At his signing day news conference in February, Florida coach Will Muschamp let everyone know how he feels about one aspect of recruiting (and recruiting services).  He does not believe in counting stars. Just because a recruiting service rates a prospect a five-star recruit, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be a five-star player, Muschamp said. Or a player the Gators will actively recruit.

He rates recruits based on his and his staff’s evaluations. A one-star recruit on Rivals might be considered a five-star prospect by Muschamp.

But here’s something I think the recruiting services and Muschamp would agree on: Rivals and Scout and all those other recruiting services got it right when they attached five stars to the names of Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam.

Those five-star prospects have shown signs of making the transition to five-star players this spring on the Florida practice field. These four true sophomores have emerged as rising stars on the Florida defense.

Powell has been dominant in his new hybrid role as the Buck linebacker, a combination defensive end/outside linebacker. He’s been lining up at end and rushing the passer, dropping back into coverage and chasing down plays all over the field. After a relatively quiet start to his UF career last fall, he’s been one of UF’s best defensive players this spring. Offensive guard Jon Halapio calls Powell a beast. Powell said he’s just more comfortable now than he was a few months ago as a true freshman.

“I love the Buck position. It gives me more freedom, allows me to do a lot of different things and frees me up to make a lot of plays,” he said.

Powell and the three other five-star recruits in last year’s class are very close. Powell said earlier this week that they all talked about coming here together during recruiting, and now they’re all here and plan to stay together, even Easley, who left the team for a day last fall and seemed at times to have an indifferent attitude.

Easley has bought into what the new coaching staff is demanding, and he’s become perhaps UF’s most dominant defensive lineman this spring, slightly ahead of Floyd. Powell and others on defense rave about Easley’s lightning first step off the ball, which has helped him penetrate the offensive backfield throughout the spring. Easley says his attitude is good, and he says this feels like home now after experiencing some homesickness last fall. His upside appears to be tremendous.

Of the five-star defensive recruits in last year’s class, Floyd is the one who came closest to playing like one last fall. His playing time increased over the course of the season and he made some big plays from his defensive tackle position. He’s lost some weight, gained strength and is one of the most mature players on the defense (on the whole team, actually). He has the look of a future (possibly as early as this season) All-SEC defensive tackle.

Elam also showed flashes of his five-star talent last fall, playing in nickel situations and seeing playing time behind Ahmad Black at strong safety. By all accounts (including his own), he’s much more comfortable now and playing more instinctively than he was last season, when he was still learning what to do.

“I’m playing more natural now. It feels real good,” he said.

Like Powell, Easley and Floyd, Elam has emerged as a defensive playmaker this spring.

“Matt Elam has really made a lot of plays,” Muschamp said. “I think he’s had a really good spring. I want his leadership ability to step up. He’s a guy who can provide more of that. But he’s really made some nice plays in coverage and in run support.”

As we all know, those recruiting services don’t always get it right. But it sure looks like they did when they put fives stars next to the names of Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam. These guys could/should be the heart of the Florida defense for the next few seasons.