Any optimism around the Florida Gators’ future under second-year coach Billy Napier comes down to the blueprint that got him hired 17 months and seven losses ago.
Maybe you still believe in that process because it made Alabama and Georgia into powerhouses, and a slimmed-down version earned Napier a 40-12 record at Louisiana. Or maybe you don’t because its only results in Gainesville are a pair of good-not-great recruiting classes and the program’s fourth losing season in 43 years.
Either way, it’s not changing much.
Napier made that clear Wednesday when he addressed concerns about how his massive staff approaches the transfer portal. Critics call it slow. He calls it detailed. Semantics aside, Napier said he has more conviction in his evaluation process than almost anything else — even though it doesn’t always fit transfers’ speed-dating timeline. If Florida misses out on a good player because Napier refuses to rush evaluations, then so be it.
“I think you can make a lot of mistakes, is what I would tell you,” Napier said.
That’s almost the exact same thing Napier said about his first recruiting class. That, too, had a warp-speed timetable — a week and a half between his first day in Gainesville and early signing day. Napier and his staff were deliberate in their evaluations because, he said in his introductory news conference, “the last thing we need to do here is make some mistakes.” Better to lose out on promising prospects than add dead weight to a roster.
A half-dozen recruits decommitted in the aftermath of Napier’s hiring. Four-star quarterback Nick Evers is already on his second school (he signed with Oklahoma and has transferred to Wisconsin), and none of the other five made significant contributions last fall. But of the nine players the Gators chose to sign early in Napier’s transition class, two have already started, and three others contributed as freshmen.
It’s too early to know whether that plan worked, though there is evidence to support a cautious approach to transition classes. We do, however, know that the general philosophy hasn’t changed. Neither have a few other scrutinized parts of the Gators’ organization.
Florida Gators double down on defensive system
Napier could have overhauled Florida’s historically bad defense after coordinator Patrick Toney left to become a position coach with the Arizona Cardinals. Instead, Napier doubled down: He replaced one young Group of Five coordinator with an even younger Group of Five coordinator (Austin Armstrong). One reason why, Napier said Wednesday, was that Armstrong knew the defense from their time together at Louisiana. The system could remain intact, just with a new personality.
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Napier also could have addressed other parts of his staff and structure. The Gators filled two other vacancies on his staff by bringing receivers coach Billy Gonzales back for his third stint at UF and promoting defensive intern Russ Callaway to tight ends coach. Those moves sound like signs of continuity, not change.
After a top-five NFL draft pick at quarterback (Anthony Richardson) produced the nation’s No. 70 offense in passing efficiency, it would have been reasonable to reassess Florida’s approach to that position, too. Napier kept the quarterbacks coach and play caller the same: himself.
And if special teams remain unspectacular, it will be easy to second guess Napier’s decision to continue splitting those responsibilities across his staff instead of hiring a coordinator for that unit.
Maybe Billy Napier is right
To be fair, there are valid reasons to support stability. Year 1 didn’t work out great at Alabama or Georgia, but they seemed to turn it around OK. Three of Napier’s losses were competitive games against teams that finished in the top 16 (home vs. LSU, at Florida State and Tennessee). Perhaps one disappointing first season and a missed recruit here and there aren’t enough to abandon a proven process.
And Napier has tweaked things, putting Mike Peterson in charge of all edge rushers (not just outside linebackers) and giving Corey Raymond the entire secondary (not just cornerbacks). Maybe those adjustments and Armstrong’s spin will fix the defense.
But from on-field philosophies to a slow/detailed evaluation process, the blueprint looks largely the same. Napier, clearly, still believes in it.
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