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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

“Renewed accountability”: Napier, Gators look for progress in 2023

Florida went 6-7 in its 2022 campaign

<p>Austin Simmons flipped his commitment to Ole Miss Saturday, June 17, 2023. </p>

Austin Simmons flipped his commitment to Ole Miss Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Florida head coach Billy Napier spoke about his excitement to learn and compete in arguably the fiercest conference in football at his first Southeastern Conference Media Days in 2022.

With a year on the field under his belt and a full offseason to evaluate, Napier took the podium at 2023 SEC Media Days with a new focus: his team, his expectations and his culture.

“I think we’ve defined expectations, renewed accountability and there’s a different level of discipline,” Napier said.

The 2022 Florida Gators went 6-7 in year one under Napier and went through their fair share of growing pains. Napier’s personnel did a detailed review of the team’s performance beginning in January 2023, he said. 

Napier and company made strides in the offseason, landing high-level recruits and rebuilding depth from the transfer portal. But progress must be made on the field in order for Napier’s vision for the Gators football program to stick.

Florida will have a new identity on offense following the loss of star quarterback Anthony Richardson to the NFL and an influx of young talent. One aspect that will remain consistent is Napier. He will once again call the plays on offense for UF this season.

“I like having my hands on the scripts, the installation, that process,” Napier said. “I think I can help us establish our identity and personality as a team through that process.” 

Napier will rely on a strong running back room of junior Montrell Johnson Jr., sophomore Trevor Etienne and redshirt senior Cam Carroll, but the offense will still need a semblance of consistency at quarterback to find success in the SEC. 

It’s still unclear who will take up responsibility under center. Most signs point to Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz. The junior threw for 2,136 yards and 19 touchdowns with the Badgers in 2022. He committed to the Gators through the transfer portal Dec. 21. 

“We went through an extensive process to make that decision … This guy has an incredible motor and work ethic,” Napier said. 

Also competing for the starting quarterback position is redshirt sophomore Jack Miller III. Miller made his first start as a Gator in a 30-3 defeat against Oregon State at the Las Vegas Bowl Dec. 17 — just four days before Mertz’s commitment. He went 13/22 in the air for 180 yards.

“Jack’s had an incredible offseason and he’s in position for a great camp,” Napier said.

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The quarterback competition will stretch into Fall training camp, Napier said, and the team will make a decision when they see fit.

One big name returning to the Gators’ offense is wide receiver Ricky Pearsall. The senior led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns last year and is the outright No. 1 wide receiver on UF’s roster this season.

Pearsall called both of his potential starting quarterbacks talented and said competition will benefit the two. 

“I don’t think we can really go wrong,” Pearsall said. 

Florida faces an inverse situation defensively. Despite multiple returning starters and young talent ready to take a step forward, a new face is at the helm of the Gators’ defense: first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong.

Armstrong ran Southern Mississippi’s “Nasty Bunch” from 2021 to 2022. He previously served under Kirby Smart at Georgia as a quality control coach. 

Junior defensive back Jason Marshall Jr. said Armstrong brings energy to the Florida locker room. 

“It’s contagious to everybody to uplift the energy and uplift the play,” Marshall said. 

Florida will need its defense in top-notch form as it faces a tough SEC schedule, primarily in rowdy environments. UF will play just three conference games in the Swamp this season against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. 

The Gators were polled to finish fifth in the SEC East among 2023 Media Days attendees. Only Florida and Mizzou received zero first-place votes in the east. 

The Gators have a chip on their shoulders heading into the 2023 season and have bought into Napier’s program, Marshall said.

“Everybody’s bought in,” Marshall said. “It’s gonna be a big change.”

Florida kicks off its 2023 campaign at Utah at 8 p.m. Aug. 31. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

“It’s gonna be a great challenge, and one that we look forward to,” Napier said. 

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

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Jackson Castellano

Jackson Castellano is a third-year sports media journalism student and the Digital Managing Editor at The Alligator for Spring 2024. In the past, he's served as the Sports Editor, Assistant Sports Editor and a Sports Reporter covering Football, Men's basketball and Baseball.


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