Here we are – again. Another reset for the 4th time in 12 seasons. Billy Napier takes the reins to try and finally establish consistency, continuity, and stability in the Florida football program. To his credit, he has pushed almost all the right buttons so far. He has hired a professional and very hard-working coaching staff; he has instituted a large support staff to help with every phase of the program – especially recruiting; and he has shown to be a steady public speaker – sending out the correct messages about the program without making an ass of himself publicly like Dancin’ Danny and the Losers.
He inherits likely the least talented and experienced roster of any new Gator head coach since Charley Pell signed on in 1979. The staff has to implement an entirely new scheme, determine the depth chart, and coach up many unproven players behind the starters. The previous staff did a terrible job of getting backups experience, and in many cases not even playing more talented guys by favoring seniority. It’s a massive undertaking – trying to rebuild the program while putting together a viable product on the field.
Everyone is anxious to wash away the bad taste of a miserable 2021 season. The schedule isn’t going to help, with a difficult start the first 2 games and the usual SEC grind. Add in all of the unknowns with the roster and little proven depth, and this could be a rough first season on the field for Napier. We shall see how the season unfolds……”that’s why they play the games”.
It will be a common theme in the position group analysis across the board – many questions, a few answers, and a lot of guesswork as to what we can expect from the new staff and the new schemes.
At quarterback, it’s the Anthony Richardson show now. He is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and will need to prove to everyone he can perform efficiently in a new offense, while showing he can stay healthy and be durable through a SEC season. The physical skills are not in doubt – he has to exhibit accuracy when throwing, make the correct reads quickly, and use his legs intelligently to extend plays and occasionally gash the defense with a big play. Jack Miller has emerged as the top backup as of now. He’s a transfer from Ohio St. with minimal playing experience, but no stranger to big-time college atmosphere. While he seems to have grasped the new offense, his performance in the Orange and Blue Game was erratic. Unfortunately, he broke the thumb on his throwing hand in fall practice and will miss at least the first 2 games. This is a major issue as behind them are Jalen Kitna and freshman Max Brown. Neither should be counted on much this year unless something serious happens regarding injuries, but one has happened. Kitna may be forced into early duty, and even he is fighting off some nagging injuries and is being force-fed reps to try and have him ready. I think this is really going to limit the amount of leash AR has regarding running the ball on broken plays. Napier and Co-OL Coach Rob Sale will be calling the plays, and I suspect them to be as conservative as possible to try and grind out wins early in the season.
The running back room again looks to be the best and deepest unit on the offensive side of the ball. Lorenzo Lingard finally seems to be healthy and gets his chance to play meaningful snaps – he emerged as the #1 RB after spring practice. Montrell Johnson transferred in from Louisiana, following Napier to Gainesville. He ran for over 800 yards as a true freshman last season and knows the offense, and will see plenty of action this fall. Nayquan Wright seems to be fully recovered from his broken ankle suffered in the win over F$U, and has the most seniority. He is a tough and savvy runner despite his size, and is the best receiver of the group. True freshman Trevor Etienne was recruited by RB coach Jabbar Juluke while at Louisiana, and likely will have to wait his turn, even as he has impressed in fall practice.
The WR corps has it’s own questions to answer. There is some returning experience and production, but also has not shown consistency or big-play capability. Fortunately, Napier pulled off a coup by snatching coach Keary Colbert from USC. Colbert has developed a lot of elite players the past few years at Southern California and put those players into the NFL – he is a massive upgrade. On the outside, Justin Shorter is the leader of the group. He has NFL size and physicality, but needs to improve getting separation from defenders. His size should make him a great red zone weapon. Ja’Quavion Fraziers, Xavier Henderson, Ja’Markis Weston, and Marcus Burke all have good size as well, but none showed they could consistently get separation running their routes – a common theme. All have experience but little production to show for it, and at least a few of them have to contribute more. Burke is the fastest of the group, and perhaps can stretch the field for the others. In the slot, Florida may have some major weapons that can open up the rest of the field. Trent Wittemore returns from injury, and has already shown he can get open and make plays. Ricky Pearsall transferred in from Arizona St., and has showed well in fall practice. He comes in with good production last season at Arizona St. and is a senior.
The TE group lost a good player when Kemore Gamble inexplicably transferred to UCF, creating a hole that we will have to wait and see how it’s filled. Dante Zanders moved from DE in the spring, and surprised many by taking over as the #1 option. Keon Zipperer is more of an H-back than true in-line player, and I’m not sure how well he fits in the new offense. Nick Elksnis started off well in spring practice, but has battled injuries. He has the size and pass-catching ability that could make him the starter, but seemingly hasn’t convinced the coaches yet. There are some freshmen with promise in Arlis Boardingham and Hayden Hanson, but they likely redshirt this year. Coach William Peagler has to show he can develop what he has at his disposal, but has already shown chops on the recruiting trail.
