Will retooled Florida Gators offense improve enough for Billy Napier to retain controls?

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 30, 2023
Will retooled Florida Gators offense improve enough for Billy Napier to retain controls?

Image Credit: UAA

There’s no doubt that the Florida Gators’ defense was its weak point in Year 1 under head coach Billy Napier; however, it was hardly the lone reason for Florida’s 6-7 record. The Gators’ inconsistent offense, which featured a lack of running by quarterback Anthony Richardson and nary a passing play to their talented, game-breaking running backs, was similarly at issue.

Florida managed just 16 points against Kentucky in a Week 2 loss that erased momentum from the sterling Week 1 win over Utah, only 24 points against Vanderbilt in a shocking upset and only three (three!) in its bowl game.

Going into the season, Napier’s decision to install himself as the team’s play caller and quarterbacks coach — despite leading a Power Five team for the first time — was curious. By the time the year ended, it was worthy of significant criticism.

Yet despite three changes to the coaching staff this offseason and no prior proof that Napier is a particularly masterful as an offensive play caller, he retained his roles, and the Gators will have to deal with that across at least one more season — for better or worse. (Certainly, the hope is that “better” wins out by year’s end.)

Perhaps Richardson was an imperfect fit for Napier’s system. Well, he became the No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft and is now slated to start Week 1 for the Indianapolis Colts — similarly, for better or worse as a rookie with minimal experience as a starter.

In steps redshirt junior transfer Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), who was officially named starter on Aug. 11 in a move that was expected from the second he committed to the program following an absolutely wild offseason for Florida at the quarterback position.

Mertz is certainly not going to be a barn-burner for the Gators, though Napier has been impressed at his ability to quickly pick up the system while showing a relentless approach both on and off the field. While quarterbacks are often named offensive team captains, Mertz was quick to earn the role and the respect of his teammates.

Still, anything beyond Mertz emerging as a capable game management would be a surprising result. As a three-year starter at Wisconsin, he went 19-13 completing 59% of his passes and averaging around 7 yards per completion with 38 touchdowns to 26 interceptions.

  • 2020: 61.1%, 1,238 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT
  • 2021: 59.5%, 1,958 yards, 10 TD, 11 INT
  • 2021: 57.3%, 2,136 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT

Sacks were an issue, particularly given the team deployed such a run-heavy offense. However, the Badgers had significant injuries to its offensive front, and Mertz himself was banged up throughout the 2022 season. Beyond his seeming lack of passing talent, though, Mertz is neither a dual-threat QB nor a willing runner; he has -65 yards rushing over the last two seasons due to those sacks.

Players have been positive about Mertz — one would expect teammates not to be negative publicly about their quarterback — and Mertz himself has expressed his fondness for the checks in Napier’s offensive system. The flexibility he will have to change plays and make adjustments on the fly during games is a role he has not been given previously.

Senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall stressed that Napier and Mertz’s comments about the quarterback’s comfort in the system is an accurate reflection of what is going on behind the scenes as well.

“Yeah, I think he’s really excited [to make checks]. He keeps telling me each and every day how excited he is and how good this system is to him, and Napier has a lot of trust in him, so he’s given him that freedom to do that, so I’m excited for him as much as myself,” the wideout said.

Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. said Mertz’s experience shows up on the field, while his leadership has made a difference off it. He appreciates the way Mertz speaks like a coach and shows accountability.

Pearsall called Mertz’s passes “very catchable” and “really friendly” to receivers. He appreciates that the quarterback “puts a little heat” on the ball and believes they, in particular, have developed strong chemistry in the offseason.

“We’ve developed a lot of trust over this past offseason training,” Pearsall said. “We get extra catches before and after each practice, so we go through that at practice, and obviously we’re throwing a lot of balls and going through all of our plays and our script and developing that trust. But then we get that extra work — any things that we miss maybe in practice or some extra stuff that we want to work on. We’ve come a long ways for sure.”

In terms of Pearsall himself, Napier was effusive in his praise.

“He’s primed for a great year. He’s definitely … he made some big plays in the scrimmage, made one big explosive play early in the [off]season,” the coach said. “Yeah, got a ton of confidence in Ricky, definitely build around him. He’s a guy who sets a really good example for some of the young guys in the room. Ricky’s … bigger than you think, faster and more explosive than you think. And he’s highly skilled. The guy can get open, and he makes plays on the ball.”

Young receivers draw rave reviews

Rebuilding the playmaking positions was a primary focus of Napier as he recruited the Class of 2023. He appeared to accomplish that hauling in Eugene Wilson III, Aidan Mizell and Andy Jean as wideouts. All three have impressed since enrolling in January, largely due to their speed. However, none are listed as starters on the Gators’ Week 1 depth chart. It’s fair to expect that will change as the season progresses.

“Receiver is still a very skilled position, so it’s one thing to be fast and another to play fast,” Napier explained. “There’s a mental component here relative to my assignment, my technique, my adjustment to the coverage. Whether it’s steps or depth or landmarks on the field, we’re seeing them get comfortable. … Those guys, they got character, they want to be good players, they’re good teammates. They’re hard at work trying to improve their role relative to the team.” 

Wilson is expected — at this early juncture — to be the standout of the group, and his teammates are happy to explain why.

  • Mertz: “He’s good. Yeah, he’s good. Extremely talented. Extremely talented. … I haven’t seen a young guy that fast, that twitchy that retains information that quickly, knows how to get open. He’s shifty, man.”
  • Pearsall: “He’s a really quick, dude. He’s quick. I’m excited for him as much as you guys are excited for him. … He’s just a playmaker. It kind of looks easy for him when he’s out there. He snags the ball very naturally. Obviously has really good routes. He’s really quick in and out of his routes, any type of routes, so I think that’s really important as a receiver. But he’s taken tremendous strides. I’m really excited for him.”
  • Sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr.: “He makes it hard on me. It’s iron sharpens iron. He’s getting better. I’m getting better preparing him for the games coming up. Very explosive guy, twitchy, quick in and out of his breaks.”

Running backs can catch, too

When rushers like Johnson and sophomore Trevor Etienne are in your backfield, the goal should be to get them the ball as frequently as possible. While both toted the rock plenty in 2022, passes to the talented ball carriers were few and far between.

The duo combined for only 21 receptions, an average of 1.6 per game — less than one per player — on the season. They were also rarely, if ever, on the field together, a tactic that certainly could be employed to draw the defense’s eyes to more than one backfield talent.

Both Johnson and Etienne expressed their desire to catch passes, and Etienne was particularly excited for what he believes will be opportunities to do as much this season. Johnson is confident that they will be able to execute the plays as long as they are a continuous part of the gameplans.

“I feel like we’re implementing it this year. We’ve been working on a lot of stuff out of the backfield with the running backs, stuff in the slot with the running backs, so I’m excited for this year,” he said.


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