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Going into October of 2021, the Florida Gators football program looked to be in amazing shape. They were nine months removed from an SEC East crown where they took Alabama to the wire, but came up short, 52-46, in the 2020 SEC Championship Game. Facing the Crimson Tide again in week three of 2021, they battled in The Swamp to a two point loss, 29-31. Even though it seemed the Gators were getting closer to toppling the Tide en route to a SEC title, it was the polar opposite.
After a 13-20 loss to Kentucky to kick off October, the season collapsed for Dan Mullen’s squad, finishing 6-7, including a narrow escape of FCS Samford 70-52. This nightmarish finish forced the hand of the athletic department to move on. On November 28th, 2021 Florida made it official by closing out the Mullen era, and picking Louisiana’s Billy Napier to run the show.
Why Did They Hire Napier?
As a Gators fan, this is a hire you should feel extremely happy about for two reasons. The first is that he is a great leader and knows how to turn a program around. After inheriting a 5-7 Louisiana team, he took them on a quest of continual improvement from 7-7 in 2018, to 11-3, 10-1 and 13-1 last season. That lone loss last season was week one at Texas, so Napier as a coach is currently on a 12 game win streak after skipping the bowl game.
The second reason is that he is an offensive mastermind, while finding a way to keep it extremely simple. For example, in 2019 his Louisiana squad was top 10 in yards per game with 494.1 and number seven in yards per play. Even though the numbers haven’t been as flashy the last two seasons, he’s the epitome of balanced play calling on offense, averaging right around 220 pass yards and 200 rush yards.
One statistic that I love to talk about when it comes to Napier led offenses is the workload. He’s been notorious for keeping a stable of backs to carry the rock, never giving one back more than 300 carries in a season. This rotation will be huge in the SEC grind, but even more important to take the load off quarterback Anthony Richardson.
Scheme Leads To Success
The simplistic nature of Napier’s offense is that it covers flaws at quarterback, and relies on strength. Strength besides the running back room resides on the offensive line. Since 2010, Louisiana only had two players drafted in the NFL Draft. Under Napier, seven players were selected with three of those selections being offensive lineman within the first four rounds. This ability to get the best out of his offensive line will be critical to the Gators’ success.
His outside zone and RPO (run-pass option) play calls will be huge with the O-line doing their job. Richardson’s legs will be an enormous part to this scheme as well, because once he rips off a long run the defense will have to pick their poison. If Napier can teach Richardson how to choose correctly in the RPO, then Florida’s playbook can literally be cut in half.
The strong run game should create opportunities for shots on the outside, allowing Justin Shorter to showcase his five-star abilities. Defenses will have to load the box and keep eyes in the backfield, generating one on one opportunities outside the numbers. If Richardson can deliver the ball appropriately, the offense should be one of the most balanced units in the country.
However, if Richardson can’t deliver, it will stall the passing game and force Napier into some tough decisions year one. Make no mistake, Ohio State transfer quarterback Jack Miller III is built for this offense and had great experience under Buckeyes head coach, Ryan Day. This may not be a Buckeye gift wrapped present like LSU received with Joe Burrow, but he could get a look if Richardson fails to deliver the ball accurately.
Building A New Defense
Napier tabbed Sean Spencer and Patrick Toney to be his co-defensive coordinators for his first season at the helm. Spencer has been a defensive line coach since 2000, and even replaced the legendary Larry Johnson at Penn State from 2014-2019 by continuing to put guys into the league. Toney was a familiarity hire as a coach that came from Louisiana with Napier, but helped Louisiana to a top 25 defense in 2021, coming in at #11 in points allowed per game.
The coordinators are there to build a solid unit, but the most important defensive hire that could take them to an elite level is Corey Raymond. Raymond had been LSU’s defensive backs coach since 2012, having a huge hand in building the Tigers into a self proclaimed DBU. His first task will not be an easy one, and that is to fortify the secondary while having to replace a first round cornerback, Kaiir Elam. If anyone can do the job, it’s him.