Finally, it comes down to the offensive line – again. After enduring mediocre coaching and bad recruiting from John Hevesy, he is replaced by two vastly better coaches – Sale and Darnell Stapleton. Sale comes from the NFL, and has been named Offensive Coordinator, with Napier calling the plays. Along with Stapleton, these two have already impressed the players with their knowledge and coaching, while making inroads in recruiting. It’s been way too long for Florida to field a dominant OL, going back to the Meyer years. There is enough returning experience and ability for this year’s group to be SEC-caliber, but they have to stay healthy and show more consistency. Kingsley Eguakun returns at center – he played well last season until injuries slowed him. The guard position is probably the deepest, with a rotation of Josh Braun, Ethan White and Louisiana transfer O’Cyrus Torrence forming a solid unit. Torrence comes in with a lot of preseason hype and is highly-regarded by NFL scouts. The tackle position remains the biggest question mark – again. Richard Gouriage should start at LT, but is coming off of an injury sustained in fall camp. He had some good moments last season, but needs to show improvement and more consistency. Michael Tarquin seems to have pulled ahead at RT, but has little experience. Behind those two there are a lot of young players with precious little experience, and an injury to either starter could prove problematic. The coaches have a LOT of work to do to develop some serviceable players. If the O-line somehow stands strong all season, that will allow Richardson to maximize his effectiveness and hopefully keep him healthy. If they struggle, Napier’s plan for a solid running game to protect his QB while giving the defense a break will fall apart, and it could be a rough season.
Finally, the losing scheme and mentality of Todd Grantham is gone from Gainesville. After watching historically bad defense from this group the past 2 years, it’s time for the Gator defense to start reasserting itself as one of the best in the SEC and country. New Defensive Coordinator Patrick Toney is a young, promising coach who brings legitimate schemes that will allow the defenders to play fast again and more physically – especially in the secondary. Gone are the days of “3rd-and Grantham” and soft coverage. Toney also has some elite position coaches to help implement what eventually could become a real SEC defense as the season progresses.
The defensive line has a lot of questions coming in regarding playmaking ability and quality depth. There are no questions, though, as to the leader of the group – Gervon Dexter. He has shown flashes of elite play and speed his first two seasons, and is on the radar of many NFL teams. He is now called upon to take charge of a largely unknown and unproven group. The only returning players with any meaningful experience at DT are Jalen Lee and Des Watson. Lee has potential, but has to make a huge jump this season to provide SEC-level play and contribute to a frighteningly young rotation. Watson is still carrying too much weight at 415 lbs. No matter how well he may seem to carry that much weight, he will still not be in good enough shape to play a decent number of consecutive snaps, and is holding himself back from realizing his potential. Jaelin Humphries has been injured most of his first 2 years, and Chris Thomas just recently was reinstated to the team after being in Napier’s doghouse since the spring. After them, some talented true freshmen are going to be forced into action and have to provide enough quality snaps in order to rest the starters and help survive the conference schedule. Chris McClellan enrolled early and made some noise in the spring, and Jamari Lyons will be pressed into duty probably too early, but will hopefully not be overwhelmed. The rotation at DE is a little better off, led by Princely Umanmelien and Justus Boone. Princely has impressed the new staff, and Boone showed some flashes in limited snaps as a freshman. After them, it’s the same story as at DT – precious little experience and proven depth. Tyreak Sapp has the athletic ability to play in the SEC, but hardly played his freshman season. It looks like Sean Spencer, aka Coach Chaos, will have to coach perhaps his best season yet to survive with this group. I believe there will be many snaps with only 3 DL, with perhaps a few rush LBs and 5 or 6 DBs on the field based on the opponent. This seems to be Toney’s preferred personnel philosophy, and makes the most sense with such a thin D-line.
The LB corps comes in with more depth and raw talent than has been seen since maybe 2016, but also with little experience behind the expected starters. OLB Brenton Cox should be primed for a breakout season – he is a proven pass-rusher, but it’s time to improve against the run and to show more consistency and discipline within the scheme. Lloyd Summerall, Chief Borders, and Antwaun Powell are inexperienced, but showed promise in the spring and will be counted upon to make the leap to solid contributors. Summerall has shown flashes as a pass-rusher, but still has to gain weight and strength to avoid being overpowered too often. At ILB, Ventrell Miller fortunately chose to return for his 6th year after a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2021 season very early. His experience and leadership will benefit the entire defense, especially a young group at his position. Derek Wingo and Scooby Williams showed some promise when they were finally allowed on the field once the previous staff was fired, and will be heavily counted upon. It’s a shame they were blocked not by opposing teams but by their own coaches……more professional malfeasance. Diwan Black has experience on special teams, but must show something at the LB position. True freshman Shemar James was one of Napier’s star recruits, and will play early and often. The arrival of Jay Bateman and former Gator great Mike Peterson to coach the LBs will pay dividends the longer they get to develop these players.
