Billy Napier

Gator Bait?

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There is a new era beginning for the Florida Gators football program.

Billy Napier’s era will officially begin on September 3, as the Gators host the No. 7 Utah Utes.

Utah finished the 2021 campaign as the Pac-12 Champions. Kyle Whittingham’s team finished the regular season with a 9-3 record. They beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game and fell three points short of beating Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. They finished 10-4.

Whittingham has a small connection to UF. He took the head coaching job at Utah in 2005, replacing Urban Meyer.

Meyer, of course, left Utah to accept the head coaching job at Florida and went on to win two National Championships in Gainesville.

The Gators don’t have a coach entering their 18th season at the helm, like Whittingham at Utah. Billy Napier was hired 276 days before the game kicked off. There are much easier ways to begin your tenure, something Napier jokingly acknowledged at SEC Media Day.

One of the biggest question marks for the Gators in 2022 is: Can they stop the run? Last season Florida finished 10th in the SEC allowing 163.92 yards per game. That was nearly 100 yards more than Georgia and nearly 78 more than Alabama.

The Gators have a ton of pass rushers but they’re thin on the interior defensive line. Is Florida stout enough to plug up the middle and stop Utah from running it up the gut? It won’t take long to find out what kind of defense the Gators will have this season.

Cameron Rising and Tavion Thomas are a very tough combo to beat. Rising was a 64% passer last season with 20 TDs and just five picks, while Thomas added a school-record 21 rushing touchdowns, third-most in the FBS last season, with a 5.4 ypc average.

Returning that core, which tortured Ohio State’s D in the Rose Bowl, is vital in a cross-country road opener, especially against a soft Gator front.

This game is incredibly conflicting to me. If we know anything about the Pac 12 in recent years, it’s that they will eliminate themselves from playoff contention as soon as possible. The best team in the conference suffers a big loss at the beginning of the year almost every year. This would be that spot.

Last year, however, Florida was one of the worst teams against the spread because they were simply given credit for being Florida; even though they were a bad team. They went 6-7 and played in the SEC, yet they were only a home underdog once.

Now, Billy Napier comes to town after an incredible run at Louisiana and has Anthony Richardson at quarterback. Richardson only attempted 64 passes last year and is already considered a potential first round pick in the NFL draft. That’s how good he is.

Napier brought in a lot of transfers from Louisiana on the offensive line and in the backfield. The team should become familiar with his system quickly and the offense could hit the ground running.

The Swamp will be sold out and the weather should be welcoming. Game time temperature is expected to be 81 degrees with 88% humidity and 50% chance of rain with close to 89,000 hyped up Florida fans.

The weather, crowd and The Gators will make this a miserable trip for the Utes.

The Utes Don’t Care About The Weather or The Crowd, this is the most important opening game in Utah’s history.  UTAH 31 FLORIDA 24

Return Of The Chomp?

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Florida Gators are under new management for the fourth time in the last decade. That much turnover can be necessary and detrimental to a program.

There’s not much debate that Florida needed to move on from Will Muschamp in 2014. Or that Jim McElwain’s self-destruction and death threats didn’t warrant a change.

Dan Mullen’s recruiting incompetence was written off because the team was winning. He was the first head coach in UF history to win 10 games in each of his first two seasons. In the end, it became clear that the direction of the program under Mullen was going the wrong way — and just on the trail.

Billy Napier was hired to rebuild the Gators. He was tasked with reviving UF recruiting and getting talent back to Gainesville. He called college football a “talent-acquisition business” and began by building the biggest support staff UF ever seen. The Gators hauled several blue-chip recruits like Kamari Wilson, Shemar James, and Chris McClellan.

The team also has Anthony Richardson returning, who should give the Gators a chance anytime he’s on the field.

The Gators only leave the state of Florida three times in 2022. Their home schedule is fantastic. Utah, LSU and Kentucky are all great games to host in The Swamp.

With that being said, the opponents are strong. The Gators draw, somehow again, Texas A&M from the West. UF has played the Aggies three times since they joined the SEC and 2022 will be the fourth matchup. Meanwhile, Florida has played a former yearly rival in Auburn just once in that same time period.

The Gators also begin a home-and-home series with Utah. The Utes are the reigning Pac-12 Champions. Utah returns 60 letter winners and 17 total starters in 2022.

Billy Napier prescribes to a motto of “put the ball down and let’s play” but it would be easy to put the ball down against a small directional school rather than a loaded defending conference champion.

The Gators have also lost twice to Kentucky in the last four seasons. Mark Stoops has built that UK program for a decade. What was once an assured win, is now a presumed toss up.

Every year the SEC is tough. This year, will be a very difficult one for the Gators, thanks to their tough season opener and road trip to College Station.

Optimistic: 9-3, with three straight wins to end the year and all sorts of hype heading into 2023. Anthony Richardson proves to be the perfect dual-threat quarterback in Billy Napier’s system.

Tailback Lorenzo Lingard looks like the 5-star who signed with Miami out of high school, same for wideout Justin Shorter.

