GAINESVILLE — When Florida defensive lineman Gervon Dexter describes the biggest changes in the Gators under first-year coach Billy Napier, he starts at the bottom.
He starts with socks.
“(If) Coach Napier said we’re all outside in white socks,” Dexter said, “you won’t see a blue sock out there.”
From the outside, it’s a meaningless detail that has nothing to do with whether the Gators will be skilled or physical enough able to knock off nationally ranked Utah in Napier’s Sept. 3 debut.
But consider how the minutiae doomed Napier’s predecessor, Dan Mullen. Though athletic director Scott Stricklin has been measured in his criticism of Mullen, he said in November that losses are symptoms of other issues — “a lot of little things” that can go unnoticed.
Like the late fumble and thrown shoe that led to the game-deciding field goals against Texas A&M and LSU. Or the four early third-down penalties that kept Alabama touchdown drives alive in the 2020 SEC championship. Or the eight false starts at Kentucky, the failed two-point conversion against Alabama where one player lined up incorrectly and another ran the wrong way or the blown coverage that gave Missouri the winning two points in Mullen’s final game.
Those overlooked details help account for six of UF’s last 10 losses. Change one or two of them, and maybe it would have been Mullen, not Napier, standing at the lectern Tuesday for UF’s media day.
“It all matters,” Napier said.
The socks matter for a few reasons. For Dexter, they represent uniformity.
“When you see the Army go out there … you don’t see one guy with a green helmet or one guy with purple socks, purple shoes,” Dexter said.
You won’t see that at Florida, either. Instead, the hope is that you see a unit that looks and acts like a team.
For offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence, the socks represent discipline. Seeing a teammate dressed improperly on the practice field is no different than seeing him lined up illegally at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“Those things can be the difference between a third and 3 and somebody jumping offsides — now the other team got a first down,” Torrence said.
Napier’s Louisiana team, notably, averaged almost three fewer penalties per game last year than UF (which ranked last in the SEC).
For the coaching staff, the socks represent a choice. Players can decide to act as an individual by wearing whatever color socks they want, or they can decide to act a part of the team by following that day’s dress code.
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“Individual players don’t make a great team,” Napier said. “I think that we have a lot of really good individual players on our roster, but if you are going to have an exceptional team, then there’s got to be a certain level of detail and discipline on the roster and a buy-in.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that footwear uniformity will translate into victories. Last preseason, USF players cited their matching workout wardrobes (green shirt, green shorts, white ankle socks and gold shoes) as a tangible sign of an improved culture; they went 2-10.
But the Gators hired Napier in part because of his extreme attention to detail. After Napier saw a recruit and his parent standing at practice this spring, the Gators brought bleachers to make future visitors more comfortable. Napier quickly upgraded players’ food and parking soon; a better player experience leads to better players. UF bused players from the locker room to the practice field to save their legs while they await the opening of their long-awaited football complex later this year.
Matching socks are another symbol of a coach who believes everything matters.
“The gray area is the enemy …” Napier said. “I think routine and great preparation, that breeds confidence. When I know what to expect, I execute my plan.”
And if the Gators execute Napier’s plan — down to the very bottom — they’ll be on their way back to the sport’s top.
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