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February 26, 2012
It's almost unfair.
By playing in one of the most talent-laden states in the country, Florida already has plenty of natural advantages each recruiting season. Yet the Gators also have found a way to establish a home away from home in a state that doesn't even border Florida.
Florida has signed four five-star prospects from North Carolina since the current version of Rivals.com formed in 2002. That's a higher total than North Carolina, N.C. State or any other FBS program in the country.
"What Florida has done a great job of is they don't try to recruit the whole state," Shelby (N.C.) Crest High coach Mark Barnes said. "They recruit the ones who they think fit their needs and the best players in the state. They obviously did a great job of that this year.''
Barnes should know.
Florida signed two of his players this year: Five-star defensive end Jonathan Bullard - the nation's No. 6 overall recruit - and three-star safety Rhaheim Ledbetter. The Gators also added Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit and the Tar Heel State's only other five-star prospect.
The Gators' ability to get North Carolina's top two players helped make Florida linebackers coach and special teams coordinator D.J. Durkin the Rivals.com 2012 national recruiter of the year.
"We evaluate a lot of tape and try to pursue the best players out there," Durkin told Rivals.com. "It just happened that this year was really deep in North Carolina. There were a lot of good players there this year. I think there are always good football players in North Carolina, in most years, but there were several guys this year that we really liked. As a staff, we decided that we were really going to go after them."
But the Gators were luring elite players from North Carolina long before Durkin arrived in Gainesville in January 2010.
Ron Zook got Chris Leak to sign with Florida in 2003, and the former Charlotte (N.C.) Independence quarterback emerged as a four-year starter who led the Gators to the 2006 national title. Crest linebacker Brandon Spikes signed to play for Urban Meyer in 2006 and developed into an All-American on Florida's 2008 national championship squad. Will Muschamp brought Humphries, Bullard and Ledbetter to Florida.
That makes three different staffs at Florida who have successfully raided an elite prospect from North Carolina.
It's not a matter of quantity. Florida has signed only seven players from North Carolina since 2003, but six of those seven guys were ranked 40th or higher in their respective classes. N.C. State and North Carolina have signed a combined total of five top-40 recruits from within their own state during that same stretch.
Florida owes some of its North Carolina success to fortunate connections.
Bullard and Ledbetter come from the same high school as Spikes and certainly noticed the success he had at Florida. Ledbetter also happens to be Spikes' cousin. Humphries has trained with Mo Collins, a former first-round draft pick and an offensive tackle for Florida's 1996 national championship team.
But there's more to it than that. Florida also has relied on the fact that North Carolina's top recruits often have no qualms about leaving home. North Carolina's top eight prospects in 2012 and top six recruits in 2011 all signed with out-of-state schools.
"That whole state is a basketball state, and North Carolina will always be deemed a basketball school, so it's easy to recruit against them," said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "That state's wide open. Florida State has gone there before and gotten top players. Clemson has gotten top players. I just think the attraction to Florida is the fact they've always been winning.''
Could new North Carolina coach Larry Fedora change that trend? Farrell has his doubts.
"If [former North Carolina coach] Butch Davis - with his name and his background at Miami and his NFL pedigree - if he couldn't get it done in terms of keeping kids in-state, honestly who is - short of Urban Meyer or some huge guy?" Farrell said. "Larry Fedora's going to do his best to keep kids in-state, but you can't compare with these schools that are just football crazy."
Hope Mills (N.C.) South View defensive end and 2013 Rivals250 prospect Greg Gilmore is more succinct.
"The in-state schools can't close the gates on the state," Gilmore said. "It's wide open in the state of North Carolina, in my opinion. They can't close the gates."
Gilmore, the No. 112 player in the 2013 class, has offers from the likes of Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson and Virginia Tech. Gilmore also indicates he has spoken quite a bit with Florida's coaching staff, though he doesn't yet have an offer from the Gators.
He also has offers from North Carolina and North Carolina State, but Gilmore doesn't have either school high on his list at the moment. Gilmore said he believes the state's five-star recruits have gravitated to Florida in part because they want to test themselves in the Southeastern Conference.
Humphries indicated as much when he made his selection.
"With the type of players we have coming out right now, the SEC is just a different breed from the ACC,'' Humphries told InsideTheGators.com after committing to Florida last summer.
North Carolina also was working at a distinct disadvantage in this last recruiting cycle. The school is awaiting potential sanctions stemming from an NCAA investigation that led to Davis' firing. North Carolina played the 2011 season under interim coach Everett Withers before Fedora arrived from Southern Mississippi.
Florida isn't the only school to benefit from the uncertainty in Chapel Hill.
Georgia signed running backs Todd Gurley of Tarboro (N.C.) High and Keith Marshall of Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook; both were ranked among the nation's top 50 overall 2012 recruits. Clemson signed two of North Carolina's top four recruits in 2011 and added Rivals100 wide receiver Germone Hopper of Charlotte (N.C.) Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology and Rivals250 defensive tackle Carlos Watkins of Forest City (N.C.) Chase this year.
Fedora, an assistant on Zook's staff at Florida from 2002-04, likely will have the biggest role in determining whether North Carolina's top players stop leaving the state.
N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien is known more for developing talent than signing it, though he did add five-star offensive tackle Robert Crisp from Raleigh (N.C.) Athens Drive in 2010. The Wolfpack haven't finished higher than fifth in the ACC recruiting rankings - or 31st nationally - since O'Brien arrived in 2007. Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina rarely are in the picture for North Carolina's top recruits.
"My job is to put a product on the field that kids in the state get excited about, where a kid realizes, 'Hey, I can reach every goal and dream I have right here on that field, so there's no reason for me to leave. There's no reason for me to go very far,' '' Fedora said at his Signing Day press conference.
The good news for Fedora is that Florida might not pursue North Carolina recruits quite as heavily in 2013.
North Carolina featured seven of the nation's top 104 prospects in 2012 but has only two 2013 recruits ranked higher than 95th. All 10 of the Gators' 2013 verbal commitments thus far are Florida residents. But it's worth noting that wide receiver Marquez North, the highest-ranked 2013 recruit in North Carolina, played alongside Humphries at Mallard Creek last fall.
"Last year was an exceptional year," Farrell said. "You had two running backs in the top 50. You had two players in the top 10 overall. You can't really compare with that. It was one of the best years I've seen in North Carolina in a long time. This year's going to be a little bit down. I think it's fairly deep. There are a lot of four-star guys in the state, but none of them really blow me away like Gurley, Marshall or especially Humphries or Bullard. I'm not sure how many Florida's going to go after this year, but I think there will be a few.''
That could allow North Carolina and N.C. State to sign more in-state players next year. But how will they fare when they're going head-to-head with Florida for one of the state's brightest prospects?
Therein lies the real test.