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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Gators look to avoid let down against Charlotte

Florida seeking first three-game winning streak under Billy Napier

Redshirt junior Graham Mertz prepares to snap the ball in the Gators' 29-16 win against the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.
Redshirt junior Graham Mertz prepares to snap the ball in the Gators' 29-16 win against the Tennessee Volunteers Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023.

The first season of the Billy Napier era at Florida was a constant tale of inconsistency. After every big win, a disastrous misstep always seemed to be waiting in the corner. The Gators upset No. 7 Utah in week one, only to shudder against Kentucky the following week.

Florida cruised past Texas A&M and South Carolina late in the year but followed those strong performances with a bizarre loss to Vanderbilt for just the second time this century. 

After a signature win against then-No. 11 Tennessee a week ago, Napier is hoping his team has learned its lesson about let-down games.

The No. 25 Florida Gators (2-1, 1-0 SEC) will face the Charlotte 49ers (1-2, 0-0 AAC) Saturday night in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida will look to secure the first three-game win streak under Napier after a huge victory against rivals Tennessee a week ago.

“I mean you got to hit the reset button,” Napier said. “When we allow the past, maybe, to affect us, that's not what we want.”

It’ll be tough for UF to turn the page after last week’s win, however. The Gators’ 29-16 win over the Vols marked Napier’s first win over a rival and vaulted Florida back into the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since early last season.

Even with the early signs of success, Napier isn’t satisfied just yet.

“Yeah, it's not where we want it to be right now but I think we're getting closer,” Napier said about the team’s culture. “We played average, below average, played McNeese and played pretty good against Tennessee.”

Florida’s offensive line will be significantly shorthanded Saturday. Redshirt sophomore tackle Damieon George Jr. and junior guard Micah Mazzccua are suspended for the first half after a late-game fight against Tennessee. Redshirt senior tight end Dante Zanders is also suspended.

“I think it was to be expected,” Napier said about the suspensions. “Those three players did some in-house work as well.”

The Gators will also be without redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun once again. The veteran leader of the offensive line missed the first two games of the year before making his season debut against the Volunteers.

The suspensions and Eguakan’s injury open the door for several rotation players to get even more opportunities Saturday. 

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Freshman guard Knijeah Harris will make his first career start and redshirt senior tackle Lyndell Hudson will make his first start as a Gator after transferring in from Florida International. Redshirt sophomore Jake Slaughter will make his third start at center.

“I think sometimes injuries, suspensions … they create opportunities for other players, ones that have been working hard and will be looking forward to Saturday,” Napier said. 

The fresh-faced offensive line will have its full platoon of gifted running backs in tow. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne is coming off a career-high 172 yards last week, and junior running back Montrell Johnson scored a pair of touchdowns against Tennessee.

Charlotte is in the middle of a massive transition as it looks to spring a program-altering upset in the Swamp. The 49ers made the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference and brought a new coach with them on the way. 

Former Michigan assistant Biff Poggi will look to bring real success to the program for the first time since they joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2015. It’s been a tough start for Poggi with early blowout losses to Maryland and Georgia State.

Charlotte quarterback Jalon Jones is no stranger to Gainesville. The former blue-chip recruit signed with the Gators and looked to be the future at quarterback. In the Spring of 2019, however, Jones left the program amidst sexual assault allegations.

He played at Jackson State and Bethune-Cookman before eventually returning to major college football with the 49ers this season. Jones has thrown for 252 yards and run for an additional 196.

Trexler Ivey has also seen significant playing time behind center for Charlotte. The redshirt junior leads the team with 330 passing yards.

The 49ers feature several talented defensive playmakers who will look to slow down Etienne and Florida’s offense. Michigan transfer Eyabi Okie anchors the defensive front. Veteran linebackers Prince Bemah and Demetrius Knight II run the middle of the defense. 

Safety Wayne Jones leads the team in total tackles and leads the team in tackles.

“​​I think the big thing here is you got a boatload of Power 5 transfers,” Napier said. “They're going to look the part, [Poggi]’s got them playing hard independent of the score.”

The game will kick off at 7 p.m. and be streamed on SEC Network+.

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

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