Utah loss puts pressure on Napier to prove his model works

Last year’s dramatic win over Utah wasn’t the springboard for a blowout campaign. In the same way, Thursday’s disappointing loss to Utah might not be a sign of a dismal trudge of trying to get marginal bowl eligibility. The bones of a good performance were present, but the nerves that directed the muscles and ligaments on top of those bones were twitchy and unreliable.

To be clear, the Utes are a very good team. They’re two-time defending champs of a P5 conference, and Kyle Whittingham has said the current squad is his most talented yet. They typically play better at home than on the road. All of this adds up to a very tough opponent to start a season with. There’s a reason past Gator coaches were content to start the year with an FCS team or a directional Michigan.

A good chunk of what went wrong appeared to be things related to having a lot of new players in new places. Three of the starting offensive linemen are new to the program, and one wonders how much backup center Jake Slaughter practiced with the top line guys prior to the game. New quarterback Graham Mertz had a couple of large misses — once on a deeper shot to Caleb Douglas and another in the end zone to Ricky Pearsall — where he and his target weren’t on the same page about where a route should finish. The timing also appeared off on the quick pass to Pearsall that tipped up in the air for the game’s only interception.

With that said, there was a lot that wasn’t just first-game issues for some new faces. And many of the issues present go straight to Billy Napier’s core strategies.

Now, in some ways it’s good to be different than your peers in a highly competitive field. If Napier did things exactly the same way as his most successful rivals, then his only hope to sustain success at the highest level would be to recruit a clearly better roster. That’s a tough ask, especially early in a rebuild.

So, Napier does things differently than others do. And some of those differences are major question marks right now.

The key to everything seems to be Napier’s desire to have two offensive line coaches. It’s an unusual arrangement, but Napier has talked off and on from the beginning about how important he considers that to be.

Yet the line was a clear weakness in Salt Lake City. It couldn’t open consistent holes for the running backs. It couldn’t give Mertz a clean pocket for too many snaps in a row. It kept having false starts at critical times. If having two line coaches truly makes that big a difference, one shudders to think what the line might’ve looked like against the Utes with only one.

With limits to the number of coaches on staff being what they are, there is a consequence for employing two offensive line coaches. It means some other standard position has to go, and that position on this staff is the true offensive coordinator who’s also a position coach.

Some guys can handle being head coach and OC at the same time, but Napier is trying to be head coach, OC, and quarterbacks coach all at once. He has analyst Ryan O’Hara as something of a quarterbacks coach at practice, but analysts aren’t allowed to do a whole lot on game day.

The play calling during the game was uneven. UF did outgain Utah by 1.1 yards per play, but the offense bogged down in critical situations. A plague of third-down penalties didn’t help, but this wasn’t the first time it’s happened under Napier. The call for an inside shovel pass to Dante Zanders on 4th & 3 was particularly puzzling, as the play has no other options if Utah sniffed it out and Zanders is not a fast or dynamic player.

Personnel usage was odd throughout. Jordan Castell won one of the starting safety jobs according to the depth chart, but R.J. Moten blew the coverage on the first play of the game with Castell on the sideline. Kahleil Jackson was a starter, but he practically disappeared after a drop on the second drive. Eugene Wilson is clearly the most electric playmaker on the team, but there weren’t many plays designed to get him the ball in space. Big and plodding tight ends were on the field in situations when the offense needed to find a higher gear late.

And on that topic, the team’s time management didn’t make a lot of sense. With new clock rules that shorten games, plus Utah running a scheme that keeps the clock moving, a trailing team needs to play with a sense of urgency earlier than in past years. Florida didn’t. The team’s sole touchdown drive used almost the whole first half of the fourth quarter, and its subsequent drive ate up 75% of the final 5:40 in order to go all of 33 yards while down two scores.

The final major difference is that Napier doesn’t have a special teams coach. He has a “GameChanger Coordinator”, who, like O’Hara, is an analyst and can’t do much on game day.

Special teams was an outright disaster against Utah. Adam Mihalek missed a field goal well within his range, and the normally reliable Jeremy Crawshaw shanked a bad punt. Those I can get past, as individual specialists will have bad attempts now and then.

Less forgivable were the rest of the problems. Punts should not be fielded inside the 5-yard-line. Someone needs to be doublechecking the numbers every single time both Wilson and Jason Marshall are going to be out on special teams at the same time. You already know about the one flag for that, but did you know it probably almost happened again in the fourth quarter? And on that eventual missed field goal try for Utah, only eight Gators were actually on the field?

Attention to detail is supposed to be Napier’s thing, but there was nothing of the sort on special teams. Between those snafus and the multiple illegal formation penalties and time management problems and periodic questionable play calls, it’s hard not to wonder if Napier has put too much on his own plate.

And while the Utah faithful did make it a hostile environment — something Napier cited afterwards as a factor in the game — the Gators played at Neyland, Kyle Field, and Doak last year. Mertz played in plenty of loud environments in the Big Ten, and RT Damieon George, who false started a couple times, played for Alabama. Communication is tough when it’s loud, but freshmen aside, this wasn’t anyone’s first time in a noisy environment. The regular communication problems were the cherry on the top of the unpreparedness sundae.

Napier has at least 11 more games this season to prove that his model works. He has some cushion of patience because it’s hard to see Scott Stricklin surviving a second failed football coach hire on top of other issues that have happened under his watch.

However, some of these unique elements to Napier’s preferred model have shown to be bad ideas elsewhere. Not having a special teams coach, and subsequently having consistently bad special teams play, was a key factor in Scott Frost’s failure at Nebraska. And countless play-calling head coaches on both sides of the ball have given up the reins when things didn’t go well.

Head coaches should call plays when they don’t know anyone else they can get who’s better than they are. That’s plausible for a Steve Spurrier or Dan Mullen. It is less so for Napier given results to date. Notably, Jimbo Fisher’s one title in 2013 is the only one by a play-calling head coach since Pete Carroll was his own defensive coordinator in 2003-04. Head coaches with normal amounts of responsibility have more to do than ever, and Napier has given himself extra jobs on top of that.

On the one hand, Florida was a blown coverage on the first play, a missed field goal, and a pass just out of Pearsall’s reach as Mertz was getting hit from playing Utah about even. Once it settled in, the defense looked much improved and worlds better at tackling specifically. On the other, the Utes were missing their dynamic starting quarterback and future NFL tight end, and they left points on the board late in the first half with an overthrown trick play and a drop.

Because you can frame what happened against Utah however you want, the game was not a definitive sign one way or the other. However, it’s another piece of evidence in a growing pile that calls into question whether Napier’s model is the right one. If the plan is ultimately show to work, then great. If not, we’ll get to see whether a man famous for planning every last detail out long in advance has the flexibility to retain a big-time job.

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