Florida Football Friday Final: No. 12 Gators brush off success, focus on test from No. 20 Kentucky

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 9, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: No. 12 Gators brush off success, focus on test from No. 20 Kentucky

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath, UAA

While the Florida Gators may have made history last week as they opened the season with a win over the reigning Pac-12 champions and No. 7-ranked team in the nation, all they did was increase the expectations and pressure for the program over the remainder of the 2022 season. Florida had its chance for a deserved celebration with some players staying up until the wee morning Sunday morning hours, but once wake up came after sunrise, it was time to shift focus.

“You got to understand you can’t be complacent. You’ve got to understand that there’s room for improvement, and the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement,” said redshirt freshman defensive end Tyreak Sapp coming out of the Utah game. “You’ve got to take that for what it is and move on to the next week and have laser-beam focus on the next team and get ready for your next opponent.”

That’s surely music to the ears of head coach Billy Napier, who saw “a lot of good, a lot of bad [and] some ugly” in Florida’s season-opening win. While Napier admitted it’s “good to be 1-0” and found plenty of positives – mental toughness, togetherness, ability to overcome adversity and respond well in critical moments, red zone efficiency, effort, passion, chemistry, morale and leadership – that mass of compliments were outweighed massively by what the Gators actually put on tape.

“The film is sloppy, just so we’re all on the same page. I know we’re ready to put the crown on the Gators, but the Gators got a lot of work to do to play at our expectation and our standard,” he said. “… Anybody that watched that film or watched that game on TV would say, ‘Hey, the Gators played hard, man. They competed.’ That’s what I’m proud of. The football? We got work to do.”

He continued: “You’ve got to operate in truth, right? Operate in truth, tell the truth. Sometimes, we hear the things we want to hear and we don’t hear some of the things we need to hear. So, just remaining objective, evaluate it for what exactly it is. Sometimes we get consumed with the results. Reality is we need to always evaluate, win or loss, independent of the result. What does the film look like, and what can we do better?”

That’s not to say the film was all bad. Napier admitted there were a couple “wow” moments when the game was reviewed by the coaching staff over the weekend. The problem? They were too few and far between for his liking.

“I don’t know that we did anything ‘elite’ in the game. We did a lot of things very average in the game and some below average. And we made some ‘wow’ plays,” he said. “There were times where we did it exactly right, and it was beautiful. But the percentage of that was too low for me. We want to have more plays where we have 11 players doing exactly what they are coached to do.”

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s what Alabama head coach Nick Saban refers to as avoiding the rat poison — blocking out the positive so one does not ignore the negative. Given Florida was elevated from the throngs of the discredited (38th receiving votes in the Preseason AP Top 25) to suddenly among the top half of that poll (entering at No. 12 following Week 1), there’s been plenty of poison to go around.

UF cannot concentrate on that as it awaits a tough test from No. 20 Kentucky on Saturday. Though the Gators will have their faithful creating a significant homefield advantage with a second straight sold-out game in The Swamp, the Wildcats are a formidable opponent that has won two of the last four games in the series after not winning once the 34 years prior.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for coach [Mark] Stoops and what he’s been able to do there, just the consistency, their improvement as a program,” he said. “… They’re sound. They know who they are on offense, defense and special teams. I see a good set of fundamentals in all three phases, and they do a good job of evaluating players, and they’ve got some height, length, and speed.

“They have some good players that maybe weren’t highly regarded, but they’re just as good as anybody in the country. This is a good developmental program that I have nothing but respect for. So, you’ve got to beat Kentucky; they’re going to make you beat them.”

While Napier admitted that it’s coach-speak, he does believe in the “one week at a time — one competitive event at a time” mantra. Given it’s also coach-speak that the most improvement for a program comes between Week 1 and Week 2 in a particular season, Napier expects the Gators to step up their level of play against the Wildcats.

“You settle into the routine a little bit. You get to start over, erase the board,” said Napier, explaining why teams are able to step up their play in the second week of a season. “… Our approach is, during the season, we want to be a well-oiled machine. Week 1 to Week 2 is partly that way because you got probably 30% of your building where everything is brand new; they’ve never done any of this before. That’s magnified with a new staff. I’m hopeful that we will improve each week and get consumed with the process of preparing the team so they can play with confidence.”

Injury updates

Redshirt sophomore long snapper Marco Ortiz suffered an undisclosed upper body injury last week against Utah and will miss Saturday’s game with no timeline for his return. Redshirt freshman Rocco Underwood, who saw action against the Utes and last season in the Gasparilla Bowl, takes his place as the starter with redshirt sophomore Chase Whittfield serving as backup.