A good pass rush that pressures and hurries quarterbacks can alleviate struggles in the secondary. If Raymond doesn’t strike the ground running in the fall, his unit will need to rely on the big boys in the trenches to give him some time. One player that he can for sure rely on is Brenton Cox Jr.
There’s no arguing why Cox Jr. was a five-star prospect out of high school, but the question is why he hasn’t lived up to the hype? He may have quieted some folks last fall with a solid 8.5 sack season, though the realists will see that he had over half his total in the two games against the struggling Florida State and aforementioned Samford. Lining him up as the “Jack” in the 3-3-5 defense will allow him to utilize his skill set to rush the passer and be a centerpiece to the success of the defense.
Star Studded Secondary
Speaking of five stars, Jason Marshall Jr. was the number two corner in the class of 2021, and is on a lot of analyst’s radar as the next great Florida cornerback. On the other side of the hash marks will be Avery Helm, a corner who saw a lot of action in 2021 and held his own. These two will have to play at a high level in order to give Florida a chance at going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.
Three, Two, One Blast Off
In the 3-3-5, there’s the three safeties that man it, and Florida has a group of explosive ones. Trey Dean III (strong safety), Rashad Torrence II (free safety) and Tre’Vez Johnson (nickel/hybrid) are the chosen ones in the back end. Dean III and Torrence II are both extremely smart safeties and great open field tacklers who racked up 88 and 87 tackles for second and third best on the team last year. Johnson was an under the radar prospect who has proven that he was overlooked out of high school, and has shown his versatility to play the hybrid role in this defense.
Right out of the gate, Florida needs the linebacker crew to be at its best. A week one date with reigning PAC-12 champ Utah at home will test the run defense early. Utes running back Tavion Thomas was one of the hottest running backs in the country last season, punching in 19 TDs over his last nine games, awarding him All-Conference first team honors.
In short, sixth year senior Ventrell Miller and fifth year senior Amari Burney need to unlock their full potential. In terms of rush yards per game, Utah (216.8) Tennessee (217.8) and Kentucky (199.5) were all great. Georgia was right behind at 190, coming in at 14th in yards per carry and Texas A&M 15th in the same category. All these fantastic rushing attacks will make or break the linebacker room.
2022 Regular Season Outlook
Best Case Scenario
Florida starts off strong, winning both home bouts against Utah and Kentucky. They weather the storm at Neyland Stadium on September 24th against Tennessee, heading full steam ahead towards the gauntlet of LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M in three straight games. The Gators come out with only one loss in that stretch and finish off strong with an 11-1 regular season record. Also, Richardson finds his way into the Heisman finalist conversation.
Worst Case Scenario
Florida drops both games at home to start the season as the offense sputters and defense can’t stop the run. They regain momentum with a game against USF, but there is now a quarterback controversy with Richardson and Miller III, who now split the reps. The Gators barely survive in Knoxville against the Volunteers but are down some starters due to injury. They lose three straight to LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M, and come limping across the finish line 6-6 after dropping the season finale to Florida State.
Somewhere in between would be a great start for Napier and crew. A 9-3 opening campaign will be a solid season to build on, especially if they can take out some of those rival teams. Having that home field advantage in the first two games is crucial.
Kyle Whittingham’s Utah squad will be a blessing and a curse all in one. It will give the Gators a team that brings physicality in week one, and that can help them match it early and hopefully maintain it the rest of the season. On the flip side, Utah likes to dictate the pace of play by winning at the line of scrimmage, and I’m not certain how much leverage the Gators will get up front with their 3-3-5. Time will tell, and starting of 0-1 is not a killer but certainly not ideal.
A lot of rumors have been circulating on the recruiting trail about how Napier and his staff can’t close with the recruits, most notably the ones in their own state. The good thing is that the early signing period doesn’t happen until December, and that will give his staff plenty of time to swoop in with some of these undecided or even previously committed players. Florida was winning national championships when these high schoolers were very young which means some of them may be Gator fans. If they can show that the product on the field is an improvement, then some of these players may change their minds and choose to play for their dream school.