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Florida Gators: Why Christmas Eve 2017 could be a turning point at UF

If UF’s defense improves from two rough seasons, a Christmas Eve phone call will be the inciting force.
Florida Gators co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney met with reporters Thursday.
Florida Gators co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney met with reporters Thursday. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 18

GAINESVILLE — If the Gators’ defense improves after years of rough results, Florida fans can point to Christmas Eve 2017 as the moment things began to change.

Billy Napier was a week and a half into his role as Louisiana’s head coach when he called Patrick Toney, an assistant at Texas San Antonio whom he had never met.

“I was looking to make a move, so that was really it,” Toney said Thursday. “Told him I’d be there in a couple days.”

Related: Florida Gators: 3 takeaways from Billy Napier’s first spring practice

That phone call turned into a years-long relationship that will be crucial to the Gators’ hopes of a turnaround.

Aside from recruiting, the Gators’ biggest issue at the end of Dan Mullen’s tenure was defense. The unit was historically bad in 2020 and ranked No. 73 in scoring last season. Now-former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was a lightning rod for fans and one of the two assistants Mullen fired during the season.

Todd Grantham's final defenses at Florida did not live up to what then-coach Dan Mullen called the Gator Standard.
Todd Grantham's final defenses at Florida did not live up to what then-coach Dan Mullen called the Gator Standard. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP (2021) ]

Napier quickly decided that Toney can fix it. Toney was the second personnel addition UF announced, after director of strength and conditioning Mark Hocke. Toney flew to Gainesville with Napier the day after they won the Sun Belt championship at Louisiana Lafayette to become UF’s co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach.

“It’s been non-stop and a lot of fun,” Toney said.

It’s not the first time Napier has trusted Toney in a big role. When coordinator Ron Roberts left Napier’s Ragin’ Cajuns for Baylor after the 2019 season, Toney was moved from safeties coach to defensive coordinator.

“It means a lot to me that he promoted me there and gave me an opportunity to start calling plays…” Toney said. “That experience is invaluable, and I hope I’ve done my part to prove him right.”

Related: Florida Gators: Why Emory Jones stayed instead of entering transfer portal

He seems to have done so. Toney’s defense ranked No. 31 in scoring in 2020 (22.0 points per game) and was in the top 10 nationally last year (18.3).

Toney said UF’s defensive philosophy will be to “make the same things look different and different things look the same.” That means disguising coverages so the quarterback must make a quick decision on what to do after the snap instead of successfully reading the defense beforehand.

Spring game moved

The Gators are moving up their spring game two days to Thursday, April 14. And, like in most things with this staff, recruiting has a role in the decision.

UF said the move will allow the team to engage with the student body before Easter break. But it also shifts the game away from a crowded Saturday that includes seven other SEC spring games (including Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M).

“We don’t have to be against a lot of games that day,” Napier said. “So we get to corner the market in recruiting, work hard. … I think we have a chance to create a really unique environment, great energy there. Very hopeful people come out.”

Kickoff for UF’s first spring exhibition since 2019 is set for 7:30 p.m., and admission is free. The game will be streamed on SEC Network+.

Why Trey Dean returned

Florida defensive back Trey Dean chose another year with the Gators over the NFL draft.
Florida defensive back Trey Dean chose another year with the Gators over the NFL draft. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2021) ]

Defensive back Trey Dean could have been drafted this spring, but he chose to remain at UF for another season, in large part because of his belief in Napier.

“I know a lot of people say I shouldn’t have come back even though a lot of people don’t have the chance to go to the NFL,” Dean said. “But what Coach Napier is bringing to the University of Florida, it’s going to be special….

“His resumé speaks for itself. To take a team like the team he was at last and do the things he did, that’s a big step. You put Billy Napier with the caliber of players we have here, and I think we’re going to build something special.”

Related: What we’ve learned about Billy Napier’s army of Florida Gators analysts

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