Florida vs. Kentucky takeaways: Billy Napier under fire after Gators get embarrassed in historic loss

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 30, 2023
Florida vs. Kentucky takeaways: Billy Napier under fire after Gators get embarrassed in historic loss

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

Despite the Florida Gators’ continued struggles through their first 17 games under head coach Billy Napier, it was not until Saturday’s listless 33-14 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats where his future with the program should have been considered a legitimate conversation point. Not only did the Gators lose the game — to a long-time rival they used to dominate — in decisive fashion, they did so in a humiliating and historic manner with Napier once again making the same mistakes and failing to provide any answers — on the field or off of it.

This terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad performance allows Napier’s fitness for his position to be questioned — not because of the loss itself or the scoring margin but rather due to the way Florida played in the game.

It is one thing to criticize Napier for being headstrong about offensive play calling or having made confusing choices when building his coaching staff. It’s quite another when the Gators look wholly unprepared for a winnable game like this only to instead lose by 19 points with Napier falling to 1-7 away from home in his short Florida career.

The Gators have been usurped in the SEC East (in its last season of existence) by the Wildcats, which have now won three straight games in the series for the first time since 1948-51 when Bear Bryant was their coach. Kentucky’s 19-point margin is its largest over Florida since 1979, and Napier has become the first UF coach to lose consecutive games to UK since Doug Dickey in 1976-77.

“Not a lot of positive to talk about today,” Napier said at the onset of his opening statement after the game. “… They flat-out beat us. They were the more physical team. They controlled the line of scrimmage, the edges of the formations. They protected their quarterback. We did not win the line of scrimmage or the edges, and they affected our quarterback. We had a handful of penalties, obviously, that was a factor. The early turnover was a factor. And then just fundamentally, very disappointed in our team.

“I told the players, ‘I know one way to do this, and that is to take complete ownership of it.’ For me, personally, as a leader, I have to do a better job for our team. In all ways. Ultimately, that’s my job — is to have our football team ready to play. And I’m going to take ownership of that because I know what we’re capable of.

“I do believe that we had a good week. I do believe that we were in the right frame of mind. But when the ball got put down, we didn’t execute. We weren’t physically ready and certainly, the way the game went early, it got out of hand. We did our best to try to fight and get back in it, but hats off to Kentucky. All parts of the game, they were more effective.”

Florida under Napier is now 3-6 when opponents score first, 1-5 when scoring less than 21 points, 3-9 when allowing 21+ points, 1-9 when tied or trailing after the third quarter and 1-6 when being outrushed. About that 1-7 mark away from home, it does not track to Napier’s time at Louisiana. Over Napier’s final three seasons, the Ragin’ Cajuns were 18-3 away from home with their only losses coming to Power Five opponents or in the Sun Belt Championship Game.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Napier’s Gators is there being so many flaws that a turnaround in an almost-assured Year 3 (more on that below) — against what projects to be the nation’s toughest schedule in 2024 — appears to be extremely difficult if not nearly impossible. Equally as frustrating is that these flaws have been pointed out ad nauseam not only in this space but throughout the media covering Florida in person and among the majority of fans who have followed the program the last two years.

“I’m very hopeful there will be some good things to come of this,” Napier said, “but we’ve got to take a good look in the mirror from an overall operation here and do a better job for the players.”

Coaching staff construction: This needs to be explained before the rest can be expounded upon. Once hired, Napier chose to fill his staff with two offensive line coaches and two linebackers coaches, neither bringing aboard an on-field special teams coordinator (one of few teams in the nation without one) nor a true offensive coordinator (play caller). When three coaches left the staff this offseason, Napier not only chose to keep the structure mostly in place, he struggled to fill two of the openings.

Mundane, slow offense with a failing play caller: One of the reasons Napier chose to hire two offensive line coaches, one of whom has the title offensive coordinator (Rob Sale) is because he decided to call plays and coach quarterbacks himself. A tall task for a head coach efforting an entire program turnaround. Anthony Richardson appeared handcuffed throughout 2022, and while redshirt junior Graham Mertz has been shockingly efficient (and impressive with his moxie) this season, a less-talented offensive line has exposed an outdated offense even further.

