Florida football notebook: Billy Napier focused on fixing Gators defense as concerns continue to mount

By OnlyGators.com Staff
October 21, 2022
Florida football notebook: Billy Napier focused on fixing Gators defense as concerns continue to mount

Image Credit: UAA

New head coaches generally receive (relatively) fair expectations with a grace period from fans, particularly when they are tasked with a significant rebuild. However, Billy Napier started so hot out of the gate with a season-opening win over a top-10 Utah team that the perceptions of Gator Nation shifted with expectations immediately rising as to what the Florida Gators should be able to accomplish in Year 1.

Those raised expectations largely ignored the fact that Napier took over a massively flawed Florida program that lacked infrastructure, discipline and talent — well, at least in one key area. Sure, the Gators have capable players across both sides of the ball, but lacking defensive recruiting under Dan Mullen finally caught up with Florida midway through this season to the point that the Gators have reached nearly as low a point as the defense has in recent memory.

Florida entered the midseason point, which just so happens to be its off week, ranked 131st out of 131 FBS teams in third-down defense. The Gators are allowing 52.6% of third downs to be converted, but even that figure does not clarify the depths to which the unit has sunk given the number of such conversions that have occurred with 10 yards or more to gain.

Florida is also ranked 78th in scoring defense (28.14 points per game), 106th in total defense (429.3 yards per game) and 52nd in red-zone defense (81.2%) with only six stops across 32 red-zone appearances for its opponents.

These numbers are unquestionably awful. Particularly for a program that, despite being known for its explosive offenses over the years, prided itself on top-notch defenses that were even more responsible for the Gators’ last two national championships than the heralded offenses.

What some are forgetting is Florida’s struggles are not a symptom of this particular coaching staff. This unit allowed FCS Samford to score 52 points and total 530 yards of offense a year ago. The same LSU team (with a far more talented quarterback now) that scored 45 points on UF this year posted 49 a year ago while gaining 454 yards of offense.

The Gators defense is broken, and while the rebuilding has begun, there’s only so many areas in which the coaching staff has control just seven games into its tenure leading the program.

“Certainly [defense is] an area on our team where we need to improve, and there’s lots of factors that contribute to that. We’re in the middle of that entire process just relative to evaluating all of the areas that contribute to winning football. At times this year, we’ve played good defense. At times, we’ve not played good defense,” Napier said Wednesday.

“The things that we can control are the things that we’re focused on: Fundamentals, communication, alignment and certainly playing good team defense — being on the same page at the first, second and third level and then finishing, when given an opportunity, finishing. … We’re looking for more consistency as a whole from individual players, from position groups and from the unit as a whole.”

If you wish to read between the lines there, the area Napier knows he cannot control this season becomes quite clear.

Napier further admitted there’s “no magic pill or no secret potion” to specifically fix Florida’s issues on third down. While the Gators have done well across individual situations, “consistency is the key.” He wants to see Florida find that consistency across all three levels of the defense so the team can find “more plays where we have 11 players doing their job with consistency.”

While Napier has received much of the grief for the Gators’ 4-3 start, plenty of criticism has also been thrown at co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney. One of the most sought-after young coordinators in the country coming out of Louisiana, Toney chose to stay with Napier and take on the challenge of rebuilding Florida’s defense. Over his last two years with the Ragin’ Cajuns, no similar issues presented themselves to insinuate that there would be problems like the ones UF are experiencing.

Asked how Toney is handling the unit’s struggles and criticism thrown his way, Napier not only got the back of his long-time assistant but explained how highly he regards Toney as a staff member.

“We’re all disappointed, right? There’s this perception out there … like, no one cares more than we do. No one cares more than our players do. No one cares more than our staff does. And certainly, no one cares more than Patrick,” Napier said. “Ultimately, very professional [handling the situation].

“Patrick, I’ve been around for a number of years, absolutely one of the best coaches I’ve ever been on a staff with — and I’ve been around some of the elite coaches. And he had a lot to do with our defensive turnaround at [Louisiana]. He’s doing what he does. He’s extremely bright, and he’s evaluating things objectively, technically and making the necessary adjustments. We’ve got good people in the building. No one is taking more pride than our players, our staff and Patrick Toney in trying to improve in some of these areas.”

It will not get any easier for the Gators coming out of the bye week. Right away, Florida plays bitter rival, reigning national champion and the country’s top-ranked team in Georgia, which just so happens to sport the No. 4 total offense (526.6) and No. 10 scoring offense (41.7 points) in the nation. Given the Gators were able to somewhat slow down Tennessee (the nation’s top-ranked offense) a few weeks ago, perhaps they will have some answers for the Bulldogs.