The secondary has been hamstrung by Grantham for far too long. Gone are the days of “3rd-and Grantham” – soft coverage, poor schemes, and bad tackling and pursuit angles. Napier hit a home run in stealing Corey Raymond away from LSU. Raymond has sent multiple players to the League, and is both a tremendous recruiter and developer of talent. We should see an exponential leap in the playmaking and performance of the cornerbacks and safeties.
The CB rotation is talented, but lacks depth in numbers. Jason Marshall played well as an elite true freshman recruit last season, and comes into 2022 as the leader of this group. Starting opposite him will be Jalen Kimber, a talented transfer from Georgia who was buried on their depth chart after getting injured early in 2021. He looked very good in the spring game and has been a standout in practice. There are some very good players behind those two, with Avery Helm, Jordan Young, and true freshman Devin Moore all being prepped for significant duty this fall. Helm is perhaps the most athletically gifted of the entire group, and just needs to develop his football skills to match. Young redshirted last season but has shown promise in fall camp. Moore has been especially impressive given his youth, and has pushed his way into the rotation. Finally, Jaydon Hill is still rehabbing from his second knee surgery in less than 3 years. He has played well in limited duty, but has to show he can stay healthy. All of these guys will also get some reps at the NIckel position until a few move ahead.
The safety position is a real mystery. There are a handful of players with experience that have simply not played to their potential, and there are some young guys that were buried on the depth chart by the previous staff that can play, but unfortunately have scant experience. Trey Dean came back for his 5th year to hopefully fulfill the promise he came to Gainesville with. He is leader of the group, and has by far the most experience. Rashad Torrence had an inconsistent freshman season, but is being hyped as a potential early-round NFL pick if he continues to develop. Both he and Dean need to exhibit better pursuit angles and tackling in space, as well as better ball awareness. Something tells me with professional coaching they will improve dramatically. Dakota Mitchell and Tre’Vez Johnson return as the backups with the most experience, but both have plenty to improve upon. Jadarrius Perkins transferred in from Missouri in 2021 and saw a good bit of action on special teams and also in the Nickel rotation, along with Johnson. Finally, the crown jewel of Napier’s first recruiting class, Kamari Wilson, comes in as the highest-rated recruit for Florida in many years. He enrolled early, and has already impressed everyone with both his physical development along with his maturity – he will see the field this fall.
After the ineptitude of 2021 and the complete lack of playmaking in the return game under Greg Knox, anything in 2022 should be an improvement. Coach Napier uses the term ‘gamechangers’ when describing this unit, which would be a welcome and much-needed sight.
You think the Gators couldn’t have used Evan McPherson in 2021? After Dancin’ Danny ran him off by throwing him under the bus after the LSU game in 2020, Florida had to endure weak and inconsistent placekicking from Jace Cristmann and Chris Howard in 2021, with bad results. This year, freshman Trey Smack likely gets first crack as the #1 FG kicker. He certainly has a stronger leg than either of last year’s kickers and comes in as an elite prospect, but has to prove he can perform under the pressure of SEC games. Preferred walk-on Adam Mihalek may also get some early-season work if the right situation presents itself.
Jeremy Crawshaw returns as the punter. He had some success last season, but needs to improve his consistency, hang time, and lessen the number of low kicks. Hopefully he continues the recent run of Australian rugby player success in American college football, and he has the leg strength to do it.
The most impactful change may come in the return game. Big plays have been sorely lacking for far too long, and with the many question marks concerning the offense, this group could directly affect the outcome of a few games this fall. Kickoff returns were mostly handled by Weston and Fraziers last year, while Henderson returned punts (or mostly called a fair catch). The coaching staff needs to get away from the risk-averse thinking of the previous staff and let some athletes cut loose and make some “gamechanging” plays.
Too many questions to feel comfortable right now, but also some real hope that quality coaching makes a huge improvement.
Schedule and Outlook
The 2022 schedule is difficult, with a strong start and the usual SEC grind. There is no time for easing into the season – the staff and players will have to be ready immediately for a tough September with scant room for error or poor play.
Utah – Win
I have gone back and forth on this game for a while. Utah returns most of it’s starters from last season’s Rose Bowl team, and has the luxury of continuity in coaching and scheme. However, the LAC-12 was just not very strong in 2021, so it’s difficult to say how good the Utes really are. It may seem counterintuitive, but the fact that Florida will come in with so many new faces along with new schemes could play into their favor, as Utah will not have much film to prepare for what they might see. The humidity and a loud night game in the Swamp could carry the day.
