loss in Nashville, he finished with 8 catches for 165 yards and 2 fourth-quarter touchdowns. Reynolds generated buzz during spring practices and preseason practices, but until breakout performance at Vanderbilt managed just 3 catches for 89 yards — highlighted by a 54-yard catch Oct. 2 against Eastern Washington. He finishes his Florida career with 11 catches.

Outlook: The Gators need proven pass-catchers. Pearsall could declare for the NFL draft on the heels of a 148-yard, 2-touchdown night at Florida State. Justin Shorter’s eligibility has expired. Ja’Quavion Fraziars has struggled get on the field for three seasons. Reynolds was among of group of young receivers, including Caleb Douglas, expected to have key roles in 2023.

Avery Helm

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 170 pounds

Resumé: A 4-star prospect out of Missouri City, Texas, Helm was the nation’s 24th-rated cornerback prospect in the 2020. He is blessed with 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical leap.

Role: Helm started the season’s first four games until Jaydon Hill replaced him. Helm started nine of 11 appearances in 2012, totaling 22 tackles and 3 passes defended as a redshirt freshman.

Outlook: Helms’ Nov. 28 decision to leave was not unexpected given the Gators’ cornerback depth. Hill and Marshall started the past eight games together. Kimber, the No. 9 cornerback in the 2020 class, played most of the season with a broken hand. Kissimmee Osceola’s Ja’Keem Jackson and Jacksonville’s Sharif Denson are highly touted cornerbacks expected to sign Dec. 21.

WR Trent Whittemore

Vitals: 6-foot-3, 206 pounds

Resumé: Whittemore played receiver, safety and even quarterback as a 3-star prospect out of Gainesville Buchholz. He was the 103rd-ranked prospect out of Florida in the 2019 class.

Role: Whittemore showed ball skills, sure hands and toughness out of the slot early in his career, but also a propensity for injury. He broke ribs during a 2020 win against Arkansas and has had hamstring issues. Whittemore recorded 19 catches for 210 yards and a score in 2021, positioning himself for a key role this season. Pearsall’s signing marginalized Whittemore, who made 4 catches for 87 yards in seven games. Whittemore took part in the team’s Senior Day Nov. 14 against South Carolina, signaling the end of his career at Florida.

Outlook: With the loss of Shorter and Pearsall’s potential departure, Whittemore would have joined Xzavier Henderson as a veteran pass-catcher. Youngsters Douglas, Reynolds, Marcus Burke and Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman have shown flashes but also inconsistency. The Gators also are on track to sign a talented receiving crop, including Orlando Boone’s Aidan Mizell and Tampa Gaither’s Eugene Wilson III, both top-150 recruits, and Miami’s Andy Jean, another 4-star ranked No. 50 nationally at his position.

Diwun Black

Vitals: 6-foot-3, 223 pounds

Resumé: Black failed to qualify academically after he signed with Florida’s 2019 class as the nation’s No. 151 overall prospect. Black would return and sign again after he became the No. 1 JUCO recruit in 2021 out Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College..

Role: Dismissed by Napier on Nov. 16, Black played in just four games this season, recording 3 tackles. The highlight was a one-handed recovery of an onside kick during the final moments Nov. 24 at Tennessee, showcasing Black’s instincts and athletic ability. He appeared in 10 games last year, finishing with 4 total tackles, but followed with a promising spring.

Outlook: Black never found a fit at Florida. He was a ‘tweener — too big to play safety, where he starred in high school, and a little light for the rigors at inside linebacker, where he lined up during the spring. Coaches also tried him at nickel back.

Josh Braun

Vitals: 6-foot-6, 351 pounds

Resumé: A 4-star prospect out of Live Oak in 2020, Braun was the nation’s No. 21 offensive tackle prospect. He soon moved to guard when he arrived to Gainesville.

Role: After totaling 639 snaps during 13 games (seven starts) as a sophomore, Braun played just 24 plays in seven games after Torrence replaced him at right guard. Braun, though, lost the backup role to Richie Leonard IV, who started against LSU when Torrence was out with a knee injury.

Outlook: Leonard acquitted himself well during his first career start for a unit that was among the 2022 team’s most consistent. Former Florida State commit Roderick Kearney of Orange Park flipped to the Gators Oct. 24 to give Braun further doubts about his future at Florida. Kearny is the nation’s No. 5 guard prospect and 121 overall recruit in 2023. Braun, who visited Florida State on Nov. 15, will be a redshirt sophomore and have three years of eligibility due to a COVID year.

Nick Elksnis

Vitals: 6-foot-6, 234 pounds

Resumé: A 4-star prospect out of Jacksonville, Elksnis was the nation’s No. 18 tight end prospect in the 2020 class. He battled shoulder injuries that led to his decision.

Role: Elksnis played in the first five games as a reserve and special teams player, but announced Nov. 15 his decision to transfer. As a freshman he played in four games and redshirted. He did not record a reception at Florida.

Outlook: The Gators tight end room features veteran Keon Zipperer and Jonathan Odom, a sophomore with 5 catches and 2 touchdowns the past three games. Freshmen Hayden Hansen and Arlis Boardingham also are on scholarship.

Kamar Wilcoxson

Vitals: 6-foot-1, 193 pounds

Resumé: A 4-star prospect, Wilcoxson signed with the Gators as a late addition to their 2020 recruiting class at the age of 17 after he reclassified from the class of 2021. The nation’s No. 30 safety and No. 308 overall recruit, Wilcoxson spent his high school career between Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson and IMG Academy.

Role: Wilcoxson showed some early promise. During his first career appearance against Missouri in 2020, he recovered a fumble and posted a tackle. He made a pair of tackles during the Gators’ 55-20 loss to Oklahoma in the 2020 Cotton Bowl. But he missed the 2021 season with a knee injury and never found a role under the new staff, recording 2 tackles in 2 games.

Outlook: The Gators will lose veteran strong safety Trey Dean, but return leading tackler Rashad Torrence II at free safety. First-year freshman Kamari Wilson, the top-rated member of the 2022 class, is a future force coming off a career-high 8 tackles at FSU. Sophomore Donovan Mitchell and freshman Miguel Mitchell II also will compete for snaps on the back end of the defense.

Griffin McDowell

Vitals: 6-foot-4, 288 pounds

Resumé: A 3-star prospect out of Leesburg, Ga., McDowell signed in 2018 as a project, rated No. 1,481 nationally.

Role: McDowell played on both sides of the football as he tried to find a role. He started as an offensive lineman, switched to defensive tackle and moved to tight end last spring. He appeared in three games this season after getting on the field in 22 games on special teams the past two seasons. In 2019, McDowell saw action in 13 games as reserve offensive lineman.

Fit: McDowell’s changing role makes his departure one the Gators are unlikely to notice.

Marco Ortiz

Vitals: 6-foot-4, 236 pounds

Resumé: A member of the 2018 out of Benedictine High School in Richmond, Va., Ortiz was not rated by recruiting services.

Role: The redshirt junior long snapper played just one game in 2022 after injuring his shoulder. He can apply for a medical hardship waiver to receive two seasons at his next stop.

Outlook: Following Ortiz’s injury, Lake Mary’s Rocco Underwood, a redshirt freshman, stepped into the long snapper role. During an Oct. 15 loss LSU, Underwood recovered a fumbled punt to set up a touchdown.

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.



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