The Gators entered Saturday ranked 128th out of 133 FBS teams in pace of play averaging an offensive snap every 31 seconds of possession. A run-first, grinding offense will certainly not move with tempo, but Florida seemingly has no ability to adjust situationally during games, such as Saturday when it trailed by two scores with more than enough time to go in the fourth quarter. The offense continued to lumber along without any significant haste.

Despite the Gators finding momentum around halftime, Napier in the second half continued to constantly call runs up the middle into an unrelenting, stacked box. He refuses to give the majority of carries to the far better running back (sophomore Trevor Etienne) and rarely adjusts his game plan depending on the scoreboard. Florida trailed by double digits nearly the entire game, but he still called 22 rushes to 30 passes. None of this is to mention the consistently questionable third- and fourth-down play calls, which are far-too-frequently run plays.

Napier is not going to hire another coach in the middle of the season, but he absolutely must this offseason — assuming he (likely) gets the chance. And even for the rest of 2023, tight ends coach Russ Callaway — an offensive coordinator at Samford whose units were top 10 in the FCS during his tenure — should at least be given a chance. He could hardly do worse.

“You’ve got to remain objective, no different than how we evaluate everything we do,” Napier said of the offensive struggles. “What caused the issues in the game? Sometimes it may be design, sometimes it’s communication, sometimes it’s undisciplined penalties, sometimes it’s fundamentals and techniques. There’s lots of things that contribute when you don’t have success in this game. We’ve got a great group of people that work hard to do that and we certainly weren’t good enough today.”

Two coaches, no solutions: For a unit with two assistants, the Gators offensive line should be one of the best in the nation. Yet Florida neither recruits (high school, transfer portal) nor plays well enough at the position. It failed to replace the talented players that departed after last year, leaving the unit a shell of itself. Mertz has been sacked 12 times through five games (some of that is on him), and in three games, the Gators have been unable to get anything going in the run game. So what, exactly, is the point of having two coaches?

“Anybody that knows me knows that that game right there is going to be hard on me just in terms of who I want to be, the brand of football that I want to play,” said Napier in regards to UF being physically beaten up front.

Discipline remains a problem: Florida on Saturday committed 10 penalties for 85 yards (!), giving away more of the field than it gained running the ball (69 yards). The Gators committed a holding that wiped out a third-and-15 conversion, a horse collar that pushed the ‘Cats into the red zone, a personal foul on special teams that negated a backed-up punt and led to a 75-yard touchdown on the next play, and a pass interference that wiped out a third-down stop and also led to a TD on the next play (on which the UF defense somehow had 13 — not even 12 but 13 — men on the field).

This would be terrible — but hopefully correctable — in a one-game sample. Instead, it seemingly happens every game, though certainly more often on the road. It is understandable that young players — like those comprising Florida’s roster — will make mistakes. But all of it ultimately comes down to coaching and communication, which it certainly appears to not be improving despite most of the staff being together for a season and a third.

Atrocious special teams: Fewer issues this week for the Gators, no doubt, though Florida did lose significant yardage on two punt returns based on coverage decisions made by whoever makes those decisions. We say that because, again, UF is one of a handful of teams nationally without an on-field special teams coordinator. There have been countless times in which the Gators have either been hit with illegal substitution penalties or put fewer than 11 men on the field for special teams plays. Penalties have come en masse. The wrong kicker was starting for the first three games (and most of the 2022 season). It goes on.

Fool’s gold defense? Florida gave up just 46 first downs entering Saturday’s game, No. 1 in the nation. The Gators allowed 22 on Saturday alone. Florida’s defense was wholly unprepared for Kentucky running back Ray Davis, who amassed 280 yards rushing and four total touchdowns in the game. At one point, he had 90% of the Wildcats’ offense as they led by three scores. Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong refused to stack the box in the first half – even as QB Devin Leary struggled massively in the passing game – with the unit not making any significant adjustments until the third quarter.

What took so long? The Gators got bullied from whistle to whistle up front. The pass rush was rendered useless. Again, this unit has three coaches.

