LAKELAND — When Florida Gators coach Billy Napier traveled across the state for his spring speaking tour last year, he was introducing himself to a proud but bruised fan base. He showed photos of his family and previous career stops before he started setting realistic, muted expectations for his first season in Gainesville.
Year 2 is different. Napier has six wins, seven losses and one full recruiting class for fans to judge. At Wednesday night’s stop, he wanted to update the Polk County Gator Club on what happened last year, what changes have been made since and the 61 points that cost UF its six regular-season defeats.
“Everything matters when you start talking about how you’re going to do that,” he said backstage at the Polk Theatre.
In a small gathering with reporters, Napier highlighted a few areas UF has addressed or will soon change to find those 61 points.
He is pleased with the 27 mid-year enrollees, including quarterback Graham Mertz, the transfer from Wisconsin. He said the Gators are recruiting well; the 2023 class was solid (No. 14 nationally with 18 blue-chip signees), and the 2024 class has non-binding oral commitments from three top-50 national recruits (including five-star quarterback DJ Lagway and Largo High’s Adarius Hayes).
The coaching staff is different. The latest addition is the return of receivers coach Billy Gonzales, who won two national titles under Urban Meyer and developed Kadarius Toney, Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes into successful players under Dan Mullen.
“He understands two different eras, to some degree, of Florida football…” Napier said. “Great to have him back. He’s hit the ground running.”
Napier was also excited about some of the tweaks he made to existing assistants. Corey Raymond went from coaching cornerbacks to the entire secondary — a move that was in the works before safeties coach/defensive coordinator Patrick Toney left for the NFL. Napier said the adjustment will allow the secondary to meet as a unit more often. Perhaps that improves communication across a unit that had too many breakdowns last year.
The Gators also put all their edge rushers under the tutelage of Mike Peterson (last year’s outside linebackers coach). It’s a role he has performed at previous stops and the type of staff structure Napier hadn’t been able to implement earlier in his career.
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“That’s something I’ve always felt strongly about,” Napier said. “Being in this system, we’ve never quite been organized in a way where we could do that.”
Now they can. We’ll see this fall whether that improves a pass rush that was No. 96 nationally with 23 sacks last season or a third-down defense that was the worst in program history.
As Napier gets on more stages like the one Wednesday night (including a trip to Sarasota on May 3), he can also tout UF’s off-field overhaul.
Napier’s army of analysts has had plenty of time to get into gear. The $85 million palace, the Heavener Football Training Center, has been open for months, eliminating any excuses about inefficiencies or Florida’s place in the facilities arms race.
The stain of the Jaden Rashada name, image and likeness (NIL) dispute has faded. Though Napier has said that NIL is a strength for the program, it is evolving in this pivotal space.
“We spent the last eight months or so really working on having a systematic approach to NIL,” Napier said. “I think here in the next month or so, next couple weeks actually, we’re getting ready to go to another level.”
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