Florida football notebook: Catching up on Gators entering Week 1 with news, team notes, updates

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 28, 2023
Florida football notebook: Catching up on Gators entering Week 1 with news, team notes, updates

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

The whirlwind that was this offseason across college football is finally slowing down just as the games themselves are about to begin (well, for most of the country — about a dozen have already kicked off the 2023 season). The Florida Gators will be one of the first Power Five programs to kick off their campaign as they hit the road to face the No. 14 Utah Utes on Thursday.

Due to a variety of issues both business and personal, OnlyGators.com was unable to keep up with Florida from the start of fall camp as we have for the prior 14 seasons we have covered the program. So, we needed to take a deep dive into what has happened in and around the Gators’ facility over the last month as the team prepares to begin Year 2 under head coach Billy Napier.

As a means of resetting the deck, clearing out the cobwebs and priming you — our readers — for the upcoming season, we have distilled the last month of Florida football happenings into a singular notebook. In other words, if you haven’t been following the ins and outs of the Gators since the middle of the summer, we have you covered.

Napier will hold his final press conference ahead of the Utah game on Monday night. At which point, we will follow up with a second notebook previewing the Gators’ Week 1 opponent. For now, let’s take a look at everything else that happened this summer.

Closer than ever

From Napier to a bevy of individual players, the one theme that permeated Florida football this summer is togetherness. Napier has seen renewed accountability and improved leadership throughout the team since January, and every player asked mentioned how team chemistry and morale is trending upward.

Sophomore EDGE Jack Pyburn, who received a ton of praise this summer, said the team really feels like a family in Year 2. He was one of a handful of players — junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. was another — who shared that players now feel they can sit down and speak with anyone else in the facility — be it teammates, coaches or janitors — like it is second nature without divisions being made.

“We’ve taken tremendous strides over these training sessions and these practices. We’ve gotten closer as a team,” said senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall. “I feel like anybody that comes to our practices and watches our practices notices definitely a difference. We just bring a lot more energy, physicality. We’re just all excited, and what’s important and what stands out to me the most is we truly believe. We truly believe in each other and the coaches and the system, and that’s going to go a long ways for us.”

Same but hardly the same

Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong is perhaps the key acquisition by Napier entering the 2023 season. Sure, there’s a new starting quarterback and multiple veteran players who were added via the transfer portal, but the Gators’ down-trending defense badly needed spark that it appears Armstrong is providing.

To a player, the 30-year-old Armstrong’s energy and enthusiasm has been praised. Redshirt senior linebacker transfer Teradja Mitchell (Ohio State), who is actually only 6.5 years older than Armstrong, said his coach’s energy is “off the charts.” While Napier and Armstrong have stated that Florida’s defensive system is largely unchanged from a year ago, the way in which the players are learning it and executing it seems to have been drastically improved.

The primary difference? Walkthroughs. Rather than doing most of his teaching in the team meeting rooms, Armstrong is getting the players on the field to work out his lessons, overcome educational issues and improve their understanding of his concepts. And it appears to have made all the difference.

Redshirt sophomore EDGE Justus Boone (more on him below) said he and his teammates understand the defense far better than last year as repetition and hands-on work has been effective. He also praised Armstrong as a leader and thought his methods were more effective than those employed in 2022.

“Kids do learn better in a walkthrough setting. Research would tell us this group of young people, from an attention-span standpoint, you need to keep them moving,” Napier explained. “I’m a little old-school, as well. I think they ought to be able to sit in a room for 45 minutes and pay attention and take great notes. So, we talk a lot about meeting room expectations. We work closely with a lot of outside people to help us do that better. Certainly walkthrough is an extension of the meeting. Stand up and take it to the grass, take it to a room like this. I think it’s very beneficial to our players.”

Getting off the damn field

There is no such thing as improving as a defense if you continue to struggle getting off the field on third downs. Part of Florida’s sinking effectiveness on the defensive end has come from its porous third-down defense, which ranked 129th out of 131 FBS teams a year ago. Tough to get much worse than that.

Armstrong understands drastic improvement is necessary but points out that the best way to improve on third down is to start by defending better on first and second down.

“Calling defense now, third-and-4 is really hard, especially when you get to the plus side of the field where it’s really second-and-4 because the analytics people go for it on fourth down,” he explained. “We really spend a lot of time being good on first and second down so we create opportunities on third down for us to be successful.”

