Florida hires Austin Armstrong to replace Patrick Toney as two assistants depart, per reports

By OnlyGators.com Staff
February 22, 2023
Florida hires Austin Armstrong to replace Patrick Toney as two assistants depart, per reports

Image Credit: Alex de la Osa / UAA

Among the most disappointing results from the Florida Gators first season under head coach Billy Napier was the play of their defense and tight ends. A unit that looked set for a rebound following the departure of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did anything but when Patrick Toney joined Napier from Louisiana, and the tight ends were basically a non-factor for the offense.

Now, just over a year after their hirings came with promises of a quick turnaround due to their immense talent at young ages, Toney and TE coach William Peagler are on their way out of Gainesville, Florida, nearing deals to join the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals as assistants. Napier confirmed Toney’s departure on Wednesday.

Furthermore, the Gators have come to terms with Alabama inside linebackers coach Austin Armstrong as Toney’s replacement, per ESPN’s Chris Low. Armstrong, who previously served under Napier and got hired by Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban just last month, spent the last two seasons at Southern Miss as the youngest defensive coordinator in the FBS.

He will become UF’s third defensive coordinator in as many seasons.

Under Toney in 2022, Florida ranked 87th in nationally scoring defense (28.85 points per game), 97th in total defense (411.0 yards per game) and 129th in third-down defense (49.7%) out of 131 teams. Though the Gators had legitimate holes on their unit, they also had a number of talented players, and all too frequently Toney’s scheme appeared to be at blame for blown coverages and a lack of aggressiveness on third down.

In hiring Armstrong, Napier will be replacing one of the youngest defensive coordinators in the FBS who had no Power Five experience before joining Florida (Toney, nearly 33 years old) with the youngest defensive coordinator in the FBS who similarly has no Power Five experience (Armstrong, 29 years old).

Over Armstrong’s two years as a coordinator, the Golden Eagles never finished better than 42nd in total defense or 45th in scoring defense, though they did impress last season ranking among the top 10 nationally in tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions and fourth-down conversions. In 2021, they ranked among the top 10 nationally in first downs allowed, fumbles recovered, red-zone defense and defensive touchdowns.

Armstrong previously worked under Napier for two years at Louisiana as inside linebackers coach (2020) and a defensive graduate assistant (2018). During his one year away from the Ragin’ Cajuns, he was a defensive quality control coach under Kirby Smart at Georgia (2019).

Interestingly, FootballScoop.com quoted a source that referred to Armstrong as “perhaps a young Kirby Smart,” when he was a candidate for the Bama role.

With Toney departing and Armstrong likely coaching inside linebackers, the Gators will need a safeties coach unless they promote cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond to oversee the entire secondary or move current ILB coach Jay Bateman into that role. Bateman previously coached safeties at North Carolina. Mike Peterson is also on staff as outside linebackers coach.

While some may be pleased the Gators are moving on from Toney and Peagler, the circumstances and timing of their departures, coupled with the relative inexperience of Armstrong, are concerning. Napier needing to replace his top assistant in Toney, perhaps of his own volition, raises the question of the initial hire. These moves coming just weeks before the start of spring practice is also unusual in the college hiring cycle.

Now in replacing him, Napier is following the same formula leaning on youth and potential over proven results and experience.

This while Alabama hired veteran 40-year veteran Kevin Steele, 64, and Miami replaced Steele with Lance Guidry, 51, who led one of the nation’s top 10 defenses last season out of Marshall. Geoff Collins, Jim Leonhard and Charlie Strong were among the veteran coordinators available, though Leonhard is interviewing with NFL teams.

Perhaps Florida should have looked to a veteran coordinator as Toney’s replacement or at least one who has experience coaching and recruiting at the sport’s top level. While Napier is clearly familiar with Armstrong — and Saban certainly has a terrific track record hiring assistants — it’s a major jump in competition moving from a middle-of-the-road Southern Miss to Florida, particularly midway through an offseason.

The Gators’ tight ends last year combined for 30 receptions, 326 yards and three touchdowns. While Florida was incredibly thin at the position due to offseason departures and injuries, the unit struggled massively with almost no improvement by season’s end. Furthermore, the Gators were unable to sign from a top-flight player at the position during the last recruiting cycle.

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