“They beat us up pretty good,” Napier said. “Any time a team rushes for 300-plus [yards] and they hold you to under 100, ultimately, that’s where the game was won today: line of scrimmage, edges, tackling, fundamentals. We misfit some runs, and then we were unable to do that on offense.”

It is not Napier who is personally coaching every aspect of the team, of course. However, as the head coach, he is the one who constructed the staff as described. He is the one who decided to be the play caller.

In other words, as with Harry S. Truman (better) and Mike Prince (worse), the buck stops with Napier.

The weekly failures are not in a siloed area. They come in game planning, scheme, play calling, in-game management, staff composition, communication and player on-field discipline. All ultimately the responsibility of the head coach.

Napier can seemingly recruit like no one’s business, but what good is it stocking the pantry if your chefs cannot season the food?

It’s OK to be mild-mannered as a coach. It’s another to never emote or express passion. Nick Saban is as calculated and composed as it gets most of the time, but he can be ornery when needed and as demanding of his assistants as anyone in the history of the profession. (Let’s be clear, no one is suggesting Napier be Trent Dilfer, but there’s a huge gulf between the way each reacts to illegal substitution penalties.)

The Gators’ failures Saturday go far beyond Dan Mullen leaving the cupboard bare because he refused to recruit.

Florida was in the midst of a major facility upgrade before Napier arrived. In evaluating the job, Napier required and obtained the largest infrastructure investment in program history. The Gators’ support staff is larger than ever before, and with the facility completed, the team has all the tools necessary to prepare players and coaches on a weekly basis.

It’s now fair to wonder whether Florida, which entered the season with one of the nation’s toughest schedules, will win more than a couple more games the remainder of the year. UF may only be favored in one more game — next week against Vanderbilt — and that team put up twice as many points on Kentucky as the Gators did Saturday.

Barring what would undoubtedly be a shocking turnaround, Napier may end the season with the two-year resume of a coach who would otherwise likely be fired. There are two key variables preventing that from becoming a likelihood.

First, his buyout. Napier signed a seven-year, $52 million deal making him the 11th-highest paid FBS coach in 2022. Should he be fired, he would be owed 85% of his remaining compensation, including 50% within 30 days of his termination. In other words, he would get a $31.6 million buyout with $15.8 million due immediately.

Second, Florida State. While certainly not an apples-to-apples situation, the Seminoles struggled massively under head coach Mike Norvell across his first two seasons, going a combined 8-13. (Napier has started 9-11, by comparison.) Norvell led a significant turnaround just up I-75 in Year 3, going 10-3 last season. Now, the ‘Noles are rolling at 4-0 as the favorites in the ACC. The contrast: FSU has improved every year under Norvell, while Florida might actually have a worse record in Year 2 under Napier. The Noles’ turnaround has also been fueled by top-tier transfer portal additions, while the Gators have been relatively lackluster in that regard.

Those variables — coupled with the fact that Florida’s last three coaches had tenures of four, three and four years — put the Gators in a position where they likely need to stick with Napier (for better or worse) at least one, if not two more years.

When Napier was initially hired, the plan was to give him four years to reset the program. The expectation, of course, being that Florida would improve year to year (even if not from a record standpoint from 2022-23). However, middling play to this degree must at least lead UF’s administration to begin considering otherwise.

Those considerations should start not with a replacement for Napier but rather athletic director Scott Stricklin. Not solely due to Napier’s performance but rather Stricklin’s entire tenure as leader of the athletic program, which has included numerous controversies and a seeming bevy of unsuccessful hires. (It’s fair to argue Stricklin should have already lost his job. To be fair to some of his hires, there have been flashes as many still young in their careers at Florida.)

If the Gators were to move on from Napier after 2024 or 2025, Stricklin certainly cannot be the person in position to hire a third football coach. Beyond that, Florida at this point would need to make a significant move to bring in a coach of experience prominence, something akin to North Carolina going back to Mack Brown or LSU obtaining Brian Kelly.

But that’s another conversation for another day year. At issue now is the future of the Gators’ 2023 season. And that future starts Monday as Florida begins to prepare for an absolutely cannot-lose homecoming game against Vanderbilt back in the venue where it plays the best, The Swamp.


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