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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Billy Napier faces turning point following underwhelming second season

Gators have had a losing record the last three seasons

UF head coach Billy Napier and the Gators prepare to enter Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Florida's 24-15 loss to the Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.
UF head coach Billy Napier and the Gators prepare to enter Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Florida's 24-15 loss to the Florida State Seminoles on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

Florida held a 12-0 lead against one of its biggest rivals with a chance to pull a season-saving upset. The then-No. 5 Florida State Seminoles were on the ropes, and second-year UF head coach Billy Napier had a chance to end a disappointing year with a massive upset.

It wasn’t to be.

FSU backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker took the final knee after a dominant second half allowed the Noles to escape with a 24-15 win. The loss was yet another chapter in a year of “what-ifs” for the Florida Gators.

Florida finished its season 5-7. The Gators have now finished with a losing season for three straight years, something that hasn’t happened since 1945-1947. The disappointing season is an early inflection point for Napier.

Napier is 11-14 in two seasons in Gainesville. Florida is 6-10 in SEC play during that time and 1-5 against its biggest rivals: Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee. UF also lost to four-win Arkansas this season and, in 2022, fell to Vanderbilt for just the second time this century.

The results aren’t the standard Florida expects for its football program, but Napier remains optimistic about the state of the rebuild in the Swamp.

“I've got belief in the players, that's what I would say,” Napier said after the Gators’ loss to FSU. “I've got belief in what I've observed from that group.”

Florida can point to youth as a sign of hope for the future. Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III excelled in his first college season. He finished with 538 receiving yards and a team-high six receiving touchdowns.

Several other young Gators made strides offensively. 

Redshirt freshmen tight ends Arlis Boardingham and Hayden Hansen both developed into capable starters by season’s end. Sophomore tailback Trevor Etienne continued to build on a strong freshman season with a productive second campaign. 

Napier’s drawn criticism for his handling of the offense — namely, his decision to call plays on game day — but Florida’s offense showed plenty of potential throughout the season beyond a smattering of young stars.

Critics viewed redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz as one of the worst quarterbacks in the conference entering the season. However, Mertz turned in the best season of his career and was one of the most efficient passers in the entire country this year.

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Despite these promising pieces, the results remained average. Florida finished firmly in the middle of the pack of the SEC offensively. The Gators were seventh in offensive yards per game and ninth in scoring offense in the conference.

Florida may or may not make significant changes offensively. As of Wednesday, the Gators have yet to make an offensive coaching change, and Napier has yet to announce if he’ll delegate play-calling duties.

Offense wasn’t Florida’s problem this season, however. As average as the Gators may have been on that side of the ball, UF’s defense once again turned in a disastrous season. 

Things started well for first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong. Florida held its first four opponents to less than 24 points. The Gators held then-No. 11 Tennessee to 16 points in an early season upset victory, and it looked like UF turned the corner defensively for the first time in years.

This run turned out to be an illusion.

Florida allowed 30 or more points in six of its last eight games. The Gators struggled to contain explosive plays all season. UF ranked 86th in the country in plays allowed for 20 or more yards. 

Florida also failed to generate havoc. The Gators ranked third-to-last in sacks and last in interceptions in the SEC.

Staff changes have already started for Florida’s defense. Veteran secondary coach Corey Raymond and defensive line coach Sean Spencer were both let go Monday night after two years in Gainesville.

Florida’s defense was even younger than its offense this past season. Raymond’s secondary, especially, was filled with freshmen and sophomores. Freshman safety Jordan Castell started most of the season and led the team with 60 total tackles. 

Freshman safety Bryce Thornton and sophomore safety Miguel Mitchell also played significant roles throughout the year. 

The Gators’ front seven had a bit more experience, thanks in part to a few key transfers, but the depth was built primarily of freshmen and sophomores. Freshmen TJ Searcy, Kamran James and Kelby Collins all played key roles defensively.

Redshirt senior Teradja Mitchell, one of the few veterans on Florida’s defense, said this season’s disappointment can be a teaching point for all the young players.

“They're taking those losses as young players,” Mitchell said after the loss to FSU. “Eventually, as they grow into the program, they're not going to want to feel that feeling anymore.”

While the Gators continue to develop on both sides of the ball, discipline and detail mistakes haunted Florida throughout the season. 

UF was flagged for having two players wearing the same jersey number on a punt return in the season opener against Utah, extending a drive for the Utes that ended in a touchdown. 

Mistakes like this became the norm all year.

Florida racked 90 penalty yards against the Seminoles, including a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on redshirt freshman Jamari Lyons for spitting on an opponent. Lyons was ejected from the game for this penalty. 

“The penalties, obviously, those are things that we need to address,” Napier said after the loss. “There's no excuse for those. I think some of those were technical, and some of those were decision-making.”

Napier and the Gators will continue to evaluate the staff and roster as the offseason starts to heat up. The Transfer Portal will officially open Dec. 4, and Florida is already seeing turnover on the roster with tight end Jonathan Odom and kicker Adam Mihalek announcing transfers away.

UF also needs to get its 2024 signing class across the finish line. The Gators have the fifth-ranked class in the 247Sports composite team rankings, but three four-star recruits flipped away from Florida in recent weeks.

The Gators will look to hold on to high-profile commits, such as five-star quarterback DJ Lagway and five-star safety Xavier Filsaime, and also land other big targets on the board. 

Five-star offensive lineman Jordan Seaton is one of the top uncommitted players on the board, and he named Florida in his top seven Nov. 17. 

Five-star wide receiver Jeremiah Smith — the top-ranked player in the 247 composite — is committed to Ohio State, but UF continues to push for his signature ahead of early signing day.

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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