Florida Gators’ staff still in flux as spring football practice begins

Billy Napier is, as usual, being meticulous about filling the two holes on his staff, even though spring ball has started.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier meets with reporters after the first spring practice of 2023.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier meets with reporters after the first spring practice of 2023. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 4|Updated March 4

GAINESVILLE — When the Florida Gators started Billy Napier’s first spring a year ago, the program itself was under construction, from the support staff he was hiring to the football complex being built.

When UF began Napier’s second spring Saturday, the ongoing renovations centered on the coaching staff.

Recent departures by receivers coach Keary Colbert (Denver Broncos) and tight ends coach William Peagler (Arizona Cardinals) left the Gators without a pair of full-time position coaches. Napier said his program is “built to handle the attrition to some degree” thanks to his army of graduate assistants, analysts and quality control staffers who can perform the duties in the short term.

But Napier, as usual, is being deliberate and meticulous about finding the right long-term replacements.

“I’m not just going to flip a coin and hire a guy,” Napier said. “If we have the person in place that we think is capable, we make those moves quickly. If we don’t, then we’re going to be very thorough.”

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Napier said the Gators are making progress on the hires, with an announcement expected soon.

He has already filled the biggest opening, plucking Austin Armstrong away from his role as Alabama’s inside linebackers coach to replace Patrick Toney as defensive coordinator. Defensive back Jason Marshall praised Armstrong’s intensity and energy repeatedly Saturday, from his intensity in meetings to the way he sprinted all over the field during practice.

Though losing a defensive coordinator to the Cardinals two weeks before the start of spring practice is far from ideal, Napier said the adjustment has been relatively smooth. That’s because Armstrong worked under Napier at Louisiana and worked with Napier’s former boss (Alabama’s Nick Saban) and former ‘Bama colleague (Kirby Smart at Georgia).

“We’re in our tree of coaches if that makes sense,” Napier said.

After last year’s 6-7 disappointment, it would have been understandable if Napier wanted to start looking elsewhere in the forest. The fact that he didn’t do so at arguably his most important position on the staff is a tangible sign that he still believes, strongly, in his system and structure. So, too, is the fact that he does not intend to have a designated special-teams coach (the other assistants will continue to share those responsibilities, just like last year).

The Gators' defense struggled last year, including against Oregon State in the bowl game.
The Gators' defense struggled last year, including against Oregon State in the bowl game. [ L.E. BASKOW | Las Vegas Review-Journal ]
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Though the overall structure of his staff doesn’t appear to be changing, there are other, smaller tweaks. Corey Raymond is taking a broader role as secondary coach, not just defensive backs coach; Napier said that move was underway before Toney (who also coached the safeties) left. UF appears to be lumping outside linebackers and defensive ends into one edge position, now coached by Mike Peterson. Those adjustments were part of Napier’s larger plan “relative to improving the defense from an efficiency standpoint.”

Adjustments that remain a work in progress, one practice into spring ball.

Gator bits

• Quarterback Graham Mertz has impressed coaches and teammates with his work ethic since transferring from Wisconsin. Offensive lineman Austin Barber said his car is in the parking lot when he arrives and there when he leaves. Mertz will wear No. 15.

• Despite UF losing four significant players on the offensive line (including potential first-round pick O’Cyrus Torrence), Napier said the position is one of the groups he’s most excited about this spring. That seems like a good thing — and a strong review of transfers Kiyaunta Goodwin (Kentucky), Damieon George Jr. (Alabama) and Micah Mazzccua (Baylor).

• Ja’Markis Weston has moved from receiver to safety. He had six catches over his first four seasons but had a bigger role on special teams.

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