If there’s one overwhelming storyline in the 2023 recruiting cycle, it’s the recruitment of Arch Manning. Makes sense. Manning is already the most publicized recruit ever, and he represents the biggest quarterback domino in the class.

We all love quarterbacks, so plenty will be written about Manning and the uncommitted Nico Iamalaeva (No. 3 overall in 2023) in the next coming months. The same goes for No. 2-ranked quarterback prospect Malachi Nelson (a USC commit). And while the top three players in the Top247 certainly deserve plenty of attention, the same can be said about the No. 4-ranked player in the class, five-star cornerback Cormani McClain.

McClain, who has picked off 19 passes the past two seasons at Lakeland (Fla.) Lake Gibson, is viewed by most scouts as one of the most gifted corners to come out of the high school ranks in recent years. He’s a potential franchise player that can lock down one side of the field for three or four years before making his way to the NFL.

While McClain has no shortage of suitors, four schools seem to have the most traction with him coming out of February’s month-long dead period: Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Miami. Assuming that those four remain the main players in McClain’s recruitment (he has also talked up the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Oregon, BYU and FSU in the past), then the battle to land his signature is going to be pretty captivating as it will provide some answers about where things stand in one of the nation’s most talent-rich regions.

Let’s set the stage. Over the past decade or so, Alabama and Georgia have come down into the Sunshine State and have gotten whoever they have wanted, wherever they wanted — just check out the annual scorecard by 247Sports’ Bud Elliott.

Conversely, the Gators and Hurricanes (and the in-state Seminoles, for good measure) have had plenty of issues keeping top talent home, and that is a big reason why Florida went out and hired Billy Napier this offseason and Miami opened the checkbook to get Mario Cristobal as both coaches are proven winners with the reputation of being dogged recruiters.

If either Napier or Cristobal are able to beat out both Nick Saban and Kirby Smart for McClain in Year 1 of their tenure, it would signal a possible changing of the guard and send the message that the Sunshine State, which has helped fuel championship recent runs for both the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs, isn’t *quite* as open for business as it once was. That’s a big deal.

So, who’s the favorite to land McClain with the Early Signing Period roughly nine months away? That’s up for debate. Last month, 247Sports spent some time at Lake Gibson, which is located in a very pro-UF part of the state, and sat down with Keith Barfield, McClain’s head coach. Next to Barfield’s computer is a Ragin’ Cajun Billy Napier bobblehead. That vermilion-and-white figurine is sort of important; Barfield actually spent the 2020 season working as an analyst for Napier at Louisiana.

Barfield was quick to admit that he knows probably two dozen or so people now in Gainesville with Napier, most of whom he calls friends. But he made it very clear that he isn’t pushing McClain to Florida. His actions back that up, too. Last week, Lake Gibson held its annual football banquet. The keynote speaker at the event? That would be Cristobal, who Barfield extended an invite to after he found out that Napier, his former boss, was planning to speak at nearby rival Lakeland High’s football banquet — and not his.

“The bottom line is I’m an agent for Cormani and our guys,” Barfield told 247Sports while discussing McClain’s recruitment. “I want Cormani to go wherever is best for Cormani to go. Billy doesn’t pay me that seven-figure SEC salary. So, I’m not going to work for him. I’m going to work for Cormani because that’s my job.”

McClain remains pretty hush-hush on whether anybody has separated from the pack after taking visits to both Georgia and Miami in January. This past weekend, he got his first look at Alabama as he spent multiple days in Tuscaloosa. Barfield and some others at Lake Gibson claim they don’t know which way McClain is leaning, but they have brought up the fact that McClain hates to lose, and there certainly hasn’t been much of that since Saban took direction of the Crimson Tide.

When it comes to assistant coaches that McClain knows best, he told 247Sports a few weeks ago that one of the main reasons why he got up to Athens when he did was because of Jahmile Addae, who Cristobal recently pried away from UGA to coach the Hurricanes’ defensive backs.

“He’s a great dude,” McClain said of Addae. “He can relate to me more than the others.”

That makes sense, seeing as how Addae went to high school roughly an hour away from Lake Gibson at Riverview, which is located right outside of Tampa. Other individuals that McClain says he has clicked with include Alabama’s Travaris Robinson, Florida’s Corey Raymond and Miami’s Demarcus Van Dyke, who was running point for the Hurricanes in the recruitment before Cristobal took over for Manny Diaz.

Of course, the Crimson Tide aren’t the only ones that have done some winning as of late, which is why the Bulldogs, who just sent 14 players to the NFL Scouting Combine including multiple defensive backs, are expected to have a seat at the table throughout the course of the recruiting process even with Addae no longer in Athens.

“He’s getting so much attention from coaches in general that he’s starting to realize that he’s got to dwindle that down and realize what time he is going to spend on who,” Barfield said. “If he tried to please everybody, he would have no time to do anything. And I think he has realized that. Him and his mom have sit down and kind of come up with a gameplan himself. His time is precious and his phone is blowing up. So, he has to make some decisions here soon.”

As for upcoming visits, McClain is scheduled to check out Florida the weekend of March 18 and attend Miami’s spring game, which will be played in nearby Fort Lauderdale, on April 16. Trips to Ohio State (which is where McClain’s favorite player, Jeff Okudah, went to school), Michigan (which just made a College Football Playoff appearance) and Oregon (which is creating some national buzz under the direction of Dan Lanning) sound like they will come sooner rather than later. USC (which is trending for McClain’s 7-on-7 teammate, five-star wideout Brandon Inniss) is believed to be involved, as well.

As for a commitment? That isn’t expected to come any time soon, which means that whatever Napier and Cristobal’s squads do on the field in 2022 will likely factor into McClain’s decision, and both of them likely already know that.

[Read More…]