As for Armstrong’s overall defensive mantra, he used all the buzzwords: tough, physical, relentless, situational expertise, joy, enthusiasm. But he also declared that the Gators are “going to be the aggressor, and we’re going to hunt.”

Boone explained: “As a defense, our attitude is we want to be the hunter. We want to attack. We’re not a defense that’s going to sit and wait for the offense to dictate. We want to be dictators and make them play our ball.”

Armstrong added: “We were known for the fun-and-gun around here, but a lot of success during that time was because of hitting and running [on defense]. We got to bring that back. We got to get the mindset back of, ‘We’re the University of Florida, and there’s a standard to uphold here.”

Attempting to exceed expectations

Look anywhere online and doubt is significant about Florida’s ability to have a successful 2023 season. The Gators’ win total projection is 5.5, the lowest in recent program history. Florida has been picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth in the SEC East with one prominent writer suggesting they may win no more than two SEC games this season.

Don’t get it twisted: The Gators have one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Certainly not an ideal situation for a team that lost a top-five quarterback and saw a number of other key starters depart either to the NFL, graduation or the transfer portal. Meanwhile, Napier’s acquisitions from the portal have left something to be desired. While the incoming transfers are heavy in experience — a massive positive — Florida did not acquire the bigger names in the portal and saw one of its best transfers, offensive lineman Kiyaunta Goodwin, depart due to a family medical situation.

So, yes, expectations are lower in Gainesville than they have been in nearly a decade — if not longer. And Napier has clearly decided to use that lack of belief in the program as bulletin board material.

“If we can agree [to an expectation] as a team … that should be much higher than any outside narrative or outside opinion,” he shared.

“We take that [disrespect] to notice because they doubt us,” Johnson said. “We had a bad season last year, and we use that as motivation. We try to learn from our mistakes, and yeah, we feel like the world is against us, so we’re going to try to keep it all in house and get better as we go.”

And at quarterback …

Redshirt junior transfer Graham Mertz (Wisconsin) was named the starter on Aug. 11, but what remains to be seen is who will serve as his backup in Week 1 and beyond. The incumbent to that role is redshirt sophomore Jack Miller III, a 2022 transfer from Ohio State who struggled mightily in limited appearances last season — when he was not otherwise injured (thumb) and unavailable.

As luck would have it, Miller is out of practice again, this time with shoulder tendonitis; a return timeline is not presently known. That leaves redshirt freshman Max Brown and graduate walk-on Micah Leon as the next two signal callers up should Mertz go down.

None other than Steve Spurrier recently told Inside the Gators that he likes what he’s seeing from Leon. “He was like the third [quarterback at practice], but it seems — like Coach Napier said — every time he’s in there, the ball goes up and down the field in a good way. So, don’t be surprised if Leon plays some here real soon.”

As for Brown, Napier seems cautiously optimistic about his progress: “Max has made improvement. You know, I think he’s a classic example of a really good athlete and just started playing quarterback a couple of years in high school. … The guy can run. He’s gained like eight or nine pounds and lean muscle, too. … There’s no doubt his accuracy is improved. I think he’s cleaned up his footwork, his stroke is much more consistent. …

“Max has come along pretty nicely, but still, there’s an information gap there. He’s got to catch up mentally. But his work ethic this summer has impressed the staff and impressed the players. So, he’s kind of got right in there and Graham’s hip pocket, and he’s worked the way that you would want a quarterback to work.”

Injury updates

Miller remains out with shoulder tendinitis but is expected back soon.

Redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun is listed as day to day for Week 1 with a lower-body injury suffered on Aug. 16. Napier on Friday said he likes the incremental progress Eguakun is making but would not determine his game status until closer to kickoff. Napier also noted that, as a veteran player, Eguakun does not need as much practice to play as others might.

Boone is out for the season with a torn ACL after going down with a non-contact injury in practice. Napier called it a big loss as Boone became one of the top leaders and most respected players on the entire team this offseason, building himself up as a paradigm for what the coach wants out of his players.

Napier did not list one player in particular who would fill in for Boone; rather, he explained that a number of players along the defensive line will see their snaps increase from a group standpoint. While he has confidence in those players, they naturally have less experience and do not offer as much in the way of leadership. However, Napier is looking for ways to ensure Boone remains around the team this season.

Redshirt senior transfer RB Cam Carroll (Tulane) suffered a season-ending knee injury. Carroll was largely a depth add fighting for the third spot behind the co-starters with freshman Treyaun Webb and junior JUCO transfer Ja’Kobi Jackson (Coahoma).

Sophomore linebacker Shemar James suffered a lower-body injury (believed to be a knee) in early August but ultimately returned to practice and is expected to start for the Gators this week.

“We do nothing different than what we’ve done in years past at all the great places that we’ve worked,” said Napier addressing this offseason’s injury issues. “… So, it just comes with the territory. Some years you have a fantastic year and you come out of [training camp] Scott free but very rarely. I don’t see this much different than in years past.” 

Notes & quotes

  • Napier said there remain depth issues on the team, but the veteran additions have made Florida better and plenty of young players will get opportunities in 2023. All of them have been in the program eight months already after joining in January and 93% of the roster has been on the team since the first day of spring practice.
  • Napier said all parts of the organization are improved from a year ago, and he is much more confident in the Gators’ ability to execute be it on the field, in the weight room or out of the transfer portal.
  • Sophomore cornerback Devin Moore said he feels stronger coming off last year’s shoulder surgery.
  • Junior EDGE Princely Umanmielen is going to be a key to Florida’s defense in 2023, and he’s already receiving a ton of praise from teammates. “All I want to say is we expect greatness out of Princely,” Boone said. “Put his head down, he’s been working for everything. I think he just wanted to come out this year and show with everybody he’s the best edge rusher in the SEC.”
  • Johnson and sophomore RB Trevor Etienne are thrilled with how much pass-catching work their position group has been doing this offseason. Both players are excited to see running back passing added to the offense after it was completely absent from the game plan in 2022.
  • Johnson said he has improved his leadership by becoming more vocal, while Etienne is focused on improving his pass protection.
  • Offensive coordinator Rob Sale is enthusiastic about his offensive line despite losing multiple key starters to the NFL Draft and portal. He believes having so many guys operating in their second year within the system – those cumulative reps will help his tactics become second nature. Napier feels good about the depth on the interior and first two tackles but is concerned about the competition for the third tackle spot.
  • Napier on redshirt senior transfer OL Lyndell Hudson II (FIU): “Lyndell is gonna help us. There’s no question. He’s been impressive, in my opinion. To think about when he arrived, he’s been able to pick it up. The guy has played, I was looking at the numbers yesterday, 1,300 plays — maybe more than that. … We’re very pleased with his progress. We got to get him ready to go so he will get some more reps.”
  • Napier appreciates the experience and leadership he’s seen from the team’s numerous transfers. He also thinks the linebackers in particular are doing a much better job leading the defense.
  • Napier on Mitchell: “The most important piece here is just the maturity, the leadership, the perspective on things. It’s almost a coach’s perspective. … This guy was voted team captain at Ohio State, and you go back to when we made the decision to recruit him and add him to the team, it’s a home run. He’s right in the middle of some really intense competition relative to what is his role. But he’s made our team better.” 
  • The depth of the defensive line should be a boon for the Gators, Napier said. He pointed out that the defensive front is taller, longer and more capable than it was a year ago with plenty of competition across the board.
  • Former Florida defensive end Kevin Carter spoke with the team during camp.
  • Pyburn has been one of the most impressive players from a work ethic, self-discipline and motivational standpoint, Napier said. He’s at his best when the pads are on, shows a great motor and is consistently tough and aggressive. Napier said he’s earned the respect of his teammates and had one of the best offseasons of any player on the team. “He’s got that Gator in him.”
  • Mitchell said the “Swamp Kings” documentary has instilled a lot of pride in the players.

Welcome back, Brandon Spikes

Former star linebacker Brandon Spikes has returned to the Gators as a student assistant coach as he finishes his degree at the University of Florida. It’s a similar role to the one Sharrif Floyd took a couple seasons ago. Multiple players have already been effusive in their praise of having Spikes around the team, and Napier took some time to discuss his addition earlier in August.

“I’ve been very impressed with Brandon. … He really cares about the University of Florida and what this place did for him not only as a football player but as a man, as a student, that helped get is path in life, and he’s had legitimate success at the professional level. Immediately, he brings credibility, pedigree, production, and I respect Brandon, Brandon is very intelligent. He’s been around a lot of football, a lot of players, a lot of coaches, a lot of teams. … He’s really brought something, there’s a presence there.

“I told him, I said, ‘Look, be vocal.’ He’s done a good job of mentoring players. He’s already connected with a number of guys. I think Spikes is going to make our team better. It’s always good to get a guy who’s doing the right thing coming back to get his degree, that has experience and that can influence our young people in a positive way.”

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