Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seek first winning streak, improved red zone efficiency

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 18, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seek first winning streak, improved red zone efficiency

Image Credit: UAA

The Florida Gators are looking to accomplish something they have not yet achieved under head coach Billy Napier: a winning streak. Coming off the “most complete game that we’ve played” this season, according to Napier, the Gators visit the Vanderbilt Commodores with the chance to emerge victorious in three straight games, match their projected 2022 win total and keep alive the potential of finishing the regular season 8-4.

While Florida has won eight straight and 29 of the last 30 meetings against Vanderbilt, it’s clear these ‘Dores are starting to find something in Year 2 under head coach Clark Lea. Last week, Vanderbilt snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak with a victory over Kentucky, which beat UF earlier this campaign. It also lost its two prior games to South Carolin and Missouri by only a combined 14 points, which may not sound like an accomplishment but is certainly a step forward for a VU program that had been routinely routed by its opposition.

“This is a group that continues to get better. There’s no question Year 1 to Year 2, Clark’s done a great job. You can see the improvement within this season,” Napier said. “They’ve got some young players that continue to get better. Got their first SEC win in a while, and there’s some momentum that we’ll have to deal with that goes with that. So, tough place to play. A lot of challenges when it comes to going on the road here to win a game.”

The Gators, though, are a different beast than the Gamecocks and Tigers — particularly the way they’ve been playing as of late. Napier said this week that Florida’s improved effort has been a “direct reflection of applied leadership.” Yes, he further explained what that means.

“I see an intentional approach from players to be vocal about things that need to be addressed, things that need to be said,” Napier began. “… I’m talking about doing extra. I’m talking about accountability. I’m talking about being intentional about connecting with your teammates. Just across the board, just a little bit different level of accountability and being intentional about doing acts of leadership, right?”

It will be more than the ‘Dores against which the Gators will be battling, though. The conditions in Nashville, Tennessee, are expected to be brisk to say the least. Temperatures at the 11 a.m. local time kickoff are expected to be 39 degrees; it’s unlikely to get higher than 45 degrees at any point during the contest. Mixing the early kickoff time with frigid weather is a combination that could throw Florida off its game.

Though Napier correctly noted the Gators cannot control the weather, he did express that Florida’s trip to Texas A&M a couple weeks ago gave it an opportunity to retool its procedures for not only travel but early kickoffs.

“We quality controlled [the Texas A&M] trip. We are going to do a few things differently, from a time allocation standpoint. … The sleep habits of the players and staff throughout the week will be important,” Napier pinpointed.

Still, despite the conditions and the improved play of the ‘Dores, the Gators are nevertheless a 14-point road favorite. If they can leave Nashville with another mark in the win column, that’s all that will ultimately matter.

Red zone woes

There has been plenty of focus on the Gators defense this season, and rightly so, but despite flashing an electric offense at times, there remain serious issues on that side of the ball. Most notable is Florida’s inconsistent red zone offense. It has scored on just 73.3% of 45 trips this season, ranking UF 123rd out of 131 teams in the nation. That includes just 33 conversions — 27 touchdowns and six field goals.

By means of comparison, reigning national champion Georgia ranks first with a 98.2% conversion rate — 55 scores (39 TDs, 16 FGs) on 56 trips. Not only are the Bulldogs getting to the red zone more frequently, they are scoring far more often when they get in the area. In fact, of the top five teams in the College Football Playoff Rankings, four rank among the top five in red zone conversion offense (all but TCU).

In other words, if the Gators want to be a top-tier program, they need to get better at taking advantage of scoring opportunities. This failure was on full display last week when Florida forced three third-quarter turnovers around the red zone yet managed just seven points out of a possible 21 (ignoring potential 2-point conversions).

“Saturday in particular, the last couple weeks, it’s been penalties. We had procedure penalties, a handful of mental errors,” said Napier of recent red-zone failures. “Nothing to do with the opponent, which is the frustrating part. Those are all things we can coach better. Those are all things we can help the players with.”

Rumble, big man, rumble

Given the up-and-down nature of the season, Florida has lacked true feel-good moments that have helped take the program through the ensuing week. But it sure got one last Saturday when sophomore defensive tackle Desmond Watson made national highlight reels with a robbery strip fumble recovery and charge to the end zone in hopes of scoring a big man touchdown. Unfortunately, Watson was stopped – by South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler of all people – on his way to paydirt, which was ultimately explained as “Big Des” prioritizing taking care of the football over trying to make an even flashier play.

Beyond Watson’s play, the celebration that exploded from the sideline was noteworthy for its jubilance. Napier said Saturday that he has encouraged the players to support one another to that degree, but Watson saw that rush of energy as a representation of the work the entire defense has put in to improve coming out of the bye week.

