Florida football notebook: Billy Napier preaches patience, Gators depth an issue at Florida State

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 24, 2022
Florida football notebook: Billy Napier preaches patience, Gators depth an issue at Florida State

Image Credit: UAA

Faced with an opportunity to end the regular season on a four-game winning streak, the Florida Gators vomited it all away last week with an undisciplined, mistake-ridden, turnover-filled loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores. Not a performance the Gators want to put on tape any Saturday but particularly when you face a short week with a season-ending rivalry game on the road.

Florida limps into a first-ever Friday night showdown with the Florida State Seminoles in more ways than one. The Gators are hobbled in the training room (more on that below), and their growing ego was damaged following their inability to put away the ‘Dores last week.

“Simply put, a lot of lessons to learn from our experience in Nashville. The laundry list of things that contributed to not playing winning football was way too long. And certainly, as the head coach, all those things are my responsibility,” said Billy Napier. “… We got to get off the ground, dust ourselves off and get back to work.”

Florida attempted to do that beginning Monday. Napier was notably praiseworthy of his team going into the Vanderbilt game, a surprising development given how toned down his demeanor had been all season. Suffice to say, the Gators gave him a reality check.

“Much like many staffs in the history of this game, we’re in the first year. We got a lot of work to do,” he admitted. “I couldn’t be more excited about what I’m observing relative to the improvement. Now, obviously didn’t get the result that we wanted Saturday, but we got a group that’s working extremely hard. We’ve made improvements in a lot of ways and certainly got a bright future in front of us.”

Frustration boiled over through the weekend. Teams turn the ball over and commit penalties, miscues that commonly lead to losing football games. Florida added continued red zone efficiency issues, wasted scoring opportunities, dropped balls, special teams failures and numerous baffling coaching decisions.

Even worse, many of those mistakes are issues that have ailed the Gators throughout the season. Asked to address growing criticisms of the team’s performance, Napier preached patience early this week.

“You’ve got to get consumed with improvement, efficiency, refining every part of the systems that you run, what you do with your time. We’ve been through this before, all right? This is a process. You don’t just flip a light switch and the house is built,” he explained. “It is truly one day at a time, and it’s one person at a time. … I’ve got a ton of confidence in what we do and how we do it.”

Napier has good reason to feel that way. In his lone head coaching stint, he took a Louisiana team that went 5-7 prior to his arrival to 7-7 in Year 1. Improvements continued to 11-3 in 2019 with a combined 22-2 record over his final two seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns.

Florida still has an opportunity to put together a similar two-game improvement. It sits 6-5 with Florida State and a bowl game remaining following a 6-7 effort in ex-head coach Dan Mullen’s final season. Taking down the Seminoles will be a tall task to start, but it’s what the Gators face Friday.

Walking wounded

Florida has dealt with its share of injuries across the season, but despite a thin roster, the Gators have mostly been able to overcome any absences. That will prove more difficult Friday with five wide receivers on the injury report, four of which are out for the game.

Redshirt junior Justin Shorter and sophomore Xzavier Henderson — both starters — will miss the game with sophomore Ja’Quavion Fraziars and redshirt freshman Marcus Burke — two primary backups — also sidelined. Beyond those four, junior Ricky Pearsall — sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson’s security blanket — is questionable with a lower-body injury. Shorter, Henderson and Pearsall are UF’s three leading receivers making up 51% of receptions, 57% of yards receiving and 47% of touchdowns receiving on the season.

As such, redshirt freshman Daejon Reynolds and freshman Caleb Douglas are listed as starters with redshirt freshman Kahleil Jackson set to fill in for Pearsall should he also be sidelined. Those pass catchers have a combined 19 receptions for 437 yards with four touchdowns on the campaign. Thirty-eight percent of those yards (165) and half those scores (two) came from Douglas just last week.

Given FSU has averaged 43.3 points per game across its last four, Florida is certainly going to need to throw the ball to win unless it finds a way to control the clock with a previously dominant running game that completely disappeared last week. Richardson will be asked to do that with a group of inexperienced pass catchers whose early drops last week took a bunch of potential points off the board.

Clearing out the notebook

Napier on the Florida State rivalry: “Certainly we are very aware of the history, the tradition, the rivalry and everything that comes with that.”

Napier on Richardson’s inconsistent ball carrying: “There’s not many plays where he’s not involved in it. Much like a pass pattern you call, sometimes the coverage dictates where the ball goes. Anthony was forced to hand the ball off quite a bit in [last week’s] game. … That’s happened before. When Montrell [Johnson Jr.] and Trevor [Etienne] get handed the ball and have success, typically he’s eliminating one player by reading that defender. We continue to take what the defense gives us.”

Napier on the Gators’ lack of consistency: “I think about that at times. … We’re a team that can be very average, and we’re a team that can be elite. … Consistency, that’s what we’re searching for. Certainly, Saturday was a little bit of a reality check in a lot of ways.”

Napier explained Florida’s special teams plan includes all parts of the staff contributing across coverage, return and kicking units with GameChanger coordinator Chris Couch overseeing everything in an off-field role. Though the Gators have struggled recently, Napier made it clear no imminent changes are coming to his plan on the third side of the ball: “It’s the same blueprint we’ve used in the past and one that’s been very effective for us and will continue to be effective for us.”

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