Billy Napier was the right choice but how long will it take him to get Florida back to Florida standards?
Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!
I certainly don’t want to speak for everybody but, at least for me, the success, tactics, and personality of college football teams was permanently codified in my brain from ages 14-21 and it doesn’t feel right – in my mind anyway – if certain teams aren’t the way that they were during that impressionable time of my college football consumption career.
For example: Miami is always “THE U” with the fog machine and recruiting “the state of Miami”; Georgia runs the ball and always comes up short; Oklahoma has warp speed offenses that lose games late; Michigan and Notre Dame do well with boring teams that always lose the second they come up against a team that “doesn’t respect the institution of the student athlete”; USC dominates while playing an antiquated style of football and recruiting a California all-star team from the high school ranks; Oregon is faster than everybody and is seemingly one step ahead on offensive systems and player development.
And Florida, to me, is always an offensive-forward juggernaut that is an elite recruiter, knows they are best, and talks a lot of smack.
I believe Florida fans are only happy with that approach, by the way. Former Florida Heisman-winning quarterback Steve Spurrier established that style in the 90’s, installing the run-and-shoot offense and recruiting his ass off on the way to getting the Gators their first national championship in 1996. When he abruptly resigned to take the Washington Commanders head coach gig in 2002 he was replaced by Ron Zook, a man who was considered one of the best recruiters in the sport but had no concept of how to create an identity, manage an entire football team, or hire competent assistants. Of course his firing lead to the hiring of Utah head coach Urban Meyer, one of the greatest recruiters and team builders in recent college football history, and, well, you can see the results:
Meyer had an excellent staff and brought in recruiting classes that were every bit as talented as they were troubled (see: Hernandez, Aaron, et al). His surprise retirement “for health issues” at the conclusion of 2010 – which just so happened to be his worst quality team since his first in 2005 – lead to the hire of Will Muschamp: a good recruiter, true, but a defensive-minded, tactically regressive coach whose offenses existed purely to put his defenses into winning situations. The quality bounced up and down but the wins regressed under Muschamp’s watch which lead to the hire of former Saban offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. Coach Mac was not as good at recruiting as Muchamp was and, while an offensive-minded guy, still ran Saban’s late-aughts/early-teens Cro-Magnon-style offense that didn’t take chances. His firing lead to the school brining back Meyer’s wunderkind offensive coordinator Dan Mullen; Mullen had the high-flying offenses but was terrible at recruiting and constantly had a chip on his shoulder that lead to friction across the SEC at a school that was always better than that low-rent approach. And if you don’t have a lot of friends that will support you and the quality – and wins – start to dip, then that’s an easy firing for anyone to see.
Here’s what Florida did last year:
Yet another close loss to Alabama gave some people the impression that the Gators were getting closer to their halcyon mid-aught success while close losses to Kentucky and LSU started to throw water on those coals. Blowout losses to Georgia (understandable) and South Carolina (not understandable) showed cracks in the foundation as rumors swirled that Mullen was not long for Gainesville. A boat race against a middling FCS team – a Samford squad that finished 4-7 – lead to the most unforgivable SEC sin of all: losing to Missouri. Once Connor Bazelak hit Daniel Parker, Jr. in the middle of the north end zone in overtime, pen was set to paper and Mullen was out after four years and a 34-15 record. For fun, the Gators went ahead and lost to UCF in their bowl game, a Florida-based team that is offense-friendly, recruits way better than their peers, talks a lot smack, and has a more recently claimed national championship than the Gators. Poetic!
Billy Napier – 1st Year – 0-0 (0-0)
So, hello, Billy Napier! You are the newest offensive-minded elite recruiter to don the main blue and orange headset in Gainesville.
Back in 2019 I did a rundown of the top guys I wanted to replace Barry Odom. There was one that stood out to me at the time so here’s what I said about one Billiam Napier:
Billy Napier – Louisiana-Lafayette
This would be my guy if I was Jim Sterk. He’s affordable: currently making $250k/year and his buyout (as far as my research shows) would just be the rest of his 4-year extension, so $1 million. He has excellent pedigree, being groomed at Clemson – under, admittedly, a beginning-of-his-tenure Dabo Swinney – and at Alabama under Nick Saban. He worked with the aforementioned Todd Graham at Arizona State and has turned the Ragin’ Cajuns into Sun Belt contenders immediately. He will also be in high demand, namely from Florida State and Mississippi State (unless they pull the trigger on Joe Moorhead), so the bidding war might be costly, but he’s proven a lot in a short time and would be the top of my list to replace Odom.
