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Why Florida Gators had a watershed weekend under Billy Napier

A long-awaited facilities upgrade and big recruiting push are signs that Billy Napier’s plan can work.
The Florida Gators finally moved into the James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center on Sunday.
The Florida Gators finally moved into the James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center on Sunday. [ HANNAH WHITE | Courtesy of UAA Communications ]
Published Aug. 15|Updated Aug. 15

GAINESVILLE — First-year Florida Gators coach Billy Napier cited an old adage Monday: Plan your work, and work your plan.

If Napier can turn these Gators around, we’ll look back on Saturday and Sunday as the clearest sign yet that his plan can work. It might not have been a turning point, but it looked like a watershed weekend on UF’s way back to glory.

The biggest moment came Sunday when the Gators moved into the $85 million Heavener Football Training Center. When plans for the complex were first announced, it was billed as an overdue means to wow recruits and boost efficiency. That was six years and two coaching changes ago.

Related: Inside college football’s latest facilities craze: the football-only complex

Though the finishing touches on the 142,000-square-foot palace will continue this month, it’s in good enough shape for the Gators to use it for their daily operations. Defensive back Trey Dean called it “breathtaking.” Receiver Trent Whittemore was considering a 30-minute nap in his reclining locker before practice.

The Florida Gators' James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center includes a new, fancy locker room.
The Florida Gators' James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center includes a new, fancy locker room. [ HANNAH WHITE | Courtesy of UAA Communications ]

For Napier, the facility eliminates a longstanding competitive disadvantage. The Gators estimate they spent 18 minutes walking from the practice fields to meeting rooms under the previous setup.

“That’s 36 minutes a day that we’re losing,” Napier said.

Thirty-six minutes a day, five days a week for every week of the season, spring practice and training camp adds up to roughly 63 hours a year. That’s 63 hours a year the Gators no longer give away to Alabama, Texas A&M and Clemson. In a cut-throat industry where every advantage matters, Napier’s Gators eliminated a massive one this weekend.

But college football is, as Napier said on Day 1, a talent-acquisition business. It won’t matter how efficient the Gators’ operations are if the Crimson Tide, Aggies and Tigers continue to lap them in recruiting. Which leads to the other major major development from the weekend.

Related: One key to Billy Napier’s Florida Gators turnaround: Socks?

In a 48-hour span, the Gators landed oral commitments from four blue-chip prospects to move into the top 10 in the 247Sports composite rankings.

Defensive lineman Kelby Collins (the nation’s No. 70 overall recruit) chose the Gators over his home-state Crimson Tide. Another four-star defensive lineman, IMG Academy’s Will Norman, picked UF over Texas A&M. A third, Orlando’s Kamran James, pledged to UF over Georgia. Finally, four-star 2024 linebacker Myles Graham — the son of former Bucs running back Earnest Graham — turned down offers from dozens of major programs to commit to UF.

Orlando Olympia High defensive end Kamran James committed to the Florida Gators over the weekend.
Orlando Olympia High defensive end Kamran James committed to the Florida Gators over the weekend. [ CHRIS HAYS | Orlando Sentinel ]

Before Napier can beat Alabama and Georgia on the field, he must first beat them on the recruiting trail. He topped both this weekend.

Those pickups have the Gators positioned for their best class in years. Their average recruiting ranking (91.50) would be their highest since 2012. Their 18 blue-chip commitments would be tied for the most UF has signed since 2010. Critically, 15 of them are in Florida, reflecting an inside-out approach that’s starting to pay off.

“I think what you’re seeing here is the Gators aren’t going away on the recruiting trail,” Napier said.

They better not because this class must keep improving. UF doesn’t yet have a five-star commitment, and the offensive line needs a high-impact prospect, too. But considering where the Gators have been, those are good issues to have.

Related: The Florida Gators built Billy Napier’s army. What will it actually do?

Recruiting is, of course, fluid, and oral commitments are non-binding. It’s one thing for a staff to land recruits when it’s undefeated. It’s another to keep them after losses mount — a scenario that sounds even more likely after this weekend’s scrimmage.

Napier didn’t exactly rave about that performance Monday and admitted the first-team offense didn’t meet its goals. That’s a problem. With this schedule (four top-20 opponents in the preseason Associated Press poll released Monday) and this roster, 6-6 looks more likely than 9-3.

But the weekend’s good vibes aren’t about 2022. They’re about 2023 and 2024 and beyond.

In 48 watershed hours, the Gators saw tangible signs that the plan Napier installed is working. Maybe even well enough to get UF back to glory.

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