GAINESVILLE — First-year Gators coach Billy Napier hit his usual message with his usual tone Monday, 51 hours after becoming only the second Florida coach in three decades to lose to lowly Vanderbilt.
There was no panic in his voice or anger in his words. Just his consistent, steady-as-she-goes demeanor and one-day-at-a-time approach.
“You don’t just flip a light switch, and the house is built,” Napier said.
Though UF fans would love for that house to be ready, complete with built-in trophy cases, Napier never promised it would be move-in ready. Everything he has said and done suggests the opposite.
He started UF’s 2022 recruiting class from scratch after he got the job, losing talented players to make sure the Gators didn’t sign anyone they’d later regret. Instead of hyping up Year 1 during his spring speaking tour, he called the Gators “a work in progress.” Whenever he brings up an opposing coach — like this week’s adversary, Florida State’s Mike Norvell — he mentions how long he has been at that school.
“A ton of respect for Coach Norvell and his team and how it’s improved,” Napier said. “Certainly when you watch the tape, you see that improvement Year One to Two to Three.”
The implicit message, if you choose to accept it: Napier’s Gators are two years behind.
“Good things take time,” receiver Daejon Reynolds said. “When he first came here, people think it was just going to be rainbows and stuff like that, but Napier’s a patient guy. He knows that good things take patience, so we can all expect good things in the future.”
Even if you buy into that expectation for the future, it’s fair to wonder whether the present should be this mediocre. Napier’s 6-5 record is the same Will Muschamp had through 11 games and is tied for the second-worst start by a UF coach since 1950. Napier is in danger of becoming the first coach ever to lose to UF’s three primary rivals (FSU, Tennessee and Georgia) in the same season.
And then there’s Vanderbilt. Granted, the Commodores are much better under Clark Lea (in his second year, if you’re keeping track). But Napier and the Gators deserve plenty of blame, too.
“A couple weeks in a row there, we did what was required to win,” Napier said, “and we did not do that Saturday.”
Take, for instance, special teams, where UF has been (at best) inconsistent, ranking outside the top 50 nationally in every major statistic but punting average. The Gators missed an extra point. They muffed a punt — Jason Marshall said Monday that he lost the ball in the sun — which Vanderbilt recovered in the end zone. The Commodores averaged 10.5 more yards per kickoff return, too, giving UF a notable deficit in hidden yardage.
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Napier does not have a designated special-teams coach. Because the analyst in charge of that unit (Chris Couch) cannot coach on the field, UF divvies up the responsibilities among the other assistants.
“It’s the same blueprint we’ve used in the past (at Louisiana), and one that’s been very effective for us,” Napier said. “It will continue to be effective for us.”
We don’t yet know whether that’s true. But the fact that Napier continues to stress that belief is another sign he’s leaning into the long-term approach. He still believes in the blueprint for this house.
Everyone else is still waiting for the lights to flip on.
Ventrell Miller update
Napier said the Gators did “extensive research” on the targeting penalty against linebacker Ventrell Miller but would handle any possible appeals behind closed doors. After the game, Napier didn’t rule out appealing the first-half suspension Miller must serve Friday.
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