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Monday, December 05, 2022

Gators send off seniors in the Swamp, turn page on Billy Napier era

18 seniors were honored in Florida’s last home game of 2022

<p>Florida running back Montrell Johnson Jr. evades South Carolina defenders during the Gators&#x27; win Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. </p>

Florida running back Montrell Johnson Jr. evades South Carolina defenders during the Gators' win Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. 

Eighteen seniors were honored for what could be their last game in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Nov. 12. Although many of the players have remaining eligibility and could return, the annual ceremony held for the Gators’ locker room veterans was another indicator of the passage of time. 

A 38-6 victory against South Carolina to secure bowl eligibility was an apt sendoff for the graduating class. Although three games remain, first-year head coach Billy Napier’s team has played its final game in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this season.

The Gators could look very different the next time they run onto Steve Spurrier-Florida field.

Next season’s team will be more of Napier’s construction rather than his inheritance. It will feature the first freshman class fully recruited by Napier, and many players who joined during former UF head coach Dan Mullen’s first season will be gone. 

Linebackers Amari Burney and Ventrell Miller both played their final games in the Swamp against South Carolina and led the way in tackles for Florida at four each. The pair has been defensive anchors for the Gators this season, combining for 62 tackles through 10 games.

“We had a little team meeting Thursday. I let the guys know how I felt about this game, how this game is really emotional for me,” Miller said postgame. “I broke down and all that there, Thursday to them boys. I was just happy to see how they came out and dominated on defense, especially.”

Another departing senior is safety Trey Dean III, who helped bolster the Gators defense against South Carolina. Florida held South Carolina to just six points and 237 total yards. The Gamecocks relinquished three fumbles and converted just three of 11 third downs. Dean was credited with two of the three fumble recoveries.

Offensively, Florida gave its home crowd a flashy finale. 

UF dialed up 515 yards Nov. 12, with 374 coming on the ground. Sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. and freshman Trevor Etienne both eclipsed 100 yards on the day and combined for a pair of touchdowns. The Gators top two running backs, who have combined for 1,277 yards this season, will return and look to make an equal impact next year.

Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson put up 112 yards and two touchdowns through the air against the Gamecocks. He added 96 rush yards and a rushing touchdown, bolstering the Gators’ second-largest margin of victory this season. 

Although he’s just a redshirt sophomore, Richardson could also be departing the team at the end of this year. 

He’s considered by many to be a solid NFL draft prospect, being projected as the second quarterback taken in this year’s draft by CBS Sports. Others argue factors such as his Name, Image and Likeness deals and the prospect of further boosting his draft stock could influence the Gainesville native to stay home another year. On3 Sports reports Richardson has netted more than $1 million from NIL deals. 

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“I haven’t really thought about [leaving UF],” Richardson said. “After the Georgia loss, we have just been trying to get the team rolling again, get back on track.”

Before Napier and the Gators can fully turn the page to next season, however, they face the closing slate of their season. Florida begins its home stretch against its last Southeastern Conference opponent, Vanderbilt, who just won its first game since 2019. 

Cross-state rival Florida State caps off the regular season schedule before the Gators head to an undetermined bowl game. CBS Sports currently projects UF to face Purdue in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa. 

While Napier would like to cap off the year positively and shift his focus to the 2023 class, whose early national signing period takes place Dec. 21-23, he first must see through the 2022 season without a misstep. 

Vanderbilt and FSU are a combined 11-9 against the spread this season. The latter of the two opponents will also serve as an in-state recruiting platform for Napier. While some may view his first season as a success already, there are still opportunities for further accomplishments or a sour end to the year. 

“I would like to think that we go to a bowl,” Napier said. “I’m not really worried about a bowl game. I’m worried about getting that group to keep improving. That’s not how we do it. You get consumed with the things that you can do better.”

Florida kicks off against Vanderbilt in Nashville Saturday at noon. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network. 

Contact Jackson Castellano at jcastellano@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.

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Jackson Castellano

Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.


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