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Monday, June 27, 2022

Ground and pound: The Billy Napier philosophy

Statistics reveal a diverse, run-heavy attack in Louisiana

<p>New Florida football coach Billy Napier greets fans during his first day on the job Sunday in Gainesville. Napier discussed his vision for the program during his first address to the media Friday afternoon.</p>

New Florida football coach Billy Napier greets fans during his first day on the job Sunday in Gainesville. Napier discussed his vision for the program during his first address to the media Friday afternoon.

When Florida’s jet touched asphalt a little before noon on Dec. 5, the ramp lowered and out walked a tall, suited man with a buzz cut and a Gators pin on his lapel, surveying his new slice of the southern football kingdom.

Florida officially welcomed its new head football coach Billy Napier Dec. 5 as he held his introductory press conference. But with a 7-year contract worth north of $50 million on the table, what kind of coach did UF get? 

The numbers from Napier’s four years with the University of Louisiana tell a pretty simple story: Napier likes to run the ball. A lot.

Louisiana ranks as the 43rd-best rushing offense in the country this season, averaging about 190 yards per game on the ground, but Napier’s commitment to the rushing game extends beyond this season. UL ran the ball at least 119 more times than it threw in each of Napier’s seasons.

His system worked, as Louisiana averaged at least 30 points per game all four seasons.

The Cajuns needed a strong offensive line for that success, a priority Napier said will carry over to the Gators. Florida will employ two offensive line coaches under his tenure.

“To be a national championship contender, you've got to be really strong on the line of scrimmage,” Napier said. “So there's no question that will be a part of our identity.”

The newest head coach to sport orange and blue also offered a clear picture of that identity as a whole.

“Our trademark will be our physicality,” Napier said. “We'll be in great condition. We'll be known for how hard we play. We'll be disciplined. And we will eliminate careless play -- turnovers, penalties, mental errors.”

Napier’s staunch grip on the ground game is not the only thing that jumps out from the stat sheet. Rather than wielding the hammer of an every-down workhorse, he prefers the scalpel of a committee carousel. 

Despite the Cajuns averaging over 190 rushing yards per game in each of his four seasons (and a staggering 257.4 in 2019), Napier only gave one back more than 200 carries in a season (Trey Ragas had 207 in 2018).

The new Florida coach’s magic number seems to be four over the last few years. Four of his rushers collected 80 attempts or more so far in 2021, and in each of his final three seasons in Lafayette, at least four players rushed the ball more than 50 times. 

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No year exemplified the surgical sharing of touches more than 2019, arguably Napier’s most impressive statistical season with UL. Three Ragin’ Cajuns running backs put together at least 116 attempts and 820 rushing yards, a true backfield Ghidorah. Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais combined for 33 rushing touchdowns, and each compiled three 100-yard games.

Mitchell might be Napier’s most impressive selling point as a talent developer. A 2-star wide receiver prospect according to Rivals, the Louisiana native accumulated 3,267 rushing yards, 597 receiving yards and 46 total touchdowns over his four-year run wearing vermilion and white, almost entirely under Napier’s watchful eye.

Now an NFL rookie, Mitchell has nearly 900 yards from scrimmage through nine games with the San Francisco 49ers.

Napier’s dual-threat quarterback Levi Lewis offers more promising development for Florida fans. The former 2-star Rivals prospect started for the final three years of Napier’s tenure, completing 61.5% of his passes and averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. The 5-foot-10 lefty threw 64 touchdowns against just 15 interceptions across his three-year run.

Lewis alluringly distrubed opposing defenses with his legs as well. He carried the ball at least 55 times each season and legged out 799 yards and 13 more touchdowns since 2019. 

With redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson and redshirt junior Emory Jones, who managed nearly 1,100 rushing yards between them in 2021, sitting in Florida’s garage, Gators fans should salivate seeing Napier does not fear getting his quarterback involved in the rushing attack.

Florida fans should expect a gravitation toward the ground game, but Napier said the Gators top priority is setting themselves up for success.

“We're going to play complementary football,” Napier said. “I think our entire plan is built around working together as a team to position ourselves to win the game.”

Napier’s plan won’t be unveiled for the world to see for months, but the blueprint seems to be in place.

Contact Ryan Haley at rhaley@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley.

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.


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