Kentucky – Win
So much is being made of the Wildcats after finishing 2nd in a crap East Division last season. For some reason QB Will Levis is being made out to be a high-level NFL prospect, which he hasn’t shown against the Gators, as they made him look terrible in last year’s debacle. Florida will have a massive amount of motivation to take it to the Wildcats and get payback for that embarrassment. It will likely come down to the 4th quarter, but I think the Gators find a way to win.
South Florida – Win
South Florida was horrific in 2021. Their roster is slowly improving, but still is miles away from competing with a team like Florida. The only thing that may keep this game close for the first half is that the Gators will be coming off of 2 intense, physical games.
@Tennessee – Loss
I have a weird feeling about this game. I have no doubt that the Gators can win, but it will be the first road game after a tough start to the season, and coach Josh Heupel will be running his fast-paced offense that can cause problems for a defense. I’m just not sure if Richardson and all of the young players are ready for the environment, and could suffer a letdown.
Eastern Washington – Win
A welcome light opponent in what should be no more than a controlled scrimmage after a tough previous 4 weeks.
Missouri (Homecoming) – Win
Eli Drinkowitz and the Tigers had their fun last year, beating the Gators in overtime and putting the nail in Mullen’s coffin. Then he doubled down, punking Mullen by pulling out a light saber to mock Mullen’s press conference from the season before when Mullen wore his stupid Darth Vader costume to the post-game presser. Well, it won’t be Eli that’s coming this time, but payback. Missouri is a leech on the SEC, and never should have been accepted.
LSU – Loss
Too many times have the Gators had the better team and then laid an egg in this game. LSU comes in with a new coaching staff of it’s own, as suddenly Cajun-speaking Brian Kelly gets to find out what the grind of the SEC is all about. Too many weird things have happened in this game over the past 30 years to expect anything other than the unexpected.
Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
The Puppies finally ended a 41-year championship drought last year. Gone is most of that generational defense, but that’s why recruiting is so important, as they will backfill all of that lost talent with more, albeit less experienced. Even in this rivalry game where upsets happen, their coaching and scheme continuity are probably too much for Napier’s first-year team to overcome.
@Texas A&M – Loss
Now that Dumbo Fishy and the Aggies have bought one of the best recruiting classes in history, the pressure is on to finally produce. The appropriately-named aTm has it’s own QB issues to resolve, but will be at home. Fishy has a deep hatred for Florida, and usually gets whatever team he’s coaching up for this game. This is a doubly-tough game for the Gators coming off of their rivalry game in Jacksonville.
South Carolina – Win
Florida embarrassed itself and all of Gator Nation in last year’s game at Columbia, quitting early and getting blown out. Coach Shane Beamer and the Lamecocks are getting way too much run for that result, and the Gators continue their SEC East redemption tour by winning this one.
@Vanderbilt – Win
Vandy was terrible last season, and I don’t see much improvement in this year’s team. Florida likely does it’s usual sleepwalk for this game, but wins even if it’s ugly.
@Florida $t. – Win
The Criminoles are talking proud for some reason after coming off of 4 straight bad seasons. They may actually qualify for a bowl game this season, but still look much more like the pre-Bobby Bowden teams of the 1970s. This game was moved to Friday night after Thanksgiving allegedly for better TV viewership, so if really true that means more people will see the Gators win their 4th straight in the series.
Overall Record 8-4
SEC Record 4-4
2022 could prove to be a fascinating season. There are so many questions concerning the players and coaches, of course, but also the schedule plays out in ways that will not allow the staff to hide any weaknesses nor have the luxury of some early easy opponents to get valuable reps and experience before things get real.
The starting 22 can compete with almost anyone, but after that is where the story of 2022 will be decided. There will be injuries as always, and can a group of inexperienced and unproven kids provide the level of talent and depth needed both to compete against elite teams and also maintain a high level of play through the grind of a SEC schedule? The previous staff did this team no favors at all by holding back so many young players, and the new staff has a LOT of work to do to cobble together both schemes and rotations that maximize what they have to work with. If the offense can’t provide an effective running game and score efficiently, the defense will wear down as the season progresses.
Lots of new faces in key roles – again – and a lot to prove to themselves and the country – again. The talent is mostly there, but it is unproven. You can’t hide in the SEC, and the good (or bad) will be exposed soon enough. The season could go a lot of ways, and we’re about to see where. With all of the uncertainty, I believe winning 8 games would be a successful season. Anything above that would be icing on the cake. But, if injuries hit key players, it could be a tough road to get to 6 wins. Patience, which is in small supply in college football – especially in the SEC – will be needed as Coach Napier starts the road back for Florida to compete for championships.
It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!