It turns out that ol’ Billy knew that he was a hot commodity and wanted to slow-roll his decision of the school he would take over once departing Lafayette, LA. While rumors all seemed to point to him wanting the Tennessee job – and only the Tennessee job – the backstory of how Jeremy Pruitt, Phillip Fulmer, and the entire Tennessee athletic department was in a state of scandal-induced pandemonium was enough for a pause, and Napier held off and took a much better job at Florida. Napier has been riding shotgun on two of the best programs in the modern game at Clemson and Alabama as well as learning all the dirty tricks that those recruiting powers utilize. It’s how he was able to turn around Louisiana so fast and now he gets to use those powers at a school that desperately needs a program manager to come in and right the ship.
Rob Sale – Offensive Coordinator: Sale was with Napier at Arizona State when the former was an offensive line coach and the latter was the OC. Sale was one of the first hires that Napier made once he was the head man for the Ragin’ Cajuns and Sale promptly improved the offense to 53rd, then 15th, then 32nd over three years. Sale was then hired by the New York Giants and the Cajuns’ offense fell to 54th. While a fully weaponized Cajun offense under Napier and Sale has only beaten one P5 team in six tries, they also haven’t been using a roster as talented as Florida’s. It’ll be really interesting to see what changes, if any are made to personnel or if his run-first/run-second/run-third approach works in the SEC with SEC-caliber athletes.
Patrick Toney & Sean Spencer – Co-Defensive Coordinators: Toney has been with Napier since their Lafayette days but Spencer has been in the NFL the past two years after working with James Franklin at Penn State the two years before that. The Cajuns’ defense improved every year under Napier and Toney, rising from 116th in 2018 all the way to 26th in 2021. Again, it’s tough to tell exactly what they’ll do at this new stop but Toney’s defenses in Lafayette crafted an identity around being great against the run, elite against the pass, a top-ten unit in 3rd-downs, and a Top 25 team in havoc, mostly supplied by the linebackers and defensive backs.
Jabbar Juluke – Running Backs
Keary Colbert – Wide Receivers
William Peagler – Tight Ends
Darnell Stapleton – Offensive Line
Mike Peterson – Outside Linebackers
Jay Bateman – Inside Linebackers
Corey Raymond – Cornerbacks
Mullen’s offenses were typically styled in a throw-to-run manner, where they would hit short-to-medium passes on 1st and 2nd down and then steal the yardage on 3rd-down with a run and hope for a break. Granted, it worked: Mullen’s Gator offenses were consistently in the Top 10 of most passing categories and 3rd-down conversions but the ground game was always an aspect that held them back. So, with that in mind, enter Rob Sale’s offensive book that focuses on the ground game in every capacity possible. With speedy Levi Lewis at QB, the Cajuns worked the zone-read ground game to perfection under Sale’s three-year tutelage, boasting one of the top run-rates in any scenario in the country and at least a Top 25 ground attack in all three years. The Cajun offense really took off once the passing game rounded into form but Sale’s previous attacks were always consolidated by what the running back and quarterback could do on the ground. Anthony Richardson flashed better potential on the ground than through the air so this could be a perfect match for both OC and QB.
Quarterback – Anthony Richardson – Redshirt Sophomore
For the 2021 campaign Mullen tabbed Emory Jones as the starter but inserted Anthony Richardson liberally throughout the year. Jones was 5 points more accurate and took slightly fewer sacks than Richardson but neither was great at avoiding interceptions or reliably moving the ball down the field through the air with Jones coming in at 6.9 adjusted net yards per attempt and Richardson sitting at an even 6.0. However, Richardson was much more productive with his legs and that potential is why Gator fans wanted him to see more time throughout the year (something Missouri fans can identify with and appreciate!). Richardson was taking the majority of the snaps with the 1s during spring practice and will most certainly be tabbed as the starter in Napier’s first campaign in Gainesville.
Running Back – Nay’Quan Wright – Redshirt Sophomore
So the Gators will have their mobile quarterback to run Sale’s zone-read ground-and-pound attack; what about the running backs? Well, to start, the Gators lose their top three rushers (Jones, Dameon Pierce, and Malik Davis) and two of their six-man offensive line rotation (Jean Delance and Stewart Reese). That means Wright, with his 76 rushes and 326 yards, is your newest proven production piece of the running back stable. Demarkus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard chipped in 15 rushes for 124 yards but it looks like they’ll have a shot at doing quite a bit more this season. However, keep an eye out for Montrell Johnson, the transfer from Louisiana who followed Napier to Florida and brings 162 carries, 838 yards, and 12 touchdowns to the fold as well. Also incoming blue-chipper Trevor Etienne – younger brother of Clemson/Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne – could get an extended look as well.
Wide Receiver – Justin Shorter – Redshirt Junior
Two of the top three targeted Gator receivers are gone but Justin Shorter – with his 67 targets, 41 catches, and 550 yards – does return. He was one of four receivers targeted more than 40 times last year and was one of three receivers to finish with more than 300 yards receiving. The talent is definitely there on the roster but Richardson is going to need to see some accuracy improvement and a better ability to find the open man if this passing attack is going hold steady from last year to this year, let alone improve.
