Billy Napier coached at Clemson during Dabo Swinney's early struggles and joined Nick Saban's Alabama juggernaut as it took full flight. At Florida, Napier will apply what he learned at the two winningest programs since 2010 — the year the Gators' decline began.
Napier will put his own stamp on the Gators, using the personal touch and attention to detail that turned Louisiana into Top 25 material. Since his arrival, Napier has surrounded himself with a massive, well-researched staff, instilled structure into his players' routines and scrutinized every aspect of a program coming off a six-win season following three straight New Year's Six bowl appearances under Dan Mullen.
Napier's ability to orchestrate and delegate during daily meetings astonishes a staff totaling more than 60. "It might be 15 minutes have passed and he's given out enough work for a month-and-a-half," says director of football operations Joshua Thompson. "He's that thorough."
Little things, including improved parking and better food, loom large with players. "It's easy to go out and compete when you've got somebody that cares about you," defensive back Tre'Vez Johnson says.
Yet, Napier is demanding of his players and coaches — and determined to build a winner. The 42-year-old is also candid about Florida's roster, saying he plans to be "very aggressive" signing transfers. "We need players," Napier says.
One thing Napier's Gators will not need: a plan.
Previewing Florida's Offense for 2022
Quarterback Anthony Richardson was scintillating in small doses as a backup. The gifted redshirt sophomore now will shoulder the offensive load. To capitalize on his explosive playmaking skills, the 6'4", 237-pounder must display better durability and decision-making or Ohio State transfer Jack Miller III could supplant him.
Whoever the quarterback is, the Gators must develop a supporting cast. Returning players scored just 13 of the 2021 team's 53 touchdowns, three by Richardson.
Options abound at running back. Veteran Nay'Quan Wright is poised to start but was injured much of spring, when physical Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson stood out. Johnson rushed for 838 yards and 12 scores as a freshman in 2021. Little-used former five-star recruit Lorenzo Lingard continues to bewilder. Demarkcus Bowman opted to transfer in late June.
Junior Justin Shorter's 41 receptions for 550 yards and three scores are highs among a group of pass-catchers that has proven pedestrian. Xzavier Henderson, a former top-75 recruit, has three scores in two seasons. Shorter and Henderson have struggled to get open. Given slot receiver Trent Whittemore's propensity for injury, keep an eye on sophomore Daejon Reynolds. Napier's work in the portal paid off after spring practice with an addition of Ricky Pearsall (48 catches in '21) from Arizona State. Outside of junior Keon Zipperer (25 receptions in three seasons), Florida tight ends have not caught a college pass.
Napier's use of two offensive line coaches gives proper attention to a long-standing issue — a lack of physicality and blown assignments up front. The return of three starters (left tackle Richard Gouraige, left guard Ethan White, center Kingsley Eguakun), the addition of Louisiana transfer guard O'Cyrus Torrence and experienced depth give coaches something to work with.
Previewing Florida's Defense for 2022
Florida went from historically bad in 2020 to extremely average in 2021. To become elite again is a big ask. Improvement certainly is possible, if not imperative. Proven depth is a concern. Pass rusher Brenton Cox Jr. has the skills to produce double-digit sacks, but there's no threat on the other side unless Princely Umanmielen emerges. Inside, Gervon Dexter is poised to make major strides during his third season. Who lines up beside him is anyone's guess.
Inside linebacker Ventrell Miller's return from a shoulder injury for a sixth season provides proven production (team-high 86 stops in 2020). Fifth-year senior Amari Burney brings experience. Diwun Black, a 2019 signee forced to go the juco route, is a former high school defensive back whose playmaking skills shined in spring.
The Gators' growth in the secondary is critical. Sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. could be special, while Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a redshirt sophomore recovering from shoulder surgery, could be a steal. At safety, fifth-year senior Trey Dean III is a three-year starter, but sophomore Rashad Torrence II is more dependable and four-star recruit Kamari Wilson potentially more impactful. Johnson has taken his lumps for two seasons yet remains confident he can generate the big plays that the STAR position demands.
Previewing Florida's Specialists for 2022
Jeremy Crawshaw averaged 44.1 yards as a freshman to continue Florida's tradition of exceptional punters. Placekicker was another story. Florida hopes incoming freshman Trey Smack can step in. During the past decade, the return game rarely has been the threat it was when Florida ruled the SEC. A team expected to have little margin for error could use a boost from the game's third phase.
Before addressing X's and O's, Napier wanted the Gators to be on their p's and q's to improve time management, team bonding and offseason conditioning. Talent acquisition also topped the offseason to-do list. A daunting schedule features Utah, Kentucky and Tennessee in September and a three-game stretch of LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M. A challenging season is ahead, but the Gators are once again focused on a better future.