Florida football notebook: Billy Napier hopes established discipline, momentum carries over

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 5, 2022
Florida football notebook: Billy Napier hopes established discipline, momentum carries over

Image Credit: UAA

With less than a month until the start of the 2022 college football season, the first for the Florida Gators under new head coach Billy Napier, it’s fair to say outside expectations for the program are mixed. Some believe Florida will be able to turn it around in Year 1 under Napier and jump right back into contention as the second-best team in the SEC East, while others believe the Gators’ roster is too depleted of talent to be a factor against the top opponents on their schedule.

The word of the day when Florida opened camp Tuesday was “discipline.” It was on the minds of players as a characteristic stressed above any other by coaches during spring practice and summer workouts leading into the season. For a Gators team that tied for 122nd nationally (out of 130 teams!) in penalties last season with 105, the lack of discipline was constantly the most apparent contributing factor to the program’s lack of success on the field.

Culture change starts with a team’s coaching and support staff. It then must be embraced by player leadership before it trickles down to the rank and file. Not until discipline has taken root throughout a program can it capitalize on the fresh voice of its coaching staff, the improve fitness of its players or the skills those players bring to the table.

The good news for Florida? Napier believes the Gators are almost where they need to be with their discipline and attention to detail. Some of his top stewards — those wearing whistles or helmets — feel the same way.

“That’s been a huge change for us, in my opinion. That was an issue that we had, just discipline,” said sophomore defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr. “That was one of the biggest things that needed to be changed with [Napier] coming in. Changing that has made a huge difference on us already.”

He continued: “[It’s] a huge, huge discipline difference. Just you’ll see a family out there [on the field]. It won’t be an individual this or that. It’ll be, like I said, all the guys going the same way. That will be the biggest thing you’ll see out there.”

Change does not come overnight, of course. Dexter noted how the demand for discipline took some players by surprise. He pointed to an example of every player being asked to not only wear white socks but have them fit the same way.

Mark Hocke, Florida’s new director of strength and conditioning, defined discipline by pointing to a quote from former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. “Discipline is doing what you hate to do, but nonetheless doing it like you love it,” Tyson once said.

“They come here to play football. They don’t always come here to do the conditioning, running, the sprints, the heavy lifting, waking up really early,” Hocke explained. “… It’s doing what you don’t necessarily love to do like you love it. And that’s what I can say about this team. They’re learning to love it, and the second you learn to love the hard work is the second you got a chance to separate. … If you can get a group of guys that [are talented and] love the hard work, too … that’s when you’re cooking with hot grease.”

At no single position was the focus on discipline more integral than the offensive line. Position coach and offensive coordinator Rob Sale witnessed a stark improvement in his unit not only over the course of the spring but through the offseason program into the summer.

“We came a long ways since the spring. What was in the past is the past,” Sale said. “… We’re going to put them in the spots we need them to be. But they have done everything [assistant OL coach Darnell] Stapleton and I asked them to do when it comes to discipline and taking the coaching, coach-me-coach mentality. I’ve been very pleased with the group, so I expect good things, and we’re going to play well.”

Discipline is just one facet of the game Florida needed to tackle before the season began. While it may be the foundation of on-field success, the Gators still have plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Key takeaways

Start of Phase 6: The Gators began a 22-day training camp on Wednesday, marking the fifth time the playbook is being installed with the program. Napier said Friday that he saw plenty of progress through the first couple of days, including the group’s chemistry and ability to properly execute team procedures and protocols. With Florida ironing out some of the wrinkles, he said Thursday’s practice was executed at the “pace and efficiency” he expects from the team. (The team will dress in full gear for the first time Monday.)

“We’ve got a lot of momentum. Been very impressed with the progress that we made from the summer,” Napier said Tuesday citing improved strength, speed and body composition of the players. He added: “I think we grew. Our culture grew. The chemistry, the morale, and overall the level of discipline improved the accountability.”

Ones and (some) twos: “[The team is a] work in progress,” Napier said Tuesday. “We’ve got a lot of roles that are to be determined. It’s going to be highly competitive, not only with the starters at some positions but even within those twos and threes. We have a big chunk of our roster that has very little experience here.”

Napier was speaking about every position, but he expressed particular concern about the depth up front where he said Florida has starters and about half a set of replacements on the offensive and defensive lines. Asked by local media about the wide receivers, he said the group’s overall improvement and work ethic deserved praise, but there have been a lack of standouts to the point that he could see the position “being a weekly competition [into the season].”

Gators get physical: One aspect of the program that seems not to concern Napier one iota is the physicality of the players. Napier does not often show levity when discussing football, but he cracked a smile and chuckled a bit when asked whether Florida has improved to that end. “I’m not concerned about the physicality of this group,” he said with a smirk. “We do not have that problem. … This group embraces physicality; they embrace toughness. They love to compete. You can sense that when you’re on the grass with them. That won’t be a problem here.”

Notes as practice gets underway

The long-awaited Heavener Football Training Center will officially open on Sunday, Aug. 14. Suffice to say, the Gators are excited. But there’s a caveat to that anticipation as Hocke pointed out this week. “[Moving into the new facility,] you’re losing any and every excuse because, not just the weight room, that whole building is going to be really impressive head to toe,” he said. “… That’s going to get us in the ballpark or conversations to where that can be the premier facility in college football. And at the end of the day, if you want to be the best, that’s what your resources need to be, too.”

Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill, who was projected as a starter last season before tearing his ACL one year ago this month, is still not cleared to practice. Napier listed him as “currently not able to participate” with Hill’s availability to be determined based on his continued recovery and rehabilitation. Florida will build its depth chart without him in consideration, but if he is able to get back into practice, it would be a boon for the secondary.

Redshirt sophomore running back Nay’Quan Wright, perhaps the most electric playmaker on the team, is still recovering from a broken ankle suffered at the end of the 2021 season. Napier said he remains on schedule to play this season before jumping into a string of endless praise of the third-year rusher. “Nay’Quan is one of the players I respect the most on our roster. He is real. He lives life with integrity. He is who he says he is. He’s very consistent in his attitude; his actions match up with his words. He’s a proven player; he’s been productive in a game setting here. This place means something to him. He cares about his teammates. Nay’Quan is one of the players on our team who has a voice that does have impact, and certainly for him to get healthy and have an opportunity to be effective on the field and produce on the field is really healthy for our team.”

No player has received more praise or seen his expectations rise as much this offseason as Dexter, who also became a father on May 9. Despite primarily lining up inside to start his Gators career, Dexter said he has been playing more outside. Coaches have praised his ability to match up against tackles and disrupt the opposing running and passing games.

Redshirt freshman DL Chris Thomas Jr. has rejoined the team after previously being removed from the roster. Napier refused to provide details about Thomas’ status other than to say the program welcomed him back after a procedural issue that was related to eligibility. A member of the Class of 2021, Thomas was rated as the 447th overall prospect in the nation out of Dunbar High School. He played one game last season. Mordecai McDaniel and Fenley Graham Jr. were also removed from the roster in June.

Numbers make the men: Junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, a transfer from Arizona State, joins redshirt junior EDGE Brenton Cox. Jr. as players wearing No. 1 jerseys this season. Senior safety Trey Dean III and sophomore WR Ja’Quavion Fraziars will each wear No. 0.

Quote of the week: “Mate, I just kick the ball. Whoever catches it, catches it.” — Sophomore punter Jeremy Crawshaw when asked who is impressing in the kick and punt return game.

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