Florida is just a year removed from winning the SEC East and playing in a New Year's Six Bowl. However, the Gators fell apart in 2021, prompting the program to make a change at the top. Billy Napier was hired from Louisiana to replace Dan Mullen, with an emphasis on recruiting and closing the gap to the top teams in the SEC. Florida probably has more talent and potential than last year's 6-7 record would suggest, but the roster isn't without concerns going into '22. Napier has to get better quarterback play and improve the defense to contend for a spot in the top 25. Beating Georgia for the East Division title is likely out of reach. However, massive improvement and setting the foundation for '23 is certainly attainable.
How quickly can Napier address concerns on both sides of the ball and get Florida back to a winning record in '22?
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, add through the transfer portal, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Napier to address in 2022:
Florida Football: 5 Priorities for New Coach Billy Napier in 2022
1. The Quarterbacks
Solving and getting better quarterback play is easily one of the top priorities for Napier this offseason. Emory Jones started 12 of Florida’s 13 games and threw for 2,734 yards and 19 touchdowns and added 758 yards and four scores on the ground. However, Jones also tossed 13 picks. Anthony Richardson started one game and played in eight contests overall, displaying his big-play ability by averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and 7.9 yards per rush. Overall, Richardson threw for 529 yards and six touchdowns to five interceptions while adding 401 yards on the ground. He’s the favorite to start, but Ohio State transfer Jack Miller III also is slated to join the competition. Can Napier develop one of these quarterbacks to deliver consistent and steady play under center in ’22?
2. Restocking the Skill Talent
The cupboard isn’t totally bare here, but Florida lost Dameon Pierce (574 rushing yards) and Malik Davis (487) at running back. Nay’Quan Wright (326 yards) and former transfers Demarkcus Bowman (Clemson) and Lorenzo Lingard (Miami) are set to return as key contributors. Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson should also factor into the mix for carries. At receiver, Jacob Copeland (41 catches) transferred to Maryland, and tight end Kemore Gamble (31) left for UCF. Justin Shorter (41) is back, and this offseason is all about bringing along Xzavier Henderson (26), Trent Whittemore (19), Ja'Quavion Fraziars (five), and Ja’Markis Weston (five) to be ready for bigger roles this fall.
3. The Offensive Line
Florida allowed the fewest sacks of any team in the SEC (14) and led the conference in yards per rush (5.5). On paper, the front seemed to have a good year. However, a deeper look shows signs of concern. The Gators averaged only 4.4 yards per rush in October and that number ticked down to 3.9 in November. According to Pro Football Focus, Florida ranked No. 121 in run blocking and finished No. 51 in pass blocking. Napier and his staff developed standout offensive lines at Louisiana, so despite last year’s performance, there are several reasons to be optimistic for the first-year coach. Four starters are back, including left tackle Richard Gouraige and center Kingsley Eguakun. Louisiana transfer O’Cyrus Torrence should be an impact addition to the trenches. Also, a healthy year from Ethan White should improve the guard play.
4. Improve the Rush Defense
After giving up 6.1 yards per play and 30.8 points a game in 2020, Florida’s defense lowered those totals to 5.5 a snap and 26.8 points per contest. Although the modest improvement was a step in the right direction, significant work remains for co-coordinators Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer. The rush defense has finished 10th in the SEC in back-to-back years and surrendered 172.9 yards on the ground in conference play in ’21. A healthy Ventrell Miller at linebacker should help up front, but the line is set to lose Zachary Carter, Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Valentino. Gervon Dexter and Princely Umanmielen should be key cogs in the effort to reload up front but more depth and production are needed.
Although Miller’s return is key for the linebacker unit, the rest of the group is in flux prior to spring ball. Mohamoud Diabate transferred to Utah, Ty’Ron Hopper entered the portal, and Jeremiah Moon finished his eligibility.
5. Eliminate the Big Plays in the Secondary
Cutting down on the big plays allowed in the secondary should be a priority for Napier and Toney this offseason after Florida tied for 10th in the SEC by surrendering 11 plays of 40-plus yards last year. The good news: The secondary limited opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 57.2 and a low yards per attempt (6.7). Top cornerback Kaiir Elam is off to the NFL, but the bulk of the secondary returns intact. Jalen Kimber arrives as a potential impact transfer from Georgia, four-star safety prospect Kamari Wilson could push for time right away, and Jason Marshall is a player on the rise at cornerback.
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