Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seeking overdue SEC win vs. Missouri on short week

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 7, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seeking overdue SEC win vs. Missouri on short week

Image Credit: Anna Carrington, UAA

There’s not much normal about this week or this season for the Florida Gators. Coming off their first of two games not being played on a Saturday this campaign, Florida is dealing with a rare short week as it welcomes the Missouri Tigers into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium fresh off Mizzou’s near-upset of the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs last week.

Even more strange than the Gators’ schedule is their recent performance in SEC games. Florida has lost six straight against league opponents. While not necessarily a surprise given the circumstances of a coaching change in 2021 and starting 2022 against a pair of ranked opponents, it is nevertheless a significant down point for a program that looks to avoid a seventh consecutive defeat to an SEC team for the first time since 1945-47. (Shout out to the Tampa Bay Times’ Matt Baker for uncovering that depressing statistic.)

Also odd for the Gators is their history against the Tigers. Though Missouri only recently joined the SEC, it is one of few programs nationally that actually has a winning record all-time against Florida.

While the teams are 5-5 in league play, Mizzou actually has the series edge thanks to a victory in the 1966 Sugar Bowl. Still, though, it has been a thorn in UF’s side. Perhaps most interesting: Despite the teams trading wins, most matchups have been lopsided. Other than last year’s 24-23 overtime win by Mizzou and Florida’s 14-7 victory in their first meeting back in 2012, the other eight games have been decided by 17 points or more.

Suffice to say, neither the Gators nor head coach Billy Napier are overlooking the Tigers on Saturday, particularly given their near-upset of the Bulldogs just one week ago.

“What it’s a reminder of is, in this league, you got to be ready to play every week. There’s no easy outs here. Each team in our league, they got their own set of problems. Everybody’s working hard to come up with solutions,” Napier said. “They’re trying to put the best product they can out there each week. The matchups are different every week — not only personnel-wise but also schematically. No easy outs in the SEC. It’s going to be a challenge every time. Certainly, this past week was a great example of that.”

Napier has experience preparing a team on a short week. He was 4-0 in such circumstances at Louisiana and reiterated this week that his notebook includes all sorts of schedules for getting a team ready to go with less than the normal allotment of time to practice.

“The positive there is play counts weren’t too high [against Eastern Washington]. Large number of [players on] the roster played 20, 30 plays in the game. We were able to spread that out,” he said.

For what it’s worth, the players seem to understand the importance of this game not only to get Florida off the SEC schneid but also given this Saturday will be homecoming in The Swamp.

“What you do day to day is going to determine [how you play on Saturday]. Coach says you always win the game through the week,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter.

Added redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller: “The guys are motivated to just go out and get that first [SEC] win, and we’ve been working extremely hard at practice to come out and do that. … It’s been a different energy at practice.”

Depth chart, injury updates

Senior safety Trey Dean III returns as a starter this week after missing the Eastern Washington game with a lower-body injury. Dean, who struggled mightily against Tennessee with two blown coverages that led to touchdowns, reassumes his role despite quality play last week from freshman Kamari Wilson and sophomore Donovan McMillon. Trying not to put the onus on Dean for his mistakes two weeks ago, Napier reassured Wednesday that both Wilson and McMillon will continue seeing action while clarifying that issues in the secondary go beyond one player.

“They’re going to continue to play, Kamari in particular. But, yeah, they played well in the game [last week]. Still first start, made a few mistakes here or there. Got to eliminate the mental errors. Got to communicate better,” Napier said.

“We’re making progress fundamentally. The secondary’s much like the offensive line, right? It’s a developmental position. There’s a lot of communication. Everybody’s got to be synchronized. Both of those are of the utmost importance on their side of the ball. Kamari is going to only get better with reps and experience. Had a great practice [Wednesday]. Made some really good plays in practice. Good young player. Got character, really cares. He has a good tool set, skill set to work with.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Miller III (thumb) remains questionable and is unlikely to be listed as the backup on Saturday despite returning to practice. Napier said, while the ball is coming out of Miller’s hand well, he remains a work in progress as his comfort level improves.

