Veteran linebacker Ventrell Miller and redshirt sophomore Jaydon Hill, who played in just his second game since returning from injury, stole the show for the Gators during their Homecoming game against the Missouri Tigers Oct. 8.
Florida’s leading defenders showed the signs of skill and promise that UF head coach Billy Napier had talked about all along. Postgame, he hailed Miller and Hill as two of the Gators’ best players. Florida will be in need of their elite play once again Saturday, as they welcome the Tigers, this time from Louisiana State, to the Swamp.
Miller, the heart and soul of Florida’s defense, recorded double-digit tackles for the fourth time in his UF career. The redshirt senior was all over the field, to the tune of 10 solo tackles, one assist and two for loss. Miller seemed to be involved in nearly every stop down the stretch.
Hill, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL during camp, made the seventh career start against Missouri. The cornerback’s time at Florida has been strenuous, but it paid off in big ways against the Tigers. Hill made two game-changing plays: a 49-yard pick six in the first quarter and another interception in the fourth.
They were the first interceptions of his collegiate career.
“It is something I’ll never forget about ever,” Hill said.
Hill’s moment was a big one for all of those who had been by his side through his recovery.
“It feels great to see him make some big time plays,” Miller said. “He has been working extremely hard.”
Napier, who won his first Southeastern Conference game against the Tigers and snapped a six-game conference skid, was complementary of Hill and his grind to get back on the field.
“He’s got passion about this game. I always felt like, watching him in spring ball, he was one of the best players we had,” Napier said. “That showed up today.”
Napier has praised Miller — his “quarterback of the defense” — all season. The one game Miller missed against South Florida, the UF defense was gashed for 402 yards, including 286 on the ground. His absence was also felt when he exited the Gators’ road matchup with Tennessee the following weekend.
“Ventrell is productive as a player, but it is more impactful than just the production,” Napier said. “The guy is inspirational relative to his example, his consistency as a person, his leadership, his presence. He makes other people around him better.”
The two performances highlight a defensive outing that saw Florida swarming in Missouri’s backfield. The Gators recorded four sacks and 13 tackles for loss, their most since the 2019 season opener against Miami.
Despite the statistics, Napier wasn’t fully pleased with his defense, and he harped on the team’s inability to limit the Tigers on third and long. Missouri was nine of 17 on third down, compared to the Gators’ three of 11.
“[The defense] made progress relative to the challenge that Missouri presents,” Napier said. “The gap integrity with all the outside zone, the shots. We kept everything in front of us for the most part.”
Offensively, Florida did next to nothing in the first half, running 18 plays for a sluggish 65 total yards. The second half was a different story, however, as the Gators began to break off chunk plays. On UF’s first two drives of the second half, running backs Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne took touches 41 and 39 yards respectively.
The limiting off the offense through the first 30 minutes set it up for success the rest of the game, Napier said.
“We had a lot left,” he said. “Some of those same concepts we just were a little more precise. I thought a lot of our guys up front did a good job…. Obviously, you could see the backs got it to the second level.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson continued to show flashes while also making some errors. He passed just 14 times, with eight completions for 66 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
On top of the pick, Richardson fumbled in the second quarter. It’s his fifth game in a row with a turnover. After the game, Richardson said he’s concerned with the issue, not because it’s happening, but because Napier stresses the importance of playing a clean game.
“We have not executed our formula to win games at the rate at which we desire at any point,” Napier said. “I think we are very much a work in progress.”
Another SEC opponent comes to Gainesville this Saturday — the LSU Tigers. During last year’s game against LSU, specifically the second half, Richardson began to breakout. The performance led to him to his first career start against Georgia the next game.
This season’s matchup pits two first-year SEC coaches against each other in a storied rivalry; LSU head coach Brian Kelly and Napier both hold 4-2 records and face grueling schedules in the later months of their seasons. A win in the cross-division clash Saturday would be a major boost to either the Gators’ or Tigers’ confidence.
The game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium is slated for 7 p.m. and will broadcast on ESPN.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.