Under ordinary circumstances, luring a four-star recruit from Houston to Gainesville would take all kinds of convincing and salesmanship.
But that simply was not the case with safety Donovan Stiner. He grew up a huge Gator fan and would have recruited Florida if he’d had the chance.
“I really just liked Florida as a little kid,” he said. “I used to watch Tim Tebow and those guys. That’s when I fell in love with the school.”
During the recruiting process, Stiner appeared all set to sign with the hometown team, Houston. But then Florida came along and everything changed in a hurry.
Then wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon, who is from Houston, made the first contact with Stiner, and things moved quickly from there.
“He found out about me and then I started talking to coach (Randy) Shannon and he started recruiting me,” Stiner said.
Stiner took an official visit to Florida, committed, then signed with the Gators on National Signing Day in 2017.
It’s turned out to be a good move for Stiner and the Gators. The true sophomore is enjoying life at his dream school and he’s nailed down a starting job at safety with a strong preseason camp.
He’ll make his first start Saturday night in The Swamp.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to Saturday. I’ll have the same expectation and mentality, just go as hard as you can every play and just give it your all.”
Stiner has taken that same approach throughout his brief UF career, and it’s helped vault him to the top of the depth chart at safety during preseason camp.
“He is a hard worker,” said junior Jeawon Taylor, the starter at the other safety spot. “He has what coach (Dan) Mullen wants — relentless effort to the ball. He makes plays and he deserves it.”
Stiner played mainly on special teams as a true freshman last fall, but also got some playing time on defense.
After a solid spring under the new coaching staff, Stiner began to emerge during camp, showing he has ability to be a playmaker in coordinator Todd Grantham’s attacking defense.
“He’s had a really, really good camp,” Mullen said. “With a new defense, I think the reps, the opportunity presents itself, and he’s taken advantage of that. He’s going to have a significant role in the secondary.
“He’s got some athleticism back there. We ask our safeties to do a bunch. You’ve got to cover, you’ve got to be physical in the run, and you’ve got to erase issues, problems. I think his athleticism allows him to do those things.”
One thing that stood out about Stiner on special teams last season was his ability to make plays, make tackles in space. It’s a trait that caught Grantham’s attention early on in camp.
“He’s shown the ability to tackle in space and move in space and play some tight coverage,” Grantham said. “I’ve been very pleased with his progress.
“He’s a guy that can press and read as a safety. You’ve got to be able to read from one guy to the next to get your reads. He’s done a good job of picking that stuff up.”
In one year at UF, he’s gone from special teams player to starter on defense.
But he said running out of the tunnel for the first time as a starter probably won’t feel any different than it did last season.
“It’s the same, really,” he said. “It’s still football at the end of the day. I’m excited about it, but I’m still going to have the same mentality I’ve always had.”
There’s one other thing that won’t be changing for Stiner. He’s going to continue playing on all the special teams.
“Special teams is a big deal, especially under this staff,” he said. “The players that do good on special teams, there’s a certain amount of trust that you have with the coaches. I’m still on all the special teams. I love special teams. It’s fun for me. It’s still a big aspect of the game.”