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Is Billy Napier’s Florida Gators rebuild still on schedule?

Billy Napier is the first Florida coach to start with back-to-back losing seasons since 1946-47.
 
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier is 11-14 through two seasons.
Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier is 11-14 through two seasons. [ JEFF ROBERSON | AP ]
Published Nov. 28, 2023

GAINESVILLE — When confronted with the bitter end to his second disappointing season with the Florida Gators, Billy Napier went back to the beginning of his tenure.

“I think that we felt like it was going to be a challenge going in,” Napier said after Saturday’s loss to Florida State. “And then when we got here, we realized we were in for a battle.”

Though Napier never promised a fast rebuild, this was (as best we can tell) his most pointed remark about what he inherited. It’s certainly different than what he said this offseason — that Year 1 was “much of what we expected” and that he “knew the issues coming in the door” because of all the homework done beforehand.

You can read as much or as little into those comments and timing as you’d like. Regardless, if Napier’s two years have been a battle, then it’s one he has lost on the field. An 11-14 record makes him the fourth coach in program history (and first since Raymond B. Wolf in 1946-47) to open with back-to-back losing campaigns.

Whether you believe this is a battle Napier can or will win depends, in part, on how you view the situation he walked into when he was announced as Florida’s 29th head coach two years ago today and realistic turnaround timelines.

Billy Napier was hired two years ago Tuesday and introduced during a formal news conference a week later.
Billy Napier was hired two years ago Tuesday and introduced during a formal news conference a week later. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel (2021) ]

Though the combination of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness divide every coach’s time, they’re more complicated for new coaches who are still meeting key people and installing infrastructure. The reality, Napier said in May, is that “you’re giving away two years of your life” to get everything in place.

Napier also said this offseason that continuity allowed UF to spend “more time on things that will affect the final result” than in Year 1. The final results were worse. The Gators’ went from 6-7 to 5-7. After outscoring their SEC opponents 231-229 last year, they were minus-25 this fall. They dropped from 34th in SP+ advanced metrics to 45th.

When asked directly about year-over-year progress Saturday, Napier highlighted young players who earned valuable experience. Five freshmen started, including quarterback Max Brown and both safeties (Bryce Thornton and Jordan Castell).

“Look at the teams across the country that are having success,” Napier said. “They have veteran football teams, right?”

The one on the other sideline proved his point; no freshmen started for No. 4 FSU.

But emphasizing youth ignores other parts of his lineup. The Gators started more transfers (seven) than freshmen. Three started on an offensive line that allowed six sacks. Linebackers Teradja Mitchell and Mannie Nunnery combined for only three tackles. R.J. Moten — brought in from Michigan to add experience at safety — was on the depth chart but didn’t play.

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Mannie Nunnery was one of seven Florida transfers who started in Saturday's loss to FSU.
Mannie Nunnery was one of seven Florida transfers who started in Saturday's loss to FSU. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Napier also spent all offseason touting the value of familiarity as coaches taught players a second time. Florida had, as Napier said before the opener at Utah, “a core group of veterans that are in this system for the second year.” That means a losing season cannot be chalked up to inexperience alone.

Another easy, related scapegoat is the mediocre recruiting of predecessor Dan Mullen. The reality is nuanced.

Mullen left five 2023 NFL draft picks, led by No. 4 pick Anthony Richardson. By NFL standards, that made Napier’s first team one of the nation’s biggest underachievers.

At least 10 players on Napier’s Day 1 roster started multiple games for Power Five teams this season. That list includes three offensive linemen (USC’s Michael Tarquin, Arkansas’ Joshua Braun and Tennessee’s Gerald Mincey), Cincinnati’s leading receiver (Xzavier Henderson), Pitt’s top tackler (safety Donovan McMillon) and all-conference candidates Ty’Ron Hopper (Missouri) and Antwaun Powell-Ryland (Virginia Tech).

It’s unfair to think Florida could have or should have kept them all in the portal era, but their departures freed up roster space for Napier to use. His record (current and future) reflects those collective decisions.

Adam Mihalek, a Wiregrass Ranch High alumnus, has announced his intention to enter the transfer portal.
Adam Mihalek, a Wiregrass Ranch High alumnus, has announced his intention to enter the transfer portal. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times (2022) ]

So, too, does the fallout that began has already begun. Florida fired co-defensive coordinator Sean Spencer and secondary coach Corey Raymond on Monday. Though the transfer portal exodus can’t officially begin until Monday, kicker Adam Mihalek (Wiregrass Ranch High) and tight end Jonathan Odom (Jesuit High) have announced their intentions to leave. They won’t be the last.

However you view Napier’s comments or the program he took over, he owns it now. The number of scholarship holdovers from the previous regime will be down to about a dozen by next August; the players are his. If Napier needed to give up two years of his life to get everything in place, then time’s up. Whatever changes he makes to the staff, structure or roster in the coming days of introspection and evaluation are on him, too.

After the worst start to a Florida coaching tenure since the immediate aftermath of World War II, this battle is all Napier’s to win — or lose.

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