“There’s some things there from a fatigue rehab standpoint, just getting adjusted, getting back in the groove a little bit. Quite a bit of time away,” Napier said. “He’s just sharpening that axe every day, improving, certainly making good progress.”

Junior LB Diwun Black (lower body) and redshirt freshman Nick Elksnis (upper body) have been ruled out for the game, while freshman TE Arlis Boardingham (upper body) — conspicuous by his absence on last week’s injury report — is now questionable. Still out of action are starters redshirt sophomore right tackle Michael Tarquin (lower body) and redshirt junior long snapper Marco Ortiz (upper body).

Not-so-special teams

It has been detailed frequently in this space through the first five weeks of the season how Florida has been up-and-down across the offensive and defensive side of the ball but remained a massive liability on special teams. While the Gators have largely seen their specialists excel in the kicking and punting games, coverage and the return games have been relatively atrocious.

Napier provided an overview of his thoughts about how Florida’s special teams have performed ahead of the Missouri game.

“It’s an area of our team where we need to improve,” he admitted. “When I think about special teams, I think about really good specialist play, right? I do think our specialists have played relatively well. Then you talk about covering kicks, punt coverage, kickoff coverage. For the most part, we’ve been OK there. The kickoff return we’ve had a few slip out of there past the 25.

“Then you get into the return game. That’s an area on our team where we need to improve, right? It’s a combination of personnel. It’s a combination of decision making, ultimately, one-on-one matchups…. It’s technique and fundamentals. Those are areas where we can improve.”

Florida is ranked 110th nationally in kickoff return average (16.9 yards) and 109th in punt return average (4.8). The Gators are also 92nd in kick return defense (21.9) and punt return defense (9.5). 

That leads one to question Napier’s coaching plan on the so-called third side of the ball. Florida does not have a full-time special teams coach on its staff but rather a “GameChanger coordinator” on its support staff in analyst Chris Couch. His units have been unremarkable historically and even more so now with the Gators as he’s not an on-field coach. For a unit that Napier clearly believes can change the game, special teams is not doing that positively for the program at this time.

Clearing out the notebook

Napier on whether the Gators understand what goes into winning: “We’re a lot closer. When you lose football games, sometimes it becomes a little bit more real to you, right? It stings a little bit more. We’ve played losing football at times, and ultimately, it’s cost us games. … We’re getting better. Our players are getting more comfortable in the routine. Certainly part of that routine is how we quality control the game and give them feedback about what helps them have success as a team, how we can play complementary football – offense, defense, special teams.”

Napier on why the offensive line has only allowed three sacks all season: “We’ve been fortunate. We, conceptually, are built in a way where we try to eliminate negative plays, obviously sacks being one of those, right? Also, we’ve got a really good plan there to develop the offensive line. We’ve got a good understanding of protection. A lot of it is conceptual. Also, it’s a commitment and a premium put on the offensive line and their development. It also helps when you have an athlete at quarterback, right?”

Napier on welcoming former players back to the program: “Those guys put a lot of time, effort and energy into this place, right? They were here living it, right? They lived what our players are experiencing right now. Just as a simple sign of respect, this is a place that you worked extremely hard to represent, you were here as a student, a person, as a football player. You ought to have the opportunity to come back.

“We want to work hard to build that bridge there, too, right? It’s a network of people that can help the University of Florida, right? They can help us; they can help our current roster. If we’re going to have success as a team, as a university, as an organization, we need as much help as we can get. It’s one of the things that we have here, right? We have history. We have tradition. We have a lot of people that had great experiences here; they had success here on and off the field. They’re out there living life. That wisdom and that opportunity to connect to our current team is important.”

Miller on the foot injury that forced him out of action: “I was hard on myself [at first], but the training staff did a great job of keeping me calm, telling me it was going to be alright, getting my rehab in and stuff like that.”

Shorter on what has changed with sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson: “His confidence. Now, he can just rip the ball and put it there. He’s definitely confident with his reads and everything.”

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