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We have no idea what to expect from Florida in Gasparilla Bowl vs. UCF

The Gators are in a weird transition between punctuating 2021 and building toward 2022 and beyond.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones is expected to make his final start for the Gators in the Gasparilla Bowl.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones is expected to make his final start for the Gators in the Gasparilla Bowl. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Dec. 22, 2021

TAMPA — Florida enters Thursday’s unofficial state championship — the Gasparilla Bowl against UCF — in a weird state of transition.

The Gators will be led by what’s left of the 2021 staff while new coach Billy Napier looks on. But they’ll be without many key parts of the ‘21 roster due to injury (quarterback Anthony Richardson), opt-outs (defensive lineman Zachary Carter) or the transfer portal (linebacker/defensive end Khris Bogle, linebacker Mahmoud Diabate and receiver Jacob Copeland).

That means the sold-out crowd at Raymond James Stadium won’t see a fitting punctuation to the ‘21 season or a meaningful look ahead to ‘22. It’s something in between.

Related: Florida vs. UCF rivalrous series finally kicks off in Tampa’s Gasparilla Bowl

“It’s different,” defensive coordinator Christian Robinson said.

Robinson was speaking on his personal role, but the statement holds true for everything else.

Coaches have tried to focus on game preparation while ignoring everything else. Interim coach Greg Knox said most of his interaction with Napier has been one 10-minute meeting. Napier focused his conversation with Robinson on the bowl rather than his future staff.

Though practice routines have remained the same, other things have changed. Both sets of coaches meet with players; the outgoing staff needs to prepare for the game, while the incoming staff began individual meetings Sunday to start preparing for the future.

“You can imagine what a nightmare it would be if they weren’t in a bowl game in terms of having some time with the players,” Napier said on last week’s early signing day.

Defensive lineman Gervon Dexter came away with a positive early impression of Napier.

“I can’t say I love him yet,” Dexter said, “but I like him.”

Related: 5 things Florida fans should know about Billy Napier

Players say the transition has been smooth and professional, but it’s not business as usual with new coaches hanging around.

“I mean, you know they’re there, obviously …” running back Dameon Pierce said. “It ain’t like they’re fighting. When the old staff meets the new staff, it ain’t like they’re beating each other up or anything. We’re all just Gators here.”

Greg Knox has served as the Gators' interim coach.
Greg Knox has served as the Gators' interim coach. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The most intriguing — and arguably most important — Gator will be Emory Jones. He’s the only available quarterback with game experience, but he’s also starting his own transition.

Jones told ESPN and Yahoo! Sports he plans to enter the transfer portal after the bowl. UF already has its potential replacement: Jack Miller, a former four-star recruit who has committed to transfer from Ohio State.

Related: Five Florida recruiting takeaways from the early signing period

“At the end of the day, Emory’s still a Gator,” Pierce said. “He is going to play his last game, and he is going to lay it all on the line.”

That seems to be the message for the rest of the Gators, too. It’s a stark contrast to their last bowl game.

Down 17 players in the Cotton Bowl, now-former coach Dan Mullen used the Oklahoma exhibition as “a kick-start for us for the future” by giving extended playing time to younger players. The result (a 55-20 defeat) and the future (a disastrous 2021 that got Mullen fired before the finale) were both ugly.

UF isn’t taking that approach this time. A year ago, Knox said, the Gators wanted to focus on player development. But developing players for a different staff doesn’t make sense during a transition.

“It’s a one-shot game here,” Knox said. “So we’re going for the win.”

Pierce’s parting thoughts

Florida running back Dameon Pierce was one of the Gators' most insightful voices.
Florida running back Dameon Pierce was one of the Gators' most insightful voices. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Pierce said he believes UF is three or four games away from a turnaround, because losing three or four winnable games cost Mullen his job.

“We had guys pulling in different directions on how to handle to adversity,” Pierce said. “Everybody wanted to win, but it was more so that we didn’t want to win the same way.

“... With Napier, hopefully he gets everyone pulling in one direction, and if they ain’t pulling, they pushing.”

Pierce said Napier is a people person who’s focused on building relationships with everyone. Pierce expects Napier’s coaches to be the same way.

“They passed the first impression with me,” Pierce said.

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