Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope fourth time’s the charm as Billy Napier era opens vs. Utah

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 2, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators hope fourth time’s the charm as Billy Napier era opens vs. Utah

It’s not often that the Florida Gators are an underdog in The Swamp — particularly to a nonconference opponent. In fact, when the No. 7 Utah Utes visit Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday night, they will be the first nonconference team other than Florida State or Miami to be favored on Florida Field since 1982.

That game? One of two meetings ever between Florida and USC. The Gators entered as a 2.5-point underdog and defeated the Trojans in a 17-9 upset. Would Florida fans and head coach Billy Napier take that same result Saturday with Utah a 3-point road favorite? You bet.

Napier is the latest in a long line of coaches aiming to bring the Gators back to national championship glory. After winning three titles in a 14-year span, being considered among the best teams in the country has been an expectation in Gainesville, Florida. Yet the program has, time and again, failed to find a steward to help it again reach that level of consistent success.

Enter Napier, a 43-year-old son of a coach with experience under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, who already had success leading a program of his own in Louisiana and has managed to engender total buy-in from Florida’s boosters and administrators in just a number of months.

It all comes to a head for Napier on Saturday when he steps into The Swamp against a top-10 opponent in his first career game leading a Power Five team. While the pressure may be on, Napier plans to pause — at least for a moment — and soak it in.

“I usually do that right before we kick it off. I get to coach this game for a living, right? So, it’s pretty special to have an opportunity to do something that you love, that you dreamed of doing for a long time,” he said this week. “I get a chance to do it at a really high level with a great group of people representing a great place.”

While the Gators’ on-field consistency has waned in recent years, their stadium remains one of the most intimidating in the country. Save for a few season tickets with high booster contribution levels, Florida vs. Utah is sold out (as is the LSU game later in the year). Suffice to say, Napier is ready to put his players, fans and the homefield advantage created by The Swamp against the defending Pac-12 champions.

“We’ve got one of the best game day venues in all of the country, if not the best. The passion here that our fans have, our alumni, our student body, there’s been a lot of great memories made in that place,” he said. “The cool thing here … is the University of Florida impacted a lot of people. They came here to school. This place made them better. It changed their future, made them who they are today. And they enjoy coming back. And part of their memories are game days in the fall in The Swamp.

“It should always be an advantage for us. Certainly, we want our fans to make it very difficult for the other team. We can work together. If we execute and do what we’re supposed to do and [the fans are] into the game, it’s got an opportunity to be a special combination. I’m looking forward to experiencing it, on this side, for the first time this Saturday.”

Despite the high energy level and the apprehension that naturally comes with Week 1, Napier is not concerned about Florida’s execution. “Confidence comes from preparing the right way,” he said. Napier wants his team to “stay in the moment” and not let the atmosphere get the best of them. That’s been the approach his coaching staff has taken in practice, and he believes it has rubbed off on the roster.

“We all understand the emotion, the excitement that’s going to come with this game. We’re not going to have a problem with that with our players,” he said. “This is a competitive group. They embrace competition. They’re excited. We’ve been beating up on each other for a long time.”

The Gators will now turn their focus to beating up on the Utes, who have traveled nearly 2,000 miles across the country to a far more humid and unwelcoming environment than they are used to experiencing. Utah knows there will be naysayers given the general concept of a Pac-12 team — no matter how good — playing a Week 1 road game against a top-tier SEC opponent.

Florida does not have the luxury to think along lines that thin. Forty years after UF took it to the premier Pac-12 team in the conference’s storied history, it will look to show off the might of the Southeast and pull off another upset.

Cleaning out the notebook

There is perhaps no player on the roster more bought in to the new regime than senior safety Trey Dean III, who returned for an additional season despite NFL interest. Dean talked up the entire coaching staff and the changes it has made to the program throughout the offseason. “[Cornerbacks coach Corey] Raymond, his resume speaks for itself. And Coach Napier’s resume speaks for itself. So, when I came back, I knew they was going to put me in every position to make plays — not only myself but my teammates. So, if you’re on the field, he’s going to put you in the right scheme to make plays. And on Saturdays, I feel like it’s going to show.”

Redshirt junior Dante Zanders, who originally played tight end before being developed as a defensive end at Florida, nearly left the team in the offseason. Not only did Zanders ultimately return to the team, Napier moved him back to tight end due to injury concerns and has seen him flourish as he enters the season as starter. “Dante Zanders, where would we be without the guy right now? He’s been a godsend and certainly what a great kid to be around,” Napier said. “He’s got a great story. I can still remember when we first got here and he walks in the office and he’s thinking about leaving. It’s a great story. We have a couple injuries in spring ball, he makes the move, he’s a very bright kid, he picked it up quickly. The guy’s got a future [at tight end].”

The Gators’ stacked running back room has been talked up all offseason. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson was among their most notable cheerleaders. “[Those running backs] take a lot of pressure off of me,” he said. “Just those guys being able to communicate with me, see things that I see and play how they play, it helps a lot. I’m glad we have them.” Richardson is particularly impressed with freshman Trevor Etienne. “I love Trevor,” he said. “In the scrimmages and in practices, he breaks for a run, I look around and tell people, ‘That kid’s going to be great.’ … I’m glad we got him on our team.”

While showing off the new Heavener Football Complex, one of the Gators’ cameras landed on Richardson’s locker, which just happened to have a laminated sheet of bulletin board material laying on the armrest. That particular material showed a list of the top-ranked quarterbacks in the SEC this season. Guess whose name was missing? “Everything is on social media now. I see stuff like that all the time. I try not to put it on other people and show them, but I had that stuff in my locker,” he said. “It’s still in there now just to give myself some motivation. I see how people view me; that just gives me a chance to showcase what I can do.”

Expectations for redshirt junior Jack Brenton Cox. Jr. from senior linebacker Amari Burney: “This year, I see a big difference in his attitude and his play. He’s healthy now, so he’s got a little step back with him.” Burney also believes Cox is more comfortable being vocal after being new to the program previously.

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