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Friday, April 12, 2024

Gators football set to prepare for intimidating 2024 schedule

Florida will hold its first spring practice March 7

Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III dives toward the end zone in the Gators' 39-36 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.
Freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III dives toward the end zone in the Gators' 39-36 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

When the Florida football team walked off of the field Nov. 25 after its final game against Florida State, a feeling in the air loomed over The Swamp: Billy Napier may be running out of time. 

After finishing his second year 5-7 and losing their past five games, Napier and the Gators failed to qualify for a Bowl game for the first time since 2017. 

And as the offseason began, there were multiple areas the program had to address with a daunting 2024 conference schedule looming in year three of the Napier Era. 

UF will play nine teams in ESPN’s “Way-Too-Early” college football top 25, including three top 10 teams. 

Florida begins its preparation on the field for the 2024 season March 7 in its first spring practice. Headlined by multiple new coaches and a solid 2024 recruiting class, Florida will begin bracing itself for an eight-game conference schedule at the Gators’ practice facility. 

Dozens of new faces will take the field. The offseason was illuminated by a coaching carousel among the Gators organization. The program lost key coaches in certain areas but added well-respected veterans to the staff. 

Most recently, Napier is promoting tight ends coach Russ Callaway to co-offensive coordinator. The move may not come as a surprise, as Napier said Feb. 7 Callaway would “acquire more responsibility.” 

“Ultimately, Russ is a heck of a young coach,” Napier said. “Has the leadership components, has the respect of the players. Russ is a guy we’re certainly excited about.”

However, Napier said he doesn’t plan on changing who calls the plays on offense. 

“Ultimately, we’ll keep the same system,” he said. 

Florida’s director of scouting Joe Hamilton, who had spent the last five seasons with Napier at UF and Louisiana, is departing to join Texas A&M’s staff. Hamilton played a major role in the program’s recruiting success. 

Additionally, former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is set to join the staff as an analyst. Enos has years of experience with programs including Alabama, Miami and Maryland. The former Razorbacks offensive coordinator was fired in October 2023. 

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Napier boosted his strength staff Dec. 30 when he announced Craig Fitzgerald would be the team’s director of football performance. However, Fitzgerald’s stint with Florida was short-lived, and he departed to join Boston College’s staff for a similar position under new head coach Bill O’Brien. Fitzgerald and O’Brien worked together at Penn State and in the NFL. 

So, Napier promoted Tyler Miles to be UF’s new head strength coach. Miles joined the staff in 2023 after stints with Duke and Miami. 

Ron Roberts, Gerald Chatman and Will Harris will coach the Gators' defense for the first time after joining the staff in the offseason. Roberts will be the co-defensive coordinator, Chatman the defensive line coach and Harris the secondary coach. 

Players wise, Florida’s 2024 recruiting class is highlighted by two five-stars in quarterback DJ Lagway and offensive lineman LJ McCray. 

Lagway won numerous awards in his final high school season, earning Gatorade National Player of the Year and MaxPreps National Player of the Year. 

McCray, from Daytona Beach, Florida, is ranked as the No. 2 defensive lineman and the 10th-ranked player in the country, per On3 Sports. McCray also earned the Anthony Muñoz Lineman of the Year, given to the top high school lineman in the class of 2024. 

UF took advantage of the transfer portal during the offseason, adding 11 transfers to the roster. Asa Turner, Jameer Grimsley and Joey Slackman highlight the transfer portal class.

Turner is a safety from the University of Washington and started in the Pac-12 Championship Game, as well as both of the Huskies’ College Football Playoff Games. 

Florida was able to flip Grimsley from the University of Alabama, and Slackman transferred from the University of Pennsylvania and was named the 2023 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. 

Despite losing multiple key players to the transfer portal, the Gators return talent to their roster. Graham Mertz returns as quarterback for the 2024 season, and Montrell Johnson Jr. will be the main running back after the departure of Trevor Etienne. 

Wide receiver Eugene Wilson Jr. returns after a strong freshman season, and he’ll be the main target for Mertz. 

“This is probably the best group of players we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Napier said Feb. 7. 

Florida will open spring practice at the James W. “Bill” Heavener Football Training Center March 7. The Gators will play their annual Orange and Blue Game April 13 at 1 p.m. at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

Contact Bennett Solomon at bsolomon@alligator.org. Follow him on X @B_Soly11.

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