Billy Napier’s approach against Georgia will set the tone for years of Florida football

Quick quiz: how much has Florida had both starting center Kingsley Eguakun and dynamic receiver Eugene Wilson on the field at the same time? Think for a sec. Got it?

The answer is: almost one drive. Eguakun has appeared in just two games, those against Tennessee and Kentucky. Wilson went out with a bruised collarbone late in the Gators’ first drive against the Volunteers and didn’t return until weeks later. Almost one drive. That’s it, and that’s all.

I say that to emphasize that it’s next to impossible to figure out what full-strength Florida actually is in 2023 because we’ve seen so little of it to date.

Consider this. Looking at just games against P5 opponents and adjusting for official stats counting sacks as runs, the Gators were about 60% pass in their play selection in the blowout of Vanderbilt and around 70% against Utah and South Carolina. They were nearly even in run/pass split in the first half against Tennessee before going almost all runs while bleeding clock in the second half. They were also about even before the final drive against UK despite trailing by multiple scores all game long.

So here’s your second quiz question: was Florida more pass-oriented against the Utes, ‘Dores, and Gamecocks and almost even against the Vols and ‘Cats because Wilson was available for the former group and not the latter, or because Eguakun was out against the former and playing against the latter? Or both? Or neither?

There is no answer outside the four walls of the facility. You can write any story you want, and there’s no way to verify it without inside sources.

Florida is going to make another go of it with its rock at center and star freshman at wideout tomorrow against Georgia, if the depth chart is to be believed. Ideally, they’ll get more snaps together this time than last time.

The Gators are impossibly young this season. That depth chart shows it with how many true and redshirt freshmen appear in the two-deep. I counted them for you. It’s eight on offense and 13 on defense, though there are 12 spots on both sides of the ball thanks to there being multiple packages for each — and the word “or” is extending the two-deep well past 22 players. It’s that kind of year. Lots of inexperienced guys are pushing for playing time, and the best way to go in spots might be to ride the hot hand.

I want to believe that the game plans against Vandy and South Carolina meant something for the offense. Billy Napier put more vertical passing into the mix, though it apparently took an extra week to convince Graham Mertz to go for it after a ton of short passes against Vandy.

The short passes were something a new wrinkle for this season. Anthony Richardson, for all his many gifts, did not have touch on the short stuff. Mertz can seemingly throw a thousand screens without ever skipping one, which makes the behind-the-line-of-scrimmage passes more alluring a play call.

One element not revealed in those run/pass mix percentages was the depth of target on them. The prevalence of passes no more than five yards upfield suggests that run-replacement swing passes and screens account for a good amount of the higher passing percentage.

Mertz needed the off week to get some soreness out of his bones. He’s been sacked an average of 3.1 times per game against FBS competition. Florida (11) and Georgia (12) oddly have two lowest sack totals in the SEC so far this season, but South Carolina is next (13) and Mertz took three of them against the Gamecocks. And he took three at home against Charlotte.

Protection has suffered some without All-American O’Cyrus Torrence on the line, and how could it not, but sacks are a quarterback stat too. It appears he’s just going to take some shots this year for reasons his fault and also not. Perhaps he can stay cleaner against Kirby Smart’s defense, as the Saban-derived scheme doesn’t place a premium on sacks like some others do.

With sacks maybe — I said maybe! — a lesser concern, it’ll be a real test of whether Napier was merely exploiting bad Vandy and South Carolina defenses with those more aggressive passing game plans or if it was a real strategic shift. UGA’s pass defense is better than its rushing defense, but there’s not going to be any winning through playing keepaway as there was against Tennessee. Let up on the attack, and the Bulldogs will overcome anything.

This is particularly so since Florida’s defense has been far better at home than away from it. It’s been true to varying degrees since 2020, across three-and-a-half seasons and three different coordinators. Austin Armstrong has been a welcome addition for his plans of attack compared to his two predecessors, but the players still have to execute. They’ve had far easier a time of it in the Swamp, and the 50-50 crowd in Jacksonville doesn’t count as getting halfway there.

No one expects UF to win this year’s Cocktail Party. No one should, given where the teams have been since the Gators’ last win in the series in 2020.

It’s not asking too much for them to be competitive, however, and that’s a question about more than just coming out ready to play. Which, of course, is no small thing since the last time the entire team played well against a P5 opponent from start to finish outside of Gainesville was that last victory over Georgia.

However if Florida is to go down, it should go down swinging. This is not a plea for a moral victory, but rather a desire for Napier to set a real tone going forward.

If the Gators are to become a championship outfit under his watch, it’s going to mean at some point acting like a team that belongs in the title race. Getting to the mountaintop requires a mentality that we’re the ones that others shrink back from, not that we’re risk averse scavengers who hope to steal wins through the back door.

Napier already secured a rivalry win against the Vols. No one expects him to win this matchup. Recklessness is not called for, but neither is running into stacked boxes and only sending out two guys on patterns when it’s time to go deep. The team is as close to full-strength as you could ask for at this point in a season, so there’s nothing holding them back.

The team is so young, nearly everyone who’s playing major snaps will be back next year. Many will return the year after that, and a few more the year after that. What they learn about the way things are done now will stay within the program for years.

When there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain, what will Napier’s approach be? We’re all about to find out.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2


    • I just had a convo with my nephew early in the week. That my opinions and concerns mirrored your article it’s uncanny. He was 7- 10 years old during Urban’s run I was the age during Super Soph’s were shredding it when we became Gators. I constantly remind him his Gator’s view is like looking through a key hole while mine is more akin to a Vista. I also mentioned to him the importance of winning the SC game for simular reasons and allowing us to atleast consider these questions for this game. Billy passed the test for SC and he has been doing excellent job off the field and rooting him hard not just for him but the logo and and the players. Hopefully we can continue to keep the recent momentum going and that doesn’t mean a victory but going toe to toe and taking your best shot. Which is the only part of article I slightly disagree with because that would be a moral victory and one we could surely take advantage of as you mention. I can’t even fathom all the positive implications of pulling off an upset which I feel would only occur 5 times out of a 100 and thankfully to the SC game it’s that high. Yet it remains possible Go Gators and keep up the good work.