Former Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, at his best, fielded a super havoc-inducing defense that could blow up drives or snag a turnover and create just a few swings for a potent offense to capitalize on and create some distance. But – as I have cited time and again here – Grantham had a short temper and was easily manipulated into making stupid, risky decisions with his defense when he got mad. His inability to create enough turnovers and stops, paired with his winning personality, got him the axe in Gainesville on November 7th, a day after the Gators gave up 40 points to South Carolina.
So, now, Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer will get to play with the toys in the Gators defensive toy chest and, while no one is sure what that specific pairing will do, we do know what Toney likes to do thanks to his time in Lafayette. At their best, his Cajun defenses made opponents inefficient and overly reliant on big plays. They were really good at shutting down the run and deployed one of the best G5 secondaries that ranked 12th against the pass last year. They dominated on 3rd-downs, did a great job at limiting points once offenses got in scoring position, and created a ton of havoc from the back seven defenders. And while Florida’s defense returns almost their entire secondary – a strength for the ‘21 team – it also loses almost every single lineman and three of their top four linebackers.
Defensive Line – Gervon Dexter – Sophomore
With Zachary Carter, Antonio Valentino, and Quan Newkirk all gone, Gervon Dexter is the lone lineman returning with more than 230 snaps of experience from the ‘21 squad. Dexter finished with 54 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 16 quarterback pressures, and 4 run stuffs from his interior lineman position. There are two blue-chip linemen coming in from the ‘22 class who should have a legitimate shot at the rotation since the entire defensive line won’t feature anyone older than a third-year sophomore.
Linebacker – Brenton Cox, Jr. – Redshirt Junior
Initially signing with Georgia out of high school, the former 5-star outside linebacker was dismissed from the Bulldogs after an arrest for marijuana possession and rumors that he had become a “bad apple” in the UGA locker room. So now he’s a Florida Gator, terrorizing offenses off the edge and generating consistent havoc, finishing with 39 tackles, 12 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, 33 QB pressures, and 10 run stuffs. Cox is excellent at getting into the backfield but all his linebacker friends left him for other schools (including our newly minted OLB Ty’Ron Hopper). The guys left are either super young or career backups meaning 5-star freshman Shemar James could be pressed into service early. Given that Toney defenses use linebackers for havoc he certainly has a good one for this year but badly needs some replacements going forward.
Defensive Back – Rashad Torrence II – Sophomore
A true freshman that earned 768 snaps – the most on the entire defense – at the University of Florida is praise enough, Add on his 62 tackles, 3 TFLs, 4 run stuffs, 2 passes defensed and 3 interceptions and you got yourself an excellent play making coverage safety. Add in the fact that the rest of the ‘21 secondary – minus Kaiir Elam – are returning and you can envision opposing offenses having a difficult time throwing on this group. The fact that two blue-chip recruits get thrown into the rotation this year as well makes it even more unfair.
So what does it all mean?
Billy Napier is setting expectations low, which is good. He has a quarterback and a transfer running back with a good line but an untested set of receivers to throw to. His defense is almost completely rebuilding the front seven but does have the luxury of a dynamite secondary. There are pieces to build on and recruiting is improving but they’re definitely going to need the cycle of a full year before we see Florida even attempt to get back to swagger levels of the ‘90s and 2000s.
For Missouri, their best chance at tagging Napier early in his build comes with some detrimental caveats. First, it’s on the road, where Eli Drinkwitz boasts a robust 2-7 record during his time at Missouri. Second, the Tigers face the Gators one week after an assuredly graphic beat down at the hands of Georgia while Florida will be coming off a game against feisty offensive dynamo Eastern Washington from the FCS ranks. Lastly, this game comes one week before Missouri’s bye week where they will have been on the road at a P5 team for three of the first six games. It’s a tough end to a brutal opening and the physical well-being of the team, as well as the mental, hinges strongly on how previous performances were executed and viewed.
Can a young Missouri squad, filled with optimism and champing at the bit to prove their worth bushwhack the unsuspecting Gators at home? Sure, it’s happened before. Will the Tigers be limping into the bye with a ton of injuries and low morale after tough matchups against Auburn and Georgia? Absolutely possible. The Gators will be rebuilding in the trenches which gives Missouri’s ground attack a chance but only having one punch to throw against an opponent with elite talent (and, yes, even Mullen’s poor recruiting gave him better classes than Missouri) tends to be a recipe for a loss.
I mentioned it last year in the weekly preview of the Florida game and, for this series between these two teams, this might be the only thing that matters: since joining the SEC, Missouri and Florida have traded off victories in pairs. Missouri in ‘13, and ‘14, Florida in ‘15 and ‘16, etc.
Florida beat Missouri in ‘19 and ‘20. Missouri beat Florida in ‘21. Missouri is due one more win. Right?