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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Billy Napier teaching Florida fans a valuable lesson in patience

New Florida head coach lighting up recruiting trail after slow start

<p>Head football coach Billy Napier calls his team during a spring practice March 29, 2022.</p>

Head football coach Billy Napier calls his team during a spring practice March 29, 2022.

Less than seven months into his tenure as head coach of the Florida Gators, Billy Napier penned an open letter to Gator nation. 

Despite calling for patience in his opening press conference back in December 2021, Florida fans seemed to have forgotten that notion. The headlines started to roll in from national outlets. Message boards were set ablaze when Florida didn’t immediately shoot to the top of the recruiting boards under the former Louisiana-Lafayette coach.

“One thing we have learned in the past six months is that Gators are resilient and passionate. In all kinds of weather,” Napier said in his June letter. “I can assure you that no one has higher expectations for what we want to accomplish than me.”

Florida fans wanted to immediately compete with the Georgias and the Alabamas of the world, but that’s not how a rebuild works. 

In order to build the program back up, you have to tear some things down. It’s like remodeling a house: Sometimes, you have to tear the foundations down to the studs in order to create something better. If the foundation of a house isn’t set properly, the rest can crumble. 

Guess what? The process of a remodel doesn’t always look pretty. In fact, a lot of times it looks downright terrifying — dust everywhere, sheets all over the place — it doesn’t look like it can ever be livable. However, you have to trust the architect. He has the blueprint. 

Napier had to backtrack to just get Florida into a semi-competitive state after the last guy left the program with next to nothing. To be fair, it wasn’t recruiting season when Dan Mullen got fired. Napier attacked the 2022 class first, working the transfer portal and pushing hard on National Signing Day to bring the class to a respectable 17th overall position on 247Sports. 

Considering the Gators were at one time outside the top-70, that should’ve been seen as a massive win. 

The coach then turned his attention to 2023, which is where he began to lose some fan support. Recruits who seemed to be leaning toward UF decided to go elsewhere. Five-star cornerback AJ Harris canceled his official visit to Florida and committed to Georgia. Four-star offensive lineman Roderick Kearney committed to Florida State a half hour after leaving his visit to Gainesville. 

As the summer rolled on, Florida held just five commits in the class of 2023, causing Napier to pen the aforementioned letter.

Florida fans wanted results now. Hope seemed bleak in the eyes of many. However, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Over the last few months, 15 highly-touted prospects have announced their plans to join Billy’s army in Gainesville. The 2023 recruiting class has skyrocketed into the top-10 on 247Sports as we roll into mid-August, and there is still more to be done. 

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Napier and his staff grabbed four four-star defenders in a two-day span a couple weekends ago, including three along the defensive line, a position of dire need. Eighteen of the 20 commits in the 2023 class are four stars, only trailing Notre Dame — who has 19 — for the most in the country. 

"The old adage — plan your work and work your plan," Napier said during his Aug. 15 media availability. "We're going to plan our work, work our plan. We're going to be diligent. Be consistent." 

Florida fans seem to be coming around on the whole “trust the process” idea. 

Napier isn’t just pulling lower-level recruits, he’s battling head-to-head with the big dogs of college football, and he’s winning. He plucked four-star Kelby Collins from Nick Saban’s backyard in Gardendale, Alabama. He’s not only succeeding outside of state borders, but he’s also focusing on the talent in the Sunshine State.

Napier said player proximity was one of the reasons why the Florida gig is one of the elite in college football. While the last regime routinely lost homegrown talent to the likes of Kirby Smart, Ryan Day and Saban, Napier has made the state a priority. Fifteen of the 20 recruits in the 2023 class are from Florida, including Orlando native wide receiver Aidan Mizell, who used live alligators to announce his commitment to UF July 29.

Florida isn’t close to done with this class either. Just ask Napier himself.

"I think what you're seeing here is the Gators aren't going away on the recruiting trail,” Napier said.

Five-star cornerback Cormani McClain — the highest rated recruit at his position and in the state — is set for an official visit to Gainesville Sept. 3. His attendance when Florida hosts the Utah Utes to open its season will be a welcome sight to Gator fans. The Lakeland High School product is currently being predicted to choose Florida by 247Sports, and he would be the big splash commitment Napier has been telling everyone to wait for. 

On top of McClain, five-star defensive end Keon Keeley recently decommitted from Notre Dame. An initial target for the Gators, Keeley is the top-ranked defensive end in the class and a Tampa native. 247Sports’ Tom Loy predicts Keeley will commit to Alabama.

Patience is a virtue, a virtue Napier is quickly teaching Florida fans. As four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers once told Green Bay Packer fans: “R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re going to be okay.”

The Florida football program has the right general in charge. They’re going to be okay. Just relax.

Contact Michael Hull at mhull@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a fourth-year journalism sports & media major and a sports writer at The Alligator. He hosts the weekly sports podcast and has worked on staff for five semesters. In the past, Hull has served as the sports editor, the men's and women's golf beat writer, the volleyball beat writer and the football beat writer. 


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