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As Billy Napier’s Florida Gators start ‘identity’ phase, ‘winner’ is only acceptable answer

UF is starting the second phase of its year-round program, so let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far.
Florida coach Billy Napier and his Gators are starting the second phase of their year-round schedule: identity.
Florida coach Billy Napier and his Gators are starting the second phase of their year-round schedule: identity. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press (2021) ]
Published Feb. 11|Updated Feb. 11

GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Billy Napier stood in front of reporters Friday to introduce the second phase of his first year with the Gators: identity.

It’s a 25-day, 15-session offseason program where the staff can really begin working with players for the first time as they build up to spring practice. Every program in the country does something like this, and every coach (including Napier) says it gives his team an edge in the fall.

“We kind of define this for the players,” Napier said. “Identity is the qualities and beliefs that make a group different than other people.”

At UF, there’s only one acceptable identity: winner.

Related: ESPN has three Florida teams in the top 25 in latest projections

Nothing else matters. Form any other identity, no matter how well-intentioned, and Napier will go the way of his ousted predecessors Dan Mullen, Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp.

Napier said the right things Friday about the identity he wants his program to develop. Integrity matters. Tell yourself the truth about your effort. Be selfless and show great discipline, toughness and belief.

“I think that’s what we’re trying to establish here is our identity as an organization, as a football team,” Napier said. “We want to compete with those things in mind. When people talk about our team, we like to think they would talk about those traits.”

Mullen wanted many of the same things. The only thing he promised on Day 1 was that his team would play with “relentless effort,” a catchphrase he used throughout his four-year tenure. His Gators showed that at times. One of the lasting images of 2021 was running back Dameon Pierce (illegally) continuing to rumble after getting his helmet knocked off against Florida State.

But Mullen did not live up to his word. A story from The Athletic after the Georgia loss used a damning quote from an anonymous SEC East coach in the headline: “Florida, they just don’t play hard.”

Less than a month later, Mullen was gone.

Napier is right that offseason programs shape a team’s identity in everything from conditioning to camaraderie. But it’s impossible to predict how that will go on Day 1, and it’s hard to gauge the success or failure from the outside.

Instead, we’re left to guess the Gators’ identity from the tangible moves Napier has made so far, starting with recruiting.

UF’s 2022 class added another signee this week in Arlis Boardingham, a three-star athlete from California who picked the Gators over Oregon. The top-500 national recruit pushed UF up to 16th in the 247Sports’ composite rankings (17th including transfers). The only four programs to sign better recruiting classes with first-year coaches were Notre Dame (which promoted internally), Oklahoma, LSU and Miami.

Related: National signing day: What we make of good, not great classes at Florida, FSU and Miami

The most encouraging signs are Napier’s commitment to the process and the fact that he believes UF has given him the necessary resources “to be very competitive.” Recruiting is one of the three traits Napier prioritizes in every hire he makes (along with caring about others and expertise). It’s too early to tell whether that will pay off in future five-star recruits, but his comments should give UF fans reasons to believe he can eventually assemble a roster capable of challenging for an SEC title.

His hires should, too. The army he said will be “unprecedented” in size lost a member this week when the Carolina Panthers poached Paul Pasqualoni, UF’s director of advanced scouting and self scout. But his onfield staff is impressive enough that 247Sports gave it an A-plus, for whatever that’s worth.

“I’m thankful for (the grade), because it’s certainly helped us,” Napier said. “But all those things are to be determined, right?”

Related: What does it take to recruit like Alabama and Georgia? ‘Total commitment.’

Right. Just like UF’s identity.

Gator bits

Patrick Toney will call UF’s defensive plays in his role as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Sean Spencer, the Gators’ other co-coordinator, will focus on the defensive line. Toney was Napier’s defensive coordinator at Louisiana each of the past two seasons.

UF plans to start spring practice March 15. The spring game exhibition is set for April 16.

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