Either way, don’t expect the vitriol being flung at Napier and Toney to lessen — even if it’s missplaced.

Quality control and self-scout

Rather than spend the off week double preparing for the Georgia test next week, Florida instead spent the majority of its practice days doing quality control assessments and self-scout exercises across all areas of the team. The Gators worked hard on the field Tuesday and Wednesday, took Thursday off and participated in an improvement practice across each position group Friday. They will then get Saturday off before returning to work out Sunday while turning the page to the Bulldogs.

“We always do quality control in house for all the areas that we think contribute to winning,” Napier explained. “What is the root cause of some of the areas where we’re maybe not as efficient? Sometimes, we tend to ignore things that we maybe are doing well, but maybe there’s some things we can learn from. It’s been healthy for us – certainly in all parts of our team – we’ve evaluated in quality control. And we’ve developed plans for all the areas where we need to make progress.”

Depth chart, roster changes

Junior right guard O’Cyrus Torrence has been Florida’s best player across the first half of the season, and though he missed the LSU game with a lower-body injury, he appears to be on track to return against Georgia. Napier said the Midseason All-American (according to the Associated Press and CBS Sports) was a moderate contributor in practice Tuesday who is “making great progress” toward a return.

Redshirt junior running back Lorenzo Lingard moved up the depth chart last week sharing for the first time an “OR” designation at the third-string position alongside redshirt sophomore Nay’Quan Wright, who had previously been a first-stringer through the opening six weeks of the season. While Lingard did get a share of snaps in the game, Wright did not. Napier clarified Wednesday that the latter is not on the injury report and remains healthy. He also explained how Lingard earned the opportunity to play.

“Lorenzo has worked extremely hard – in particular as of late. He’s had phenomenal practices. He’s been much more intentional in the meetings and the walkthroughs. Just overall earned that opportunity through what we observed in practice,” Napier said. “That’s where we’re at as a program. We’re in the first year. Every day is competitive. These challenges are constant and certainly, from a player standpoint, we’re rewarding what we see in practice from a playing time and role on the team and contribute to the team [standpoint]. Again, I can’t emphasize enough, inside of our walls, it means a lot – it’s a privilege to represent the University of Florida – to be one of 11 players that goes between the lines is very important. Lorenzo earned that, and when given an opportunity, he did a really nice job.”

Offensive lineman Joshua Braun announced this week his decision to enter the transfer portal despite it being the middle of the season. In a social media post, Braun explained that he intended to graduate from UF and “the class I need to graduate conflicts heavily with football.” He also apologized to his teammates. Napier supported Braun’s decision but did find the timing of it curious.

“Tough situation for Josh. A lot of things going on there relative to big-picture for him personally with his wife, his degree, certainly his role on the team,” he explained. Josh has been a class act. Extremely bright. A guy that’s close to getting his degree here, wants more of a role and certainly, you know, interesting decision relative to being right in the middle of the season. But we’ve got nothing but respect for Josh and certainly will help him going forward in any way possible.”

Keep an eye out

No matter what you think about the Gators roster as its assembled, reinforcements are coming. The Class of 2023 being recruited by Napier & Co. sits No. 9 nationally in the 247Sports Composite team rankings with the staff’s top target this cycle set to announce his decision on Thursday.

Five-star cornerback Cormani McClain (Lakeland, FL), the No. 2 overall player in the nation, will choose between Florida, Alabama and Miami in less than a week. McClain, who has long been considered a lean for the Gators, has a chance to be the crown jewel of what may well be the most talented and deepest secondary class in the nation by the time the early signing period rolls around in December.

Should McClain (6-foot-2, 165 pounds) choose the Gators, he will become the program’s highest-rated commitment and potential signee since offensive tackle Martez Ivey in 2015. The defensive backs currently committed to Florida hold national ranks of 96, 142, 209, 229 and 485, though most (particularly three-star safety Bryce Thornton) are expected to climb even higher as the recruiting cycle comes to a close.

A commitment from McClain would actually only boost Florida one spot ahead of Clemson back to No. 8 in the 247Sports Composite, but the class would suddenly be within striking distance of the top five should it close as strong as many expect.

McClain has only used one official visit (Miami) at this point, but he has seen UF three times since March and has yet to decide whether to take an official visit to Alabama, though one is certainly coming to Florida sooner than later. He has reportedly soured on the recruiting process and decided to end it by making his commitment next week. The Gators are almost unanimously believed to be his destination, according to recruiting experts.

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