“Fear and Loathing in Gainesville” is a great way to describe what much of Gator Nation is feeling going into the 2023 season. Season one is in the books for Billy Napier, and it was certainly a roller coaster ride. There were some highs with the opening win against Utah, blowing out South Carolina at home, along with a nice road win at Texas A&M. But it ended with a terrible thud – 3 straight losses – a dud at Vanderbilt, a bitter close loss at F$U, and an embarrassment in the bowl game against Oregon St. While Napier and his staff in general showed some glimpses of hope with some excellent talent acquisition and good player development at several positions, there were some serious issues regarding time management on offense, the overall defense, and much of the special teams that hurt the team all season. The last 3 games also impacted much of the goodwill built up until then, and gave Gator Nation cause for worry – again.
Gone is defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, which is addition by subtraction. Gone is WR coach Keary Colbert to the NFL, which is a major blow. Gone also are a handful of significant contributors led by QB Anthony Richardson and guard O’Cyrus Torrence on offense and LB Ventrell MIller on defense. While Torrence was a revelation and an eventual All-American, the others, along with many juniors and seniors left over from the previous regime, were wildly inconsistent, and some often not good enough for the SEC.
Napier and his staff have turned over almost the entire roster now, but still have a long way to go in establishing quality depth and a proven culture of winning. There are also some new coaches in Defensive Coordinator Austin Armstrong and WR coach Billy Gonzales, both being very surprising hires. The 2024 recruiting class for now looks like the best since the Urban Meyer years, which is a huge improvement and bodes well for the future. However, there is much more work to do both on and off the field, and we’re here to talk about right now.
While we now have one season of evidence to get a feel for what Napier wants to do, there is so much roster turnover along with youth and inexperience that 2023 again could prove to be maddeningly inconsistent. Overall depth might be better, but there are some significant personnel losses that might prove too much to overcome given the players replacing them.
At quarterback, Richardson was the 4th overall pick in the NFL Draft and is now the starter for the Indianapolis Colts. He will be replaced by Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, who is in his 4th year of college and has 2 years of starting experience. Alas, much of that experience was inconsistent, and sometimes just not very good. The usual questions of whether it was the coach or player responsible have followed him to Gainesville, and his performance in the Orange and Blue game left many with still more questions and concerns. Accuracy seems to be an issue, and he is nothing close to what AR was regarding running the ball or avoiding sacks – obviously few are. