Is Florida finding its footing under Billy Napier? We’ll find out soon


DURING A TEAM meeting this summer, Florida center Kingsley Eguakun watched as a clip from last season’s opening game against Utah popped onto the screen. That game — beating the seventh-ranked Utes — had seemed to signal first-year Florida coach Billy Napier could get the program turned around in a hurry.

Florida finished 6-7 last year, though, and the clip showed one possible reason why. Eguakun, who didn’t want to out a player by name, said the screen showed a big play for Florida, after which a seemingly team-wide celebration broke out. Except, Eguakun said, “There was one player who didn’t celebrate.” He added ruefully, “He just walked away.”

“This is what selfishness looks like,” Eguakun recalled the presenter saying.

Eguakun agreed, and not just because of the loss to Kentucky the next week or the seven losses overall in 2022, including to perennial cellar-dweller Vanderbilt, which an opposing coach called “unforgivable.” Beating Utah — a solitary win — bred complacency, Eguakun said, and when things went sideways afterward, the team didn’t have the necessary leadership to hold the locker room together.

Buy-in was lacking, Eguakun explained, as if players weren’t sure whether they wanted to stick it out through the coaching change and then got stuck.

“If you’re one foot in, one foot out, that’s not going to work,” he said. “It kind of had a trickle-down effect on some of the younger guys.”

Team sources affirmed Kinglsey’s assessment of the Year 1 roster. Fights in practice, sources said, were commonplace, as well as players missing team meetings.

Cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. was frustrated because veterans were setting a bad example. Napier “changed the perspective” by focusing on discipline, Marshall said, noting that “a lot of players were still locked in on the past.”

Marshall and Eguakun said clearing out “selfish” former teammates had ushered in a “different energy, a different vibe.” Eguakun said, “The guys being bought in is the game-changer for this Florida Gators team.”

Eguakun made it clear that losing the way they did last year was no longer acceptable — watching teammates “carrying on” in the locker room while he was ready to “go drop a tear or two.”

“Changing this direction that we’ve been on might be No. 1 on my list because I want to win,” he said.

This season, the wins haven’t always been easy to come by, but the mood around the program has changed according to players and coaches. Instead of folding after a season-opening loss at Utah, they bounced back and beat rival and then-No. 11 Tennessee. After a loss to Kentucky (again) and a comeback win at South Carolina, the Gators sit at 5-2 — second in the SEC East.

If Napier’s process is really working we’ll soon find out. The most difficult stretch of the season approaches, starting Saturday with No. 1 Georgia. The Gators then close the season with No. 15 LSU, No. 16 Missouri and No. 4 Florida State.

THE PHYSICAL REMINDER of the pressure awaiting Napier at Florida was right there, walking toward the 25-yard line inside the University of Louisiana football stadium on Dec. 4, 2021.

Moments after beating Appalachian State to win the Sun Belt West Division — Napier’s last act as head coach before leaving for Gainesville — fans rushed the field. The vast majority were wearing the Cajuns’ red and black.

But a pair of fans, who drove nearly 7 hours from Panama City, wove their way through the crowd toward Napier, one wearing bright orange, the other wearing royal blue. Napier laughed when the man in orange lifted his short-sleeve shirt to reveal a gator tattoo on his shoulder. Napier obliged their request for a selfie and told the both of them, “I’ll see you soon.”

Napier tried his best to stay in the moment that night, letting the nostalgia wash over him. He recalled his introductory news conference and reporters telling him just how bad the Louisiana program was. And he said they weren’t wrong. They hadn’t had a winning record in three years.

But Napier meticulously rebuilt both the roster and team infrastructure, adding dozens of positions to create what was affectionately called, “Bama on a budget.” Together, they turned the program around in a hurry, leaving with a record of 40-12. Napier got one of the game balls as a going-away present, carrying it everywhere he went, eventually onto the departing plane. When he accidentally dropped the ball during a postgame news conference, he sent a staff member back to retrieve it. “I’m not letting this one go,” he said.

He didn’t know it at the time, but he would come to miss the program he’d shaped. The principles would be the same at Florida — structure, attention to detail, discipline, an eye toward efficiency — but the game had changed in the SEC since he left as an assistant at Alabama, making this rebuild much more difficult.

“The big takeaway for me was I leave a place [Louisiana] where I probably had as good of a relationship with my team — I would put it up against anywhere in the country, just the team dynamic,” he said. “And then you inherit a long list of challenges in an unprecedented time, relative to the portal and NIL. There’s no manual for that. I don’t care what you say.

“And I’m, to be very transparent, five years removed from the SEC and no experience with Power 5 recruiting in the early signing period era. That was a huge adjustment. Not that we can’t evaluate and we can’t recruit, just the fact that our established workflow and the way we operated at Louisiana did not apply in the SEC.”

Napier said they successfully adjusted. They signed a top-15 class, he added, “But it was a scramble.”

