Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seek continued progress, bowl eligibility in home finale

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 11, 2022
Florida Football Friday Final: Gators seek continued progress, bowl eligibility in home finale

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

The way the Florida Gators’ 2022 schedule set up was hardly ideal for Year 1 of a new head coach in Billy Napier. With tough games grouped together and Florida hardly playing at home over the final half of the campaign, the Gators will see their final game inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium come this Saturday, the earliest Senior Day has been held in The Swamp since 2016.

While Florida may not be in contention for the College Football Playoff or even a spot in the SEC Championship Game, the rest of its goals are still ahead. The Gators can finish 8-4 (exceeding their preseason win total expectation), play in a quality bowl game and end the season with a ton of momentum entering Napier’s second season.

To do it, Florida will have to get past a South Carolina team with wins in five of its last six games and still riding high after its 40-17 demolition of UF last season. That was the Gators’ worst loss to the Gamecocks in series history dating back to 1911.

So to say UF has plenty of motivation as it celebrates its seniors and tributes the troops on Florida Field is perhaps an understatement. The good news? The Gators are coming off their most complete SEC game of the season, a 41-24 win at Texas A&M in which Florida pulled away decisively in the second half.

Last week in this space, we discussed how that contest could be a turning point and jump-off moment for Napier as he rebuilds the Gators in his image. Napier this week conceded that he felt a similar change in the team not only coming out of the game but in preparation for the Aggies.

“We’ve spent a ton of time on scheme, fundamentals, situational football. We lift weights. We run. We focus on all different forms of development physically. But … the ‘culture’ or ‘brotherhood’, however you want to describe that, the expectation from each other, the accountability at the player level [is important],” he explained. “‘Actually, I’m not necessarily worried about my coach getting on me, but I’m worried about letting my teammate down.’ … [To become] an elite team, you’ve got to have that. That’s what we’ve been working hard on. You’re starting to see some of that show up.”

Show up it did. Florida outscored Texas A&M 21-0 in the second half and now holds a remarkable 38-14 scoring advantage in the latter 30 minutes over the last two weeks. The Gators’ performance against the Aggies particularly led analysts, fans and even Napier himself to wonder why the team can’t play like that over 60 minutes instead.

“I woke up thinking about that,” Napier conceded. “That’s who we are. That’s where we’re at. We’re still chasing that [consistency]. Can we put it together, possession after possession? We are taking care of the ball better on offense, which is really – if you look at our teams – that’s the way we play. We’re getting takeaways.”

For now, if Florida has rally in the second half and stage comebacks, hey, wins are wins. “You can’t put a price tag on it,” Napier noted. “It’s certainly really valuable, given where we’re at as a team.”

He added: “We’ve worked on the connection part, the relationship part. ‘Brotherhood’ is a term that was used last week to kind of describe what we’re trying to create here. … They’re starting to understand the football component of it a little more. It’s easier to maintain your poise when you understand what happened, why it happened, what you can do to fix it. And we’re starting to get to that point.”

Still, it’s preferable the Gators find that aforementioned consistency and avoid putting themselves in the position where a second-half rally is required. Even when Florida is “humming” — playing at the level Napier expects — it will have a “laundry list of things [to fix] every week.” What’s most important now is for the Gators to finish strong and take as much momentum into bowl season — assuming it gets there — as possible … even if Napier doesn’t buy into the “finish strong” concept.

“We don’t think in that regard. We got a lot of individuals that are working, trying to improve their best. We’re very much a team of individuals – not only players but staff members – that are trying to do it better than we’ve ever done it before,” he said. “The collective effort of that, you’ve seen certain parts of our team improve and the team improve as a whole. We’re searching for improvement. … We all understand the importance of each game and the momentum and the opportunity that we have in front of us. We view it as a really great opportunity that we can take advantage of.”

Gettin’ special

South Carolina does not boast many advantages coming into Saturday, but its special teams is clearly a dominant. It’s first in the SEC overall but in the top six nationally in both kickoff returns and punt returns as well as in the top 16 nationally in both kickoff return defense and punt return defense. The Gamecocks have also blocked the second-most kicks (five) and punts (five) in the nation.

