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The 29-year-old coordinator Billy Napier hired to save the Florida Gators

Austin Armstrong once dressed as Steve Spurrier for career day ... which sounds good until you realize how young he is.
 
Florida Gators defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong meets with reporters during spring practice in 2023.
Florida Gators defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong meets with reporters during spring practice in 2023. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 11, 2023

GAINESVILLE — New Florida Gators defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong checks one of the most important boxes for any UF coach: He idolizes Steve Spurrier.

So much so that he dressed up like the “Head Ball Coach’ for career day once, wearing an orange shirt and blue visor from Hat Shack into Sumter Academy in the heart of Alabama country.

Now for the concern: The outfit came in third grade, around the time Spurrier’s Gators career was ending. That means the most important hire of Billy Napier’s tenure is only 29.

But there can’t be many 29-year-olds with a reference list like his.

He worked with Napier in 2018, after Napier took over Louisiana and inherited Armstrong as a graduate assistant. Napier liked him enough to give him more responsibilities than usual as the GA for defensive coordinator Ron Roberts.

“He’s a good one,” Napier said.

So good that Napier recommended him to his friend, Georgia coach Kirby Smart, for a quality control job. Armstrong spent 2019 at Georgia with Dan Lanning (now the head coach at Oregon) before Napier brought him back to coach Louisiana’s linebackers. Then Southern Miss and Will Hall made Armstrong the youngest defensive coordinator in the country at age 27. After their Golden Eagles scared Miami for a half last year, another former Napier colleague at Alabama (Mario Cristobal) went out of his way to praise Armstrong as a “really good, young coach” in how he mixed things up. This offseason, Armstrong’s hero, Nick Saban, poached him to coach linebackers.

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

Armstrong had been in Tuscaloosa for a few weeks when Napier lost defensive coordinator Patrick Toney to the NFL. For Florida, the timing couldn’t have been much worse. Napier had to fill a crucial role with little time before spring practice started.

For Armstrong, the timing couldn’t have been much better. Though he and his wife had put a down payment on a house in Tuscaloosa, the deal hadn’t closed yet.

“It’s crazy how the good Lord works,” Armstrong said.

Skeptics will view the hire and use that same word. Crazy.

Napier lost one Sun Belt Conference wunderkind from the Sun Belt Conference (Toney) and replaced him with a Sun Belt wunderkind who’s even younger. Granted, Armstrong knows Napier (and vice versa) and their defenses feature similar philosophies and terminologies.

Patrick Toney was the Gators' defensive coordinator last season.
Patrick Toney was the Gators' defensive coordinator last season. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]

But it’s not as if last year’s defense dominated. UF surrendered 106 points over the final three games and fielded its worst third-down defense ever. Though unimpressive personnel played a factor, it’s fair to blame coaching and schematics did, too. Was continuity something to be valued? Or something that should have been discarded?

Napier still believes in his structure and systems, so he took his chance on stability and a rising star. Armstrong left close-to-home comfort at ‘Bama in part because he’s good friends with his predecessor, Toney. Armstrong knew the good, bad and ugly at Florida and believes a turnaround is underway.

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If it’s going to happen, Armstrong will be a pivotal reason why. The Gators’ offense will have a higher floor without quarterback Anthony Richardson, but UF will still need a lot of improvement on defense to challenge for eight or nine wins.

Armstrong talks a good game, about fielding a defense that’s flexible on the front and back ends so there’s an answer for every offense. But the questions are much tougher in the SEC than in the Sun Belt, as Napier knows.

It, unquestionably, is a lot for anyone, let alone a 29-year-old.

“I’ve also been a defensive coordinator — this is my third season,” Armstrong said. “So I’m 29 going on, like, 59.”

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