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Why the next three weeks are crucial for Florida Gators, Billy Napier

As UF waits for its bowl destination, a pivotal period is underway.
Billy Napier and the Florida Gators have started a pivotal stretch for the program's future.
Billy Napier and the Florida Gators have started a pivotal stretch for the program's future. [ MARK HUMPHREY | AP ]
Published Nov. 29, 2022

Soon after the Florida Gators’ season ended Friday night with a bitter loss at Florida State, first-year coach Billy Napier tried to see the positives from his 6-6 regular season.

“I know that we didn’t win as many games,” Napier said, “but I think there’s something to be said for the progress that they made as people, their character of the group and certainly the type of team that they were.”

The progress is nice and, in Napier’s view, vital for the program’s direction. But if Napier is going to last in Gainesville, the “we didn’t win as many games part” will have to change. Immediately.

Related: Just let Florida Gators’ Billy Napier do his job, ‘because he knows what he’s doing’

And that’s what makes this offseason — starting with this crucial three-week stretch leading up to the Dec. 21 early signing day — monumental for the future of Napier and his Gators. It’s a chance for the program to reset.

Billy Napier and the Gators lost their regular-season finale to Mike Norvell's Seminoles.
Billy Napier and the Gators lost their regular-season finale to Mike Norvell's Seminoles. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

UF’s mediocre season was disappointing for fans but unsurprising from the outside. That’s because of the unimpressive roster he inherited and the deliberate approach he took to roster management. Napier was patient in the early signing period to avoid adding players who wouldn’t fit. The risk outweighed the reward.

His long-term focus was a contrast to the major transfer portal injections USC and LSU took under first-year coaches Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly, who are both vying for conference titles this season. Napier, meanwhile, tied the fourth-worst record among the 14 new Power Five coaches (ahead of Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech).

Now that Napier knows his players and has had a full year to recruit, we’ll get a proper gauge of his ability to acquire talent. The early returns are encouraging. UF’s 2023 class sits eighth nationally, according to the 247Sports composite. That’s not at the Georgia level, but it’s a nice showing after a .500 season. The Gators’ 18 top-250 national recruits would be their most since 2013.

That’s only one part of a roster overhaul that has already begun. At least nine players have already left or announced their intention to enter the transfer portal, according to 247Sports. The list includes five-star linebacker Brenton Cox, who was dismissed in October, and defensive back Avery Helm, who announced his intention to transfer Monday. And it will continue to grow.

Related: What if the next USF football coach wins big, then bolts? ‘You made a great hire’

“You’re going to have some players along the way that maybe they see their kind of writing on the wall and make a decision to move forward, go somewhere else,” Napier said two weeks ago. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s healthy.”

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Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson will have a decision to make about either remaining at Florida or leaving for the NFL draft (or, theoretically, the transfer portal).
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson will have a decision to make about either remaining at Florida or leaving for the NFL draft (or, theoretically, the transfer portal). [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]

The attrition will open up spots for others, giving Napier a chance to turn over the roster through the portal when the window opens Monday.

Napier evaluates everything — he even said he’d quality-control UF’s senior day festivities — and the next coming weeks will give him time to analyze his own blueprint. Using two offensive line coaches worked well; UF was in the top 20 nationally in fewest sacks allowed, and its rushing average (5.8 yards per carry) is the program’s best since the 2008 national title team.

But having two assistants at that position means Napier coaches the quarterbacks himself. Anthony Richardson was, at best, inconsistent. UF’s passing efficiency (132.77) ranked 75th in the country and 10th in the SEC.

The Gators also don’t have a full-time special-teams coach and were 56th nationally in that phase, according to ESPN’s SP+ advanced metrics. It’s fair to wonder whether this season causes Napier to change his staff makeup, or if he doubles down on it in 2023.

Regardless, Year 2 is when Napier made the jump from .500 to great at Louisiana, and where Nick Saban and Kirby Smart took Alabama and Georgia to the elite level. Whether Napier can do that at Florida hinges largely on what happens over these next few weeks.

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