None of this much a surprise. South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer led special teams under Steve Spurrier and is obviously(one of the reasons she was a prime candidate to take the job after Will Muschamp), and he’s obviously the son of long-time Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, himself a maestro of the “third side of the ball.”

The Gamecocks’ specialists and returners will present a significant challenge for the Gators, which themselves are coming off one of their best special teams performances of the season. Florida’s special teams created a 156-yard advantage at Texas A&M, but it will likely have a far tougher time against South Carolina, which is tops in the SEC in field position differential.

“They’ve certainly done a great job not only covering kicks but returning kicks. They fake – they’ve got a gauntlet of fakes that you gotta prepare for,” said Napier of the ‘Cocks. “Without question, Pete Lembo does a good job – he’s a fantastic coach. … It’s part of competing against this team is [preparing] the special teams part.”

Not helping matters is that freshman kicker Trey Smack, who handles kickoffs, will miss the game with an injury. That will give even more responsibility to redshirt freshman Adam Mihalek, who struggled with touchbacks early in the season when Smack was previously injured and has also been inconsistent recently on field goals.

“We’ve still got a lot of confidence in Adam,” Napier said. “No different than any other player on our team. We do well at times and then sometimes we don’t quite do what we’re supposed to do. … Adam, he’s a very talented young man. Nobody wants to do it more for his teammates than he does, right?”

Shakeup at wideout

Whether redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter returns Saturday remains to be seen. Listed as questionable, Shorter was a modest practice participant this week who was on a “pitch count” as of midweek. The Gators had some younger players step up significantly in his absence, the most notable of which was sophomore Ja’Quavion Fraziars, who caught four balls for 50 yards and a touchdown.

Unfortunately, Fraziars is now out with a “pretty significant shoulder” injury suffered while making a highlight catch at Kyle Field. In other words, there’s a chance Florida is without its No. 2 pass catcher — and his top replacement — against South Carolina.

If Shorter does miss the game, freshman Caleb Douglas will likely start in his place. Douglas has two touchdowns in as many appearances this season and continues to flash as a wideout. This despite him playing quarterback in high school until midway through his junior season. “He’s a good young player that has the traits, has the movements, has the intangibles,” said Napier. “His skill level is still developing, but he’s got the right makeup, and he’ll benefit from the experience. … He’s the right kind of kid.”

Clearing out the notebook

Napier on Florida’s defense adjustments at Texas A&M: “Maybe a few adjustments, but primarily just 11-for-11 execution. That was the thing that was a little bit frustrating for the players and staff. We’re in some great positions, and we’ve got one guy who is short. … We were in a lot of plays where one guy was making a mistake and it was getting exposed, whether it’s gap integrity, eye discipline. … Ultimately, they knew and understood what was happening out there. That was the thing that was really cool to me to see is they were vocal at the half about what needed to be addressed amongst themselves. That’s [an example of] when you’re making progress. So the staff and players were well aware of what the issues were.”

Napier on junior right guard O’Cyrus Torrence, who will garner heavy All-America consideration: The guy’s 6-foot-5. He’s 335 pounds. He’s got 11-inch hands. He’s got long arms. He’s got more lean mass on his body than any player on our team. He’s a big-time player. More importantly, he has discipline. He has character. He’s tough. He’s a very consistent worker. He’s durable. And football comes easy to him. He processes really well. He’s a good communicator. It’s really been a big deal; one of the reasons we’ve played well up front is his ability to translate because he had played in the system.”

Napier on running backs sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. and freshman Trevor Etienne emerging: “Those two guys have been a huge bright spot relative to what we’ve been able to do offensively. No question. Two new players, both of which are getting more comfortable, very capable. Both are smart players. Both are very consistent in their work ethic, their practice habits, their prep during the week. They’ve got discipline. They take care of themselves. They both have character. And they certainly have been very productive.”

Napier praising the wide receivers’ perimeter blocking: “How you play without the ball on offense is a direct reflection of what kind of teammate you are.”

Napier on improvements expected given many inexperienced players saw the field in 2022: “The most improvement in a player’s career comes after the first year of significant [playing] time. … We’ve got a lot of guys that are getting their first significant experience. You see individual improvement throughout the season, but it gets magnified with eight, nine months of prep [to do it again].”

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