What Florida Gators hope to gain from Billy Napier’s staff shakeup

The new titles include executive head coach, chief of staff and a new senior analyst.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier has changed his staff after back-to-back losing seasons.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier has changed his staff after back-to-back losing seasons. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Feb. 7|Updated Feb. 8

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators’ 2024 recruiting class has effectively been done for weeks, so coach Billy Napier had no new players to discuss during Wednesday’s traditional signing day.

He did, however, have plenty of other new faces to detail as he continues evaluating and adjusting his staff after back-to-back losing seasons.

The biggest name — and most intriguing title — is Ron Roberts, the executive head coach and co-defensive coordinator who will also lead the inside linebackers.

“Head coach of the defense,” Napier said. “Basically a guy who oversees that side of the ball to some degree.”

Austin Armstrong will remain the Gators' defensive coordinator despite the addition of what's essentially a head coach of the defense.
Austin Armstrong will remain the Gators' defensive coordinator despite the addition of what's essentially a head coach of the defense. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel (2023) ]

Roberts won’t call the plays or run the unit meetings; those duties remain under returning defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. But the Gators want Roberts to use his three decades of experience to fine-tune things like game-plan installation while coaching the coaches’ teaching techniques.

Napier expects the transition to be smooth. Roberts is a godfather of Florida’s defensive system and worked with Armstrong at Louisiana.

“There’s a track record of really good defense, and we’re fortunate to have him,” Napier said.

Napier feels the same way about new senior special teams analyst Joe Houston. Napier said he hired him for one day at Louisiana before Bill Belichick poached him to work for the Patriots.

Houston will try to shore up a unit that committed too many blunders last fall: repeatedly failing to put 11 men on the field, having two players wear the same number and situational disarray between specific personnel groupings.

“I do think we did well statistically in some areas, but there was no doubt there were some organizational things that could have been done better,” Napier said. “I think we added a layer of expertise and another set of eyes, another set of hands there in ultimately a big-picture viewpoint.”

Napier was vague about how special teams will be handled during games, but Houston’s role is an off-field (non-coaching) duty. The Gators have not had one dedicated special teams on-field coach under Napier.

The Florida Gators' offense remains under evaluation.
The Florida Gators' offense remains under evaluation. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2023) ]

The only unchanged phase so far is the offense because its evaluation remains ongoing. Napier hasn’t ruled out future tweaks — a new staffer or two, some different titles or shuffled responsibilities — but said the system itself is staying.

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“I don’t see any major overhauls outside of just how we organize that group and how we operate in-house,” Napier said.

Napier hasn’t yet elaborated on how he will operate within the building and during games. Though Napier has called Florida’s offensive plays, major-college coaches across the country are rethinking, if not relinquishing, those duties to free up time for other things. The results have been mixed; Missouri had its third top-10 season in the past five decades after Eliah Drinkwitz stopped calling plays, but UCF’s Gus Malzahn plans to be more involved this year after going 6-7 in the Knights’ inaugural Big 12 season.

Even if Napier continues calling plays, it sounds as if he will have a little more bandwidth thanks to the hire of Mark Robinson as his chief of staff — a position he didn’t have in his army last season. Robinson worked under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and Texas A&M, and is expected to be involved in the Gators’ name, image and likeness space, too. Napier said Robinson will handle things like roster composition strategy and relationships with agents, parents and players.

“Really an effort to put the right things in place,” Napier said, “so that the time is allocated for me in the right places.”

Napier on Gators’ NCAA investigation

In his first meeting with Florida reporters since the NCAA investigation into the Gators became public last month, Napier said he could not be specific about the case. He did say the sport has “probably a lot more sanity” than it did a year and a half ago as programs get a better understanding of the rules.

“But we need change; I think everybody knows that ...” Napier said. “I think the game has become a little bit more transactional. (It) used to be a little more transformational. I think there’s an element to our game that I’m hopeful we get to keep.”