The Gators’ defense takes a big step forward without Todd Grantham calling the shots. Gervon Dexter emerges as the best defensive lineman in the conference.

Pessimistic: 5-7 and no postseason appearance in Year 1 for Napier. Florida opens the year 0-2, with home losses to Utah and Kentucky. After dismantling South Florida, the Gators lose at Tennessee for just the second time in 18 years.

They stumble at Tallahassee against Florida State to end the season. Richardson is up and down — or worse, gets hurt again and Jack Miller isn’t up to snuff. The lack of explosiveness at receiver is problematic all season.

The front-seven once again struggles to stop the run. Penalties, team character and chemistry remain lingering issues despite the coaching change.

Realistic: 7-5 with one signature upset against either Utah, Kentucky, Tennessee or Texas A&M.

The Gators certainly could go 0-2 to start the year, but I see a split. While the roster has depth issues (particularly at receiver, defensive line and linebacker), there’s a lot of quality talent in Gainesville.

The pass rush, led by Brenton Cox Jr., is fierce, and cornerback Jason Marshall is one of the better defensive backs in the SEC.

Richardson has flashes of brilliance and frustration, ultimately leading him to return to the team in 2023.

Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall has a solid season but is not the band aid solution to Florida’s receiver problems.

Key Points: Starting out against Utah isn’t a given at home, and finishing up at Florida State in Tallahassee will be tough.

In between there’s a road game at Tennessee, LSU – as always – is on the slate, and then there’s the killer two-week stretch against Georgia and at Texas A&M.

It’s Florida. It’s going to be a problem for the other teams in those tough games, too. It’ll work its way to eight wins in an improved year, but factor in three losses somewhere in the mix to go along with one 50/50 game.

Seven wins will be okay, eight will be fine, nine or more would be terrific, but …

It’s the Florida Gators. It’s time to start winning more.

Gator Goals

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

A year ago, Florida fans were questioning the program’s coaching decision (Dan Mullen), but Florida football was fresh off an SEC title game and the program seemed to be trending in the right direction.

As you can see, things change. Quickly.

Florida finished the 2021 season with a 6-7 record. As a result, Mullen was let go. The Gators rebounded with one of the hottest names on the market- Billy Napier. The move was a home run in the coaching world and it showed that Florida is serious about winning.

With spring ball starting up, it’s time to take a glance at our new-looking Gators. What storylines should I be following? Easy, it all starts with recruiting!

During Napier’s Signing Day press conference, he made it clear: there’s plenty of work to be done. For example, the Gators signed only six players from their talent-rich home state.

While the Gators shifted their focus to the upcoming class paired with Napier’s first full season UF’s head coach — the coaching staff made it clear: Florida plans to scour the talent from the Sunshine State.

“That’s the approach that we will take and certainly with the ’23 group, which we’ve already started on,” Napier said. “That will be the mentality, for sure.”

It’s not as if Napier underestimated what Florida has to offer in the first place. Rather, he’s looking to forge new relationships in the final two months of a player’s recruitment; historically, the Gators relied on previously established connections.

Evidenced by his previous team’s (University of Louisiana Lafayette) improvement from year one to year two, there’s tangible reason to believe the Gators will make a massive leap in the recruiting rankings next season under Napier.

The University of Louisiana Lafayette improved 28 places in the team rankings from Napier’s first season to his second. After finishing fourth in the Sun Belt conference his first year, the Ragin’ Cajuns would rank atop the conference in recruiting for each of the next three seasons.

The blueprint looks to already be in place.

“I think you build your schedule based off of the ’22s. And then maybe the ’23 players in that area. You try to do the best job you can,” Napier said. “And certainly, each assistant coach kind of is taking the same philosophy.”

Katie Turner, Florida’s newly hired assistant athletic director of recruiting strategy, may not technically be a coach, but she’s a vital part of the team’s talent acquisition efforts.

Napier and his coaching staff know they’ll have to maintain the intensity on the recruiting trail if they hope to have a stress-free National Signing Day in 2023.

“We’re hopeful that we won’t be doing this much business in February next year, and we’ll be able to be a little bit more strategic about our time on the road relative to the next group,” Napier said. “But I think we made the most of it, for sure.”

Florida can be a pressure cooker, but that may be said of every high-level Division I football program. The expectations across the country have risen, along with budgets and coaches’ salaries. You’re expected to win fast or die young.

The 2023 recruiting cycle is well underway, and the Florida Gators have several goals in mind as l Billy Napier puts together his first full class of signees after a transitional 2022 haul.

One of those goals, simply put, is to recruit more effectively than the Gators’ past, which consistently missed opportunities and underwhelmed year after year on the trail.

The second goal is to put a fence around the state of Florida, being able to keep elite talent home rather than allowing non-locals to tap into Florida’s top talent and prospects as they please.

Florida has the most blue-chips of any other state (and the most 5-stars) by leaps in 2023. We’ll see if new head coaches in Florida’s Billy Napier can make some progress getting in-state prospects to stay closer to home.

In my review, Napier will be evaluated by this first class. He needs a top 5 class or this may be another short tenure for Coach Napier.