That first year required a dizzying amount of work, whether it was getting up to speed in recruiting, getting their arms around an NIL operation that wasn’t where it needed to be, navigating the transfer portal, building out a staff that was growing by a whopping 25% and, oh yeah, trying to learn the current roster and get them up to speed on an entirely new system. “Tampering,” Napier suggested, “magnifies that.”

Don’t just take his word for it. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel, who has no reason to support a rival coach, said first-year coaches are behind the eight ball in a way they’ve never been before.

“I don’t know if it’s ever been harder than it is now because of transfer portal,” he said. “You truly have to recruit everybody on your roster. Then you got to go out and recruit guys to come to your roster. … You’re literally dealing with everything that every coach is complaining about right now currently inside the landscape of college football, plus you have no relationships with the players on your roster.”

Just learning their names is a challenge. So if there was a disconnect between Napier and holdovers from the previous staff, maybe it was with good reason.

“We run a tight ship,” Napier said. “I’m a firm believer in structure and routine. We play complimentary football. We teach a set of values. And I think that that’s where it was different. All of a sudden, it’s like there’s consequence, there’s discipline, there’s accountability.”

Napier called last year’s squad “one of the more dysfunctional teams I’ve been a part of.”

But, he promised, “We got a plan for everything.”

Some players didn’t like the plan and left. Eguakun and Marshall said they’re better off for it. Opposing coaches in the SEC aren’t ready to judge Napier off one rocky season, but they did offer up a glimmer of hope: “Some of their best players are young, and that’s a good thing.”

A whopping 24 freshmen are on Florida’s official depth chart, including both starting tight ends Hayden Hansen and Arlis Boardingham, starting defensive end Caleb Banks, starting safety Jordan Castell and standout starting receiver Eugene Wilson III. And that’s to say nothing of the additions Napier and Co. made via the transfer portal.

After locking up a top-15 recruiting class in December, they set about replacing quarterback Anthony Richardson. But instead of signing a high-profile transfer like Sam Hartman or Devin Leary, they wound up bringing in former Wisconsin signal-caller Graham Mertz, which went over about as well as the Tomahawk Chop inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at the time. Last spring, ESPN did not rank Mertz among its top 75 portal players.

Mertz has been effective, though, with 12 passing touchdowns and only two interceptions. His 76.2 completion percentage is tops in the SEC.

Less than 48 hours after Mertz led a fourth-quarter comeback at South Carolina, Napier told ESPN that it’s beginning to feel a lot more like his time at the University of Louisiana in terms of “just the overall culture in the building.” His first team there finished 7-7 before winning double-digit games and finishing atop their division in each of the next three years.

FORMER FLORIDA NATIONAL championship winning coach Urban Meyer offered Napier some advice upon taking the job that sticks with him today.

“It’s important for you to understand,” Napier recalled Meyer telling him, “you’re in a state with 22 million people and you have huge alumni, but you’re also in a state with two hated rivals. So if you fall and trip, not only do you know your small percentage of bandwagon fans get riled up, but you also have two fan bases from others that jump in on the action as well.”

“So,” Napier said, “that’s the reality.”

And it’s a reality Napier hasn’t shied away from when fans have voiced their frustration after losses to Utah and Kentucky this season. “Let’s call it like it is,” he said, “Sometimes you deserve to be criticized.”

He didn’t lash out when it was suggested he give up playcalling duties on offense to focus on the big picture. He said it was a “relevant question” and part of the evaluation, “But I feel confident in our process.”

Napier’s ability to take the proverbial bumps in the road in stride and stick with his plan is exactly why athletic director Scott Stricklin hired him in the first place, citing his unique temperament and approach.

“The idea of hiring Billy wasn’t to have a four- or five-year solution,” he said. “It was to have a 15-, 20-year solution.”

As Stricklin stood on the field in Columbia a few weeks ago, he remembered two years earlier when he was in the same spot and it became clear that the “internal foundational challenges” under previous coach Dan Mullen were “more significant than we probably realized.” (Mullen, now an analyst at ESPN, did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.)

“And so to be back there and to have that kind of game that we had was rewarding to be on the other side where the foundational issues have in large part been corrected,” he said. “The culture, the relationships, the focus on the things that you can’t be great without have been addressed.”

Which is not to suggest that the team is anywhere near a finished product.

“But I think the things are in place for it to happen,” Stricklin said.

Florida is third in ESPN’s latest Class Rankings for 2024. On Sunday, Napier and his staff added four-star defensive end L.J. McCray to the growing list of commitments.

Put together a strong showing against Georgia on Saturday and it might induce even more recruits to jump on board.

Because for as up-and-down as Florida’s been, no one in college football doubts the strength of the brand or its ability to produce national championships.

“Florida’s a momentum job, if that makes sense,” Napier said. “I think if you get it built, it’ll be hard to slow down.”

He paused a beat for emphasis.

“If you got the discipline to create it the right way and something that’s sustainable and repeatable. That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

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