“That was more a show for the fans that we all appreciate the work everyone puts in,” he explained. “… That play was showing stuff that we’ve been working on in the past. To have a successful play on defense – I think we were all just excited that we were being successful on defense.”

Napier was surely excited for a defensive takeaway, but when asked about Watson this week, it was difficult for the mild-mannered, even-keeled coach to hold back his enthusiasm.

“Just really proud of Des. He probably changed gears during training camp, I would say. Probably wasn’t the best offseason in the world, truth be known. But during training camp, he changed gears. He has worked hard to earn the spot that he has, and he’s really garnered some respect from a lot of people just because he’s developed some habits that have led to improvement,” Napier explained.

“He has more discipline in his life than he’s probably ever had. He’s experiencing some success, right? The guy has way more room to grow. Players make the most improvement between the first significant year of playing time and the next year. So for him, I’m hopeful that he’ll continue to create momentum for himself, create value for himself, impact our team and then change gears and attack this offseason the same way he’s been working since training camp.”

Watson displays a humble enthusiasm that is as unique as it is attractive. The 6-foot-5, 435-pound defensive anchor (he’s listed at 415 pounds) seems like he could be either the life of the party or an attendee who sits quietly in the corner keeping to themselves – all depending on the night. Addressing his long-term potential, Watson simultaneously exuded confidence with an understanding that more work is ahead of him.

“I’ve never really doubted my athletic ability. I knew there was always room for improvement – getting my weight down would definitely help,” he said. “I know what I want to be in the future. I know I want to be successful in this game, so I know there’s things I have to do to get on the field. … As long as I keep doing that – getting my weight down and working more – the sky’s the limit for myself.”

Napier is more matter of fact in his breakdown of what’s ahead for Watson: “He’s massive. … He’s just a big man. Our goal for him is to change the composition of [his body]. The guy’s light on his feat, man. He’s got balance, learning how to play with his hands. He’s a good communicator; I hear him in practice every day improving, communicating, making other players around him better.

“He’s a smart young man. The big thing: He’s just learning how to have discipline in his life. He’s developing better habits, and he’s just in a better place as a person. Couldn’t be more proud of the guy. When I say that he is going to continue [to develop] – he’s got a lot of room for improvement. This guy is going to be fun to watch.”

Clearing out the notebook

Napier on putting defensive linemen in jumbo packages: “Always have a running deal with the defensive players. If we’re top 10 in the country in scoring defense and total defense, we’ll put defensive players on the goal line package. [I’m] hopeful that day’s coming.”

Napier on sophomore running back Montrell Johnson Jr.: “Those players will tell you that they get more comfortable with more carries. [Johnson is] not a burner. … He’s got really good instincts and vision. He anticipates contact. He’s got really good contact balance. Montrell Johnson is effective because he’s a great person. This guy is a very disciplined guy. He’s got character. He’s very smart. He’s one of the best practice players that we have, and he’s in Year 2 of his career.”

Napier on quarterback accuracy: “Being accurate is physical and mental, if that makes sense. There’s so much that happens in a very small amount of time relative to declaring where I’m going with the ball from the ground up, everything being synchronized, starting between the ears, and then fundamentally from the feet all the way to the ball coming out of your hand. It’s mental and physical, and that’s why it’s the most challenging thing to do in all of sports.”

Napier on why tackling has improved: “The pursuit is better. The energy is better. I really believe this: It’s Year 1 in a new system, but information, knowledge – when applied – can make a difference. So, if I’m processing quicker, if I’m communicating better, if I’m anticipating, I get more production. And there’s a compound effect. If each individual’s doing that, there is a result that comes with that.”

Napier on new players stepping up as defensive leaders: “Rashad Torrence is a leader. He’s a very smart football player. He’s got great command of the system. His ability to communicate, because of his knowledge and his instincts in production, he has influence. He’s a guy that does a great job in the back end. He’s a fantastic practice player – probably the best communicator that we have – and does a great job kind of helping everybody around him play better.

“Amari Burney is an influential person, very experienced player. The guy’s got a good heart. He’s got character. If you don’t like Burney, something’s wrong with you. He’s a good human being and works really hard and a guy that has — he’s kind of the old grandpa, if that makes sense. He’s the old uncle. He’s been around. He’s seen a lot. He sees the big picture.

“Gervon Dexter is a young man who’s growing in that role. He’s getting comfortable with his voice. I do think my man A.P., Powell has some influence. He’s a guy that is capable in that area. I’m just thinking about defense in particular because that’s the area we’ve grown the most.

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