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What Desmond Watson’s fumble return shows about Florida Gators’ turnaround

The Armwood High alumnus had college football buzzing this week after a sensational play against the Gamecocks.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Desmond Watson had college football buzzing this week.
Florida Gators defensive lineman Desmond Watson had college football buzzing this week. [ MATT STAMEY | AP ]
Published Nov. 17

GAINESVILLE — Replays of Desmond Watson’s sensational fumble return made the rounds through the Florida Gators’ facilities all week.

“Every time I get on my phone,” Watson told reporters Wednesday, “I see it at least two or three times.”

With good reason. Clips of large football players running toward the end zone are rare and captivating.

The fact that the Armwood High alumnus is somewhere north of 400 pounds (he’s listed at 415, but coach Billy Napier pegged him at 435) and stiff-armed South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler added to its awesomeness.

As impressive as the play was on its own and as part of Watson’s progression, the best part for the Gators’ long-term trajectory came afterward. That’s when at least nine teammates mobbed Watson on the field, setting off a celebration so intense that it drew a sideline warning from the officiating crew.

“That was next-level stuff,” Napier said afterward.

And perhaps something that can help take the Gators to the next level.

Related: Florida Gators, FSU set for biggest showdown since 2016. It’s a start

Every coach on every team preaches the importance of chemistry, but Napier stresses the human factor more than most. When he reflected on last week’s 32-point win over the Gamecocks, he didn’t cite changes in personnel or scheme that crated UF’s best defensive performance of the year or how the offensive line paved the way for the Gators’ best rushing output (374 yards) since the 2021 opener against Florida Atlantic.

Instead, he brought up “applied leadership.”

“I see an intentional approach from players to be vocal about things that need to be addressed, things that need to be said … and I’m talking across the board,” Napier said. “I’m talking about doing extra. I’m talking about accountability. I’m talking about being intentional about connecting with your teammates.”

Florida defensive lineman Desmond Watson drew a huge reaction from his teammates with this play against the Gamecocks.
Florida defensive lineman Desmond Watson drew a huge reaction from his teammates with this play against the Gamecocks. [ MATT STAMEY | AP ]

One way to connect with a teammate: swarm him after he rips the ball away from a running back in the second half of a revenge game.

Napier has told the team that he wants referees to warn him for celebrating too hard, even if it risks a penalty. The sideline energy and unity are that important.

“That was more of, like, a show for the fans that we all appreciate the work that everyone is putting in and stuff like that,” Watson said. “Not just me personally, but stuff that we’ve put in as a team.”

The changes are hard to quantify. There’s no advanced metric to measure culture, no formula for camaraderie. But Napier believes — strongly — that they’re a major factor in program turnarounds.

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“At some point, you’ve got to have a nucleus of players that say, ‘We’re going to do this,’” Napier said.

Though Florida lost to Georgia, the Gators rallied in the second half to make it a one-score game.
Though Florida lost to Georgia, the Gators rallied in the second half to make it a one-score game. [ HYOSUB SHIN / AJC | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ]

There doesn’t seem to be one singular moment when that happened at Florida. Tight end Jonathan Odom referenced the player-led halftime adjustments at Texas A&M. Napier said he thought the Gators turned a corner against Georgia, when they rallied from a 28-3 deficit to make it a one-score game, then noticed more changes during midweek practices leading up to the rout of South Carolina.

“I think it’s more about the intangible part than the result out there on Saturday,” Napier said.

Related: Why Billy Napier’s personality is vital to Florida Gators’ success

But the results are showing up, too, with back-to-back double-digit conference wins and a good shot at another Saturday at lowly Vanderbilt.

“It’s a lot of fun to come to work right now,” Napier said. “I’m really very pleased with the staff’s approach. The players, as they get more comfortable, I think they are really trying to play the game with the right intent. I think the chemistry, the team dynamic and the morale is much better. Obviously, winning helps that, but overall just a lot of momentum.”

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