Florida’s Billy Napier stands pat on offense, retains assistants as strength coach leaves for Boston College

By OnlyGators.com Staff
February 12, 2024
Florida’s Billy Napier stands pat on offense, retains assistants as strength coach leaves for Boston College

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

An offseason of change for the Florida Gators coaching staff continues into the middle of February, though it does not include any notable adjustments on the offensive side of the ball. Head coach Billy Napier confirmed last week that he will go into Year 3 remaining the Gators’ offensive play caller despite consistent indications that giving up such duties might make him a better coach and the team more successful on the field.

Just days later, newly hired strength & conditioning coordinator Craig Fitzgerald, who joined Florida’s staff as director of football performance with a vote of confidence from former boss Steve Spurrier, decided to leave the Gators after just five weeks to take the same position … at Boston College. Less than a week ago, Napier was sharing how “fortunate” UF was to have Fitzgerald on staff.

The circumstances of Fitzgerald’s departure are unique in that he and new BC head coach Bill O’Brien had a decade-long working relationship — plus the hot-potatoing of coaches this offseason cycle has reached ridiculous highs across all of college football — but Florida losing a key assistant in a lateral move to a secondary Power Five program is not a good look no matter how you slice it. Now, Napier is searching for a new leader of a key team area with offseason programs already having started nationwide.

Back to the offense. Some will note that offensive production was not a problem for the Gators last season because they were able to put up significant point totals in a handful of notable games. While true that offense was not the problem in 2023, it was nevertheless an issue.

Florida finished the season ranked 46th in total offense, 57th nationally in scoring offense and 85th in third-down conversion rate (though it was 16th in red-zone offense). Is that actually acceptable for a team with aspirations of competing for conference and national championships?

Beyond the data, it was Napier’s situational play calling that was the crux of the offense’s issues. There’s no doubt the Gators were more successful and consistent moving down the field as the season progressed, but untimely play calls, shifting away from the run late in games, mind-numbing decisions on third down and inconsistency with the unit on a week-to-week basis were certainly not indications that Florida should stand pat and make no changes offensively.

Despite overhauling the defense, Napier has decided the offense is relatively fine as constructed. He did say Wednesday that “there’ll be different responsibilities to some degree,” noting later in the week that he plans to “hand off some tasks on offense.” In both cases, he was vague providing details. Napier then specified to Sean Kelley during a podcast interview that he intends to retain those play calling duties.

“Big-picture wise, we’re taking the group of people that we have and we’re trying to develop some people, groom some people. We’ve done a ton of work in the offseason to kind of evaluate that in terms of what that looks like,” Napier said on the show.

“Down the stretch, we played pretty good offense. We created a bunch of explosive plays. We scored points. We’ve got a quarterback that’s returning in the same system. Ultimately for me, it’s about all these other areas being taken care of so that I can focus, do my best for the team in that regard.”

Napier clearly believes there’s no problem with the head coach having a workload that includes calling plays and coaching quarterbacks while simultaneously trying to manage the entire game. He seems to believe getting more hands in the game planning process might be enough to make a difference. This despite many of his peers — one after another — realizing the responsibility of holding such game day roles concurrently is far too great for most head coaches.

Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who is 56-8 with the Buckeyes having never lost more than two games in a season, went so far as to successively hire O’Brien and then Chip Kelly (!) — the latter an incumbent head coach at UCLA — to handle his offense. Offensively talented coaches Eli Drinkwitz of Missouri and Gus Malzahn of UCF made similar decisions last season; the Tigers flourished with Drinkwitz being given the space to improve markedly as an in-game coach, while the Knights finished eighth in total offense.

Part of this decision includes Napier believing there is no issue with the Gators having two offensive line coaches (one paid like a coordinator) despite the team neither playing well nor recruiting well in the trenches. Those coaches were not only retained but given new contracts this offseason.

Having two OL coaches is part of why Florida remains one of few teams nationally without an on-field special teams coordinator. Napier decided to double up hiring former New England Patriots assistant Joe Houston as an additional off-field coach who now oversees “GameChanger” coordinator Chris Couch, who remains on staff despite his unit’s immense issues over the last two seasons. (Also still with the Gators is former strength coach Mark Hocke, who now has a player development role after being panned for his work across Napier’s two years.)

Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, hired as a 30-year-old last offseason after joining Alabama as linebackers coach just two weeks earlier, has similarly been hired over. Veteran assistant Ron Roberts joined the Gators in a role Napier described as head coach of the defense; he also holds the defensive coordinator title and will oversee Armstrong, now a co-coordinator who will continue calling plays. Roberts and Armstrong had an extensive prior working relationship.

“Part of the evaluation was just that we need to play better on that side of the ball,” Napier explained Wednesday. “… Sometimes that’s new leadership, a new voice, a new teacher, a different approach in recruiting, whatever the case may be.” 

That was the most significant change among three defensive staff adjustments with Gerald Chatman joining from Tulane as defensive line coach and Will Harris jumping aboard from the San Diego Chargers as secondary coach.

Third down85th35th
Red zone16th102nd
Florida’s performance across the 2023 college football season.

Whether Napier is able to successfully turn Florida around in Year 3 remains to be seen at this juncture, but he’s clearly decided to put his fate in his own hands — not just offensively but specifically in how he believes a coaching staff should be constructed.

Given an opportunity to make adjustments and rectify issues that have plagued the Gators on game days for two seasons, Napier has decided that behind-the-scenes changes will be enough.

That philosophy will be put to the test against the toughest regular-season schedule a college football team has faced in at least the last couple of decades.

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