Florida has holes to fill on both sides as it seeks quick return to SEC East prominence under Billy Napier


With basketball coach Mike White headed to Georgia after seven seasons at Florida, first-year Gators football coach Billy Napier won’t be the newest coach on campus much longer. Spring practice begins Tuesday for Florida, which means Napier will finally be on the field with his new team, and that will help us get acquainted with the man who is now tasked with running one of the SEC’s top brands.

Napier is less than four months onto the job, and questions persist about what Florida will look like not only in 2022 but into the future under his direction. There are reasons for optimism that Napier can reinvigorate the Gators after he posted a 33-5 mark over his last three seasons in a four-year stint at Louisiana. 

Though this is his first Power Five head coaching gig, the former assistant at Clemson and Alabama should know how to run a high-level program considering he counted Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban among his former bosses before taking over at Louisiana. Fans will hope that Napier’s program more closely resembles the ones run by Swinney and Saban than the one run by another of his former bosses, Jim McElwain. Napier worked a stint on McElwain’s staff at Colorado State in 2012.

McElwain wound up as Florida’s coach in 2015 but soon became the middle man in a streak of three UF coaches who haven’t made it through four full seasons on the job. In fact, the last Florida coach to last more than six seasons in the role was Steve Spurrier from 1990 to 2001. At just 42 and with a deep background in southern coaching circles, could Napier be the one with staying power at Florida? Time will tell.

For now, let’s take a deeper look at what’s in store as the Gators begin spring practice in advance of the Orange & Blue Game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on April 16.

Offseason changes

Napier’s predecessor, Dan Mullen, built his coaching reputation as an offensive mastermind, and it’s common to see programs pivot to a coach with a different calling card when things don’t work out under a certain regime. However, with Napier, the Gators have another offensive mind. The former Furman quarterback called plays at Louisiana and plans will also do so at Florida. With the Ragin’ Cajuns last season, that meant running the football far more often than throwing it. 

Louisiana also maintained comfortable leads in the second half of many games on its way to a 13-1 record and Sun Belt championship in 2021. But even in 2018 when Louisiana finished 7-7 in Napier’s first season, the Cajuns still threw the football an average of just 24.9 times per game compared to 39.4 rushing attempts. 

So, Gators fans, buckle up and get ready for a run-pass split that may more closely resemble what Florida did in 2018 with Lamical Perine, Jordan Scarlett and Dameon Pierce at running back (as opposed to what it did in 2020 while airing it out with Kyle Trask at quarterback behind a shaky run-blocking unit).

“Certainly, we all understand that, in this league, and certainly to be a national championship contender, you’ve got to be really strong on the line of scrimmage,” Napier said during his introductory press conference. “I would like to think that rushing the ball and stopping the run has a significant effect on winning the game.”

Dual-threat quarterbacks Anthony Richardson and Emory Jones are back after struggling with interceptions in 2021, though Jones is a candidate to transfer after spring practice. There is no reason to expect Napier to implement anything more pass-oriented than what he ran at Louisiana — at least this season.

Napier brought co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney with him from Louisiana. One of the hottest young defensive minds, Toney moves into the biggest job of his career. Also holding the co-defensive coordinator title will be Sean Spencer, who spent six seasons on Penn State’s defensive staff under James Franklin before working the last two seasons with the New York Giants. 

Toney and Spencer do not have SEC experience, but Toney’s familiarity with Napier and Spencer’s familiarity with what’s required to be successful at the Power Five level from his time at Penn State should make them a solid pairing. Toney’s defense at Louisiana tied for 21st nationally in turnovers forced last season. He typically plays with four down lineman and will have plenty of help when it comes to understanding the schematics of the SEC from a couple of the other defensive staffers.

Among Napier’s biggest hires since landing the job was cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond, who spent the last decade at LSU and earned a reputation as an elite recruiter who helped send a steady stream of defensive backs into the NFL. Outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson spent 2016-21 at South Carolina getting a firsthand glimpse at life in the SEC East. As a former Florida star defender who was on staff in a strength & conditioning role previously under Will Muschamp, Peterson brings some institutional knowledge to the staff while also serving as a familiar face that fans can trust.

Names to know

Jason Marshall Jr., cornerback: Following the departure of stud CB Kaiir Elam to the NFL Draft, the Gators need a new anchor for their secondary. One of the top candidates is Marshall, a former five-star prospect who headlined the program’s 2021 class. If he can build on what he showed as a true freshman, Marshall can be a key cog in Napier’s efforts to quickly get Florida back to national relevance.

Demarkcus Bowman, running back: Florida is losing its top two rushers from last season in Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. Who steps up to fill void is a big question. Nay’quan Wright ran for 326 yards and also showed promise as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but he broke his leg in the team’s regular-season finale against Florida State and is on the mend. Also, at 5-foot-9 and 201 pounds, he is more of a speed back. Bowman, a former five-star prospect, can provide him some support or perhaps even challenge Wright for the lead role. He only appeared in four games last season after transferring in from Clemson due to the Gators’ stacked running back room. If Bowman is able to showcase his talent this spring, his move into a starting role — or as a regular part of a committee — could help the team massively.

Jack Miller, quarterback: Richardson and Jones are back at quarterback after splitting time at the position last season. But Jones is largely though to be a transfer candidate, and after undergoing a knee surgery late last season, Richardson is expected to be limited in spring. That opens the door is open for Ohio State transfer Jack Miller to get plenty of live reps in practice. The former four-star prospect from the Class of 2020 couldn’t win the starting job in his two seasons at Ohio State, but he faced some stiff competition for the job. Perhaps a fresh start at a program in transition will be good for him. Richardson sure looked like Florida’s quarterback of the future while making some highlight-reel plays as a redshirt freshman last season, but maybe Miller can drive the competition level up?

Xzavier Henderson, wide receiver: The Gators are in desperate need of playmakers along the boundaries, and Henderson is best positioned to play that role given his size and speed. While he was relatively unimpressive as a redshirt freshman (26 receptions, 277 yards, two touchdowns in 13 games), the entire passing offense was unimpressive last season. This is Year 3 for Henderson, and it comes with an opportunity to get a fresh start with a new coaching staff. The No. 68 overall player in the Class of 2020 has the intangibles to be a WR1, but he needs to put it all together. The spring is the perfect time for him to do just that.

Spring outlook

There will be no easing into things for Napier, who will begin his tenure with a home game against reigning Pac-12 champion Utah on Sept. 3 before Kentucky comes to town the following week. Considering his first schedule is quite daunting and likely to be one of the nation’s toughest — the Gators get Texas A&M out of the SEC West in addition to permanent cross-division rival LSU and the unfavorable nonconference opener against the Utes — there may be a temptation to push the envelope and overextend in the spring. But it might be best for this Florida staff to save the worst of their wrath for August.

Spring practice for first-year coaches is about teaching the fundamentals and building relationships. It seemed at times last season like the team quit on Mullen, and if Napier is going to weather the storms at Florida, he needs to get off on the right foot with his players. Chasing down Georgia requires urgency, and UF has enough talent to be a threat in the SEC East in 2022. Getting everyone on the same page must be the priority this spring, though.

It’s important also that the Gators put on an attractive production during their April 16 spring game. Building a strong 2023 recruiting class will be key to Napier’s efforts at running down the Dawgs. The energy and message conveyed through the spring game can play a role in making that happen, especially for a first-year coach attempting to establish a brand on the national stage for the first time. Napier brings a reputation as an excellent recruiter to his new position. Mullen’s lack of affinity for that aspect of the job is part of what hastened his demise. It will be interesting to see what Napier has up his sleeve — both on the field and in recruiting — this spring.



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