Florida Football Friday Final: Gators have momentum, must avoid complacency vs. Charlotte

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 22, 2023
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators have momentum, must avoid complacency vs. Charlotte

Image Credit: Mallory Peak, UAA

A rousing victory last week have the No. 25 Florida Gators riding high entering Week 4, so much so that head coach Billy Napier has been frustrated with the way the program has approached preparation for the Charlotte 49ers. On more than one occasion in the middle of the week, he criticized his team for not living up to expectations in practice.

Napier said football requires players to enter practice each week with a level of humility as they block out their prior success and prepare for an upcoming opponent. Then as the weekend approaches, players must find a level of confidence in themselves — along with a bit of fear for what their opponent might be able to accomplish — before stepping on the field Saturdays.

Unfortunately, the Gators remain inconsistent when it comes to holding the right attitude through the week, according to Napier, who said he wants the team to “erase the board” from last week’s win and start over with a fresh focus on the 49ers.

To that end, he’s pleased that Florida’s leaders have been willing to confront rest of the team when they have noticed slacking this week. Napier claims the Gators’ camaraderie and intra-program honesty is at an all-time high, and while the team culture has not yet been firmly established, its trending positively.

“It’s not where we want it to be right now, but it’s getting closer,” he said.

Still, the key for Florida will be maintaining a level of consistency moving forward. The 2022 squad struggled to handle success and maintain momentum, but according to Napier, this year’s group appears to have the right approach entering Week 4.

“The big difference is how he enforces character,” said junior EDGE Princely Umanmielen said of what is going right with Napier at the helm. “A lot of the young guys that he brings in, surprisingly, try to be leaders right off the bat. … He brings guys in that are unselfish, and that’s a big part of how the program is changing — bringing in guys with good character.”

Defense trending up

It’s still too early in the season to make any long-term claims, but there’s no question that Florida at least seems to be far more intense on the defensive end in Year 2 under Napier. Chief among the reasons was replacing Patrick Toney with defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, who at age 30 is one of the youngest coordinators at the Power Five level.

The Gators rank 10th nationally in total defense (256.3 yards per game), 20th in rushing defense (83.7 yards), 23rd in passing defense (172.7 yards), 31st in scoring defense (15.67 points) and 45th on third-down defense (.342) through four games despite playing two ranked opponents. While there is certainly room for improvement in each category, it is — across the board — a significant improvement in all phases from a season ago.

“Austin’s done a great job since the day he’s been here,” Napier said. “… We have better personnel … and Austin has done a good job connecting with the players and connecting with the staff.”

Umanmielen believes Armstrong being younger and more able to relate to players has been a key with his intensity and approachability other positives. He also shared a fun fact about Florida working a faster tempo in practice than the one Tennessee actually employed during the game.

Armstrong walkthrough helps: … He’s really intense. The tempo that Florida was practicing was way faster than what Tennessee actually did in the game.

“Armstrong just really trusts his players. He really shows us he trusts us,” Umanmielen said. “He’s not going to go out there and rely on his scheme. He relies on the players. He tells us all the time, ‘Good players make good defenses.’

“When he’s calling plays, he’s calling plays based off the players he’s got in — trying to play to their strengths. He’s not calling plays relying on the scheme. He really trusts in us, and he shows that with his playcalling.”

Thin up front

While the Gators are attempting to push last week’s victory out of their collective mind, there will still be some holdover. Starting offensive linemen junior Micah Mazzccua and redshirt sophomore Damieon George Jr., along with redshirt senior tight end Dante Zanders, will all miss the first half of the Charlotte game after being suspended by the SEC following the late-game tussle with Tennessee.

Napier said the suspensions were expected and appropriate, yet the players were also handed internal discipline. He called it a teachable moment as situations like that can happen in real life, off the field, with actions affecting friends and family rather than teammates.

“We had staff members that need to be disciplined as well,” he said. “… We had multiple players who screwed up. You compromise the entire team.”

On the bright side, Napier believes the suspensions will create an opportunity for the second string offensive linemen to get snaps as their rotation is evaluated for the remainder of the season.

Starters out

Redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun and freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III are among a handful of players who will miss Saturday’s game.

Eguakun experienced some setbacks with the injury that kept him out for the first two games of the season, but Napier is confident it will not be a long-term issue. Simply, he was not ready to practice by the middle of the week, so he’s being held out. (It sounds like Eguakun will be back next week.)

Wilson bruised his collarbone late while dominating the first drive of last week’s game, but X-rays came back negative, and it is not a long-term injury. His return will be fully based on pain tolerance, which makes him week to week by definition.

Notes & quotes

  • Florida’s effort vs. Tennessee was a two-week response built up from anger and embarassment following the Utah loss, Napier said.
  • Napier said The Swamp last Saturday was “the best it’s been in 15 years,” according to numerous people who texted him after the game.
  • Kickers redshirt sophomore Adam Mihalek and sophmore Trey Smack have been competing through the week with Napier claiming that Saturday’s field goal kicker would be determined ahead of the game. However, Smack was listed ahead of Mihalek on the updated depth chart released Wednesday. Napier said Mihalek made mistakes but protection was also an issue last week.
  • Napier said there were questions (from other programs) about the toughness of freshman safety Jordan Castell during his recruitment process, but Florida was confident in his maturity and knew he could be special: “Showed up in January and has been about his business. Ultimately is playing well as a rookie for us. … He’s mature enough to handle [playing as a freshman]. He can process, he can communicate, he’s got physical ability. He is a future leader, and certainly amongst his classmates, he’s well thought of.”
  • Napier on Brandon Spikes, who is a graduate assistant with the Gators: “He’s made our team better, partly because he cares about the University of Florida. … He’s back here doing the right thing, getting his degree. That’s allowed him an opportunity to be around our players and impact our entire organization. He was here when they were successful, and he can speak about that. That’s impactful for our team.”


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