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Florida Gators’ Billy Napier: ‘We’re playing a game that’s never been played before’

Napier addressed the Jaden Rashada situation Wednesday for the first time since a multimillion-dollar name, image and likeness deal fell through.
 
Former Florida Gators signee Jaden Rashada committed to Arizona State, but questions were asked about his UF situation Wednesday.
Former Florida Gators signee Jaden Rashada committed to Arizona State, but questions were asked about his UF situation Wednesday. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published Feb. 1, 2023|Updated Feb. 2, 2023

GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators coach Billy Napier said he wished he could get into specifics Wednesday about what happened with Jaden Rashada — why his program lost its top quarterback prospect in years over a multimillion-dollar name, image and likeness dispute.

He couldn’t, he said, because of NCAA rules against talking about unsigned recruits.

But in his first public comments since the Gators released their blue-chip signee from his letter of intent, Napier did have plenty to say about the system that is, at minimum, partially to blame for the mess.

Related: National signing day: Live updates on USF, Florida Gators, FSU and more

“We’re playing a game that’s never been played before,” Napier said during his national signing day news conference.

Fairly or unfairly, Florida has been portrayed as one of the first big losers in that game. The Gators landed, then lost, one of the nation’s top high school passers after a deal with a third-party name, image and likeness (NIL) collective fell through. Besides being deprived of a dynamic talent at the game’s most important position, Napier’s program has been forced to battle public perception that its third parties either can’t or won’t live up to their agreements.

Florida Gators coach Billy Napier said he thinks name, image and likeness is a strength for his program.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier said he thinks name, image and likeness is a strength for his program. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP (2022) ]

Napier doesn’t necessarily see it that way. He said the Gators had “no issues” with current players or prospective ones that stemmed from the Rashada saga. In fact, he said he believes that name, image and likeness “is a strength for the Gators” because of UF’s large alumni base, plus the state’s big population and media markets.

“We’re very pleased with where we’re at relative to our current players, all the athletes and what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short amount of time,” Napier said.

But what they’ve accomplished is still overshadowed by the Gators’ role in what has become the biggest story in college sports.

Napier declined to comment on whether things need to change with Florida-related collectives, because it wasn’t his place to do so. And that’s part of the problem.

Collectives are not affiliated with the school or athletic department, so coaches don’t oversee them. There are, as Napier said, “different checks and balances” that are hard to navigate.

“I think every college football coach would tell you they’re frustrated,” Napier said. “We’re living in a fluid dynamic. There’s a lot of good things about NIL, but I think the combination of the NIL and the portal creates a dynamic (where) you have the bad things about the NFL but none of the good things.”

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Related: How can we prevent another Jaden Rashada-Florida Gators situation?

Napier offered no specifics about what he has learned from the Rashada situation, and he didn’t offer any solutions, either — perhaps because there are not any easy ones. He stressed that issues vary by school and that different states have different laws. Florida, unlike some states, prohibits coaches or schools to facilitate deals — though an amendment to change that has been proposed for the next legislative session. Napier said he doesn’t think current state law has been a problem.

The Florida Gators have spent weeks battling public perception issues over the Jaden Rashada saga.
The Florida Gators have spent weeks battling public perception issues over the Jaden Rashada saga. [ Times (2018) ]

Though the situation attracted nationwide attention and scrutiny, Napier said he does not expect to hear from the NCAA about UF’s actions. Name, image and likeness deals are not allowed to be recruiting inducements, according to NCAA rules and state law.

“I think you spend your entire life, your entire career, trying to establish who you are and how you operate,” Napier said. “I think, ultimately, I can lay my head down at night based off of that. Time will tell, and ultimately the good thing here is I have a lot of confidence with our leadership, strategy that we’re deploying, how it’s benefitting our team — the group of players we have on our team. I think we’re going about it the right way.”

Where the Gators go from here is unknown. Florida has only three scholarship quarterbacks: Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, Las Vegas Bowl starter Jack Miller and redshirt freshman Max Brown. Napier said UF will be in the market to add another when the transfer portal reopens this spring.

Rashada also made news on signing day when he orally committed to Arizona State, led by first-year coach (and former Florida State assistant) Kenny Dillingham. The Sun Devils had not yet announced his signing as of Wednesday evening.

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