Florida alters secondary, special teams depth chart ahead of weather-delayed Week 5 tilt

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 30, 2022
Florida alters secondary, special teams depth chart ahead of weather-delayed Week 5 tilt

Image Credit: Emma Bissell, UAA

As the Florida Gators continue to search for answers in Year 1 under new head coach Billy Napier, the program is coming to grips with a 2-2 start that has equally impressed and depressed one-third of the way through the 2022 college football season. Given the team is still three weeks away from a bye and has many of its goals still in front of it, now is as good a time as any to make some adjustments to the personnel seeing the field on Saturdays.

Except this week, that will take place Sunday as Florida pushed its game with Eastern Washington 24 hours due to Hurricane Ian. The Gators are not strangers to seeing their games delayed or pushed due to weather, though this is the first time Napier has been forced to deal with such a phenomenon since taking over in Gainesville, Florida.

Though Florida did practice Wednesday as scheduled, it was pushed up due to the hurricane. The Gators were unable to step on the field Thursday for safety reasons but now have an extra day of preparation Saturday before they host EWU, in a game originally scheduled more than half a decade ago when Jim McElwain was leading the program. (McElwain was a quarterback and assistant for the Eagles.)

However, given changes to Florida’s depth chart, as announced Wednesday, the altered preparation week could ultimately benefit the team.

Most notable is redshirt sophomore Jaydon Hill taking over the second starting cornerback spot across from sophomore Jason Marshall Jr. Hill, who has missed more than a calendar year after tearing his ACL in practice ahead of the 2021 season, takes over the starting role he was expected to command 12 months ago.

Hill started five of 12 games as a true sophomore in 2020, ranking second amongst Gators defenders with seven pass defenses. He now supplants sophomore Avery Helm, who did an admirable job at the position but struggled against elite playmakers.

“Jaydon has been very much a work in progress as he’s made his return to play. He’s done everything that he’s been asked to do, worked extremely hard. Jaydon is a guy I’ve got a ton of respect for. You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective. … He’s been on that path to recovery,” Napier said.

“Jaydon was one of the better players we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed with him as a player. It’s no surprise to me he’s shown pretty quickly here that he’s pretty capable. I’m excited to watch him play; I’m excited how he can impact our team.”

Stepping into a starting role for the first time is freshman Kamari Wilson, who takes over for senior Trey Dean III at safety. Dean, responsible for two blown coverages that eventually led to touchdowns against Tennessee last week, is not just off the depth chart but listed as out for Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury.

“When we watch the defensive tape, it’s simple: It’s one player not doing what he’s supposed to do quite often. It’s a guy busting the coverage. It’s a guy not in his pass rush lane. It’s a guy mis-fitting a run,” Napier said Monday of UF’s recent defensive struggles. “There’s a lot of good on the tape, but you talk about playing team defense, you gotta have 11 players doing what they’re supposed to do. We gave away explosive plays in the game because of mental errors.”

Wilson was previously in a second-string role behind sophomore Rashad Torrence II at the other safety spot but jumped sophomore Donovan McMillon for the starting job at Dean’s position. Despite Napier saying Wednesday that Wilson and McMillon would share snaps in place of Dean, McMillon has been pushed into an “or” designation with freshman Miguel Mitchell behind Wilson.

A four-star prospect and the No. 44 overall player in the 247Sports Composite out of IMG Academy, Wilson was Napier’s top-ranked signee in the transitional Class of 2022. Getting on the field as a starter so early in his career will only help his long-term development, and given Dean’s struggles throughout his career, it could be a boon to the position as a whole. (It also proves to future recruits that Napier is willing to play true freshmen at key positions.)

Beyond the secondary, a planned change to special teams is coming Sunday as freshman Trey Smack will take over kickoff duties with redshirt freshman Adam Mihalek remaining the field-goal kicker, according to 247Sports. Napier previously said such an adjustment would be made once Smack was 100% healthy, but he was never listed on the injury report and retains his “or” designation with Mihalek in both positions.

With Smack seemingly having a stronger leg, this is a welcome change for Florida given the team has been having significant issues in kickoff coverage. Smack will presumably kick more touchbacks thus negating returns creating coverage issues.

Still, the Gators have significant issues in all phases of special teams — penalties, coverage, returning, even kicking after a tipped ball last week — particularly considering Napier considers that phase of the game to be his “game changers.”

“Those are frustrating. Those are undisciplined penalties, some of those in particular. Those are decision making where you’re doing something that you know is absolutely not in the best interest of the team,” Napier said.

“From a strategy perspective, we need to make better decisions relative to when we bring the ball out and when we don’t. We’re learning there, and there’s no question we need to adjust our strategy there.

“The penalties are what I really struggle with because, when you’re returning the ball — whether it’s the punt return unit or the kickoff return unit — No. 1 is secure the football, get the ball back to the offense. No. 2 is don’t get a penalty. That’s the top two things on the list.

“We’re going to work extremely hard to create game-changing plays, win one-on-one matchups, have an electric player that can create and try to position the team to make a game-changing play. But we’re not doing any of those things very well right now. It’s a part of our team where we need to improve.”

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