Sophomore cornerback Jaydon Hill, a projected 2021 starter who tore his ACL prior to last season, has returned to practice with an eye on getting into games soon, Napier said Wednesday night. Hill played 22 games and made five stars across his first two seasons at Florida. Getting him back into the mix will only help strengthen a Gators secondary that aims for a resurgence this season. “We’re excited Jaydon Hill started doing some things in practice this week,” Napier said.

Depth chart updates

Quarterback: Unlike last week, when redshirt freshman Jalen Kitna was the decided backup, redshirt sophomore walk-on Kyle Engel has earned an “OR” designation.

Running back: Left off the depth chart in Week 1, redshirt junior Lorenzo Lingard now carries an “OR” designation alongside freshman Trevor Etienne at third string.

Safety: Behind senior Trey Dean III, Miguel Mitchell has added an “OR” designation competing with Week 1 backup sophomore Donovan McMillon for the second-string job.

Big man (will be) on campus

Florida hosted a number of huge visitors in Week 1 and will do so again in Week 2, but arguably its top target in the Class of 2024 will be on campus this weekend for the Kentucky game. Five-star quarterback DJ Lagway (Willis, TX), the fifth-ranked signal caller in the nation by 247Sports, will be in town for his second unofficial visit in six weeks as the Gators look to open the season with a second statement victory. It’s too early to say where Florida stands with the talented prospect, but the interest both ways appears to be significant.

There’s no question that the experience of The Swamp, the experience of the fans, the passion, the tradition, that’s a unique game day venue, and for a kid that comes here, maybe grew up coming here, but maybe that’s the first time [he’s visiting]. He’s sitting in there and he lives that – that’s hard to ignore,” Napier said of last week’s recruiting visits.

Cleaning out the notebook

Napier on his philosophy: “Football is a game that’s about people, strategy and competition. If you ever put strategy or competition at the top of that list, you’re not going to get the return you want. You got to keep people at the core of what you do. If you get to thinking you’re going outsmart everybody, you’re wrong. If you get to thinking you’re going to outwork everybody, you’re wrong. There’s the right combination of those three, and you got to keep people at the core of what you do.”

Napier on the run defense falling apart in the second half last week: “It comes down to precision and our play. [Utah’s] a physical team. … The backs are big. We need to align correctly. We need to communicate at a high level, align correctly, get our eyes on the right things and use the fundamentals and techniques we’re coached to use and play team defense.”

Playing his first game in The Swamp last week, Johnson saw disaster strike when he fumbled on the first series of the game. While he knows he will pay his dues in practice this week for his miscue, Johnson was able to rebound nicely against Utah because the coaches kept him in the game, showing they had a lot of trust in him. As such, Johnson saw the night as one to remember: “Uncomparable,” he said of the atmosphere at Florida Field when asked how it stacked up to Texas’ Darrel K. Memorial Stadium. “The Swamp was so much louder, so much more intensity, more humid. It was just way better.”

Johnson on Etienne: “I like that he’s a shifty kind of runner. He has great lateral quickness, and he gets off well, and he’s a home run threat. … He’s going to be a great player for us in the future.”

Sapp saw the first action of his career Saturday night and was one the field for the biggest moment of the game, senior linebacker Amari Burney’s game-clinching interception. To say it wills tick with him would be an understatement. “It was like — it’s unexplainable. I was just so happy and just like one of those electrifying moments in football where you can’t really explain it with words. It’s all just reactions from there. I was so happy for Amari, and that was the crazy thing, it happened on my first game ever playing. One of the best parts about it is I contributed to that.”

Sapp on the coaching staff’s goal: “They are building a tough, mean, nasty team ready to play anybody. Any type of high combatants, we’re ready for that. That’s what we’re trying to be.”

Sapp on redshirt senior LB Ventrell Miller: V. Mill is a phenomenal player. He plays his heart out every play. He understands the job. He understands the situation. He’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that he gets his job done and understand and make sure everybody else gets their job done because he knows he’s that general in the middle.”

Sapp on sophomore DE Gervon Dexter Sr.: “Dex is one of those guys, he has a business-like mentality, but he understands — even though he’s now been playing this game for a long time, he understands what it takes and how to actually prepare for a football game. He just lets us know week and week out we’ve got to come with a dog mentality. We’ve got to come prepared.”

Sapp on freshman DE Chris McClellan: “I see him. Young guy can play, man. I love that he comes out with a fight. Even though he didn’t get as many opportunities, that kid has a bright future ahead. He’s a big kid. He plays fast. He’s excited. That’s one guy who we’re going to have to watch out for. He’s going to build his way up for more playing time and get more opportunities.”

Napier on sophomore nose tackle Desmond Watson: “Des is a work in progress. He’s addressing some of his habits. He’s made a different level of commitment in some of those areas, and he’s starting to see the returns on that. … Des can be a weapon for our team if he continues in the right direction, but very much a work in progress and a guy that we need to step up, we need to have a significant impact because, that guy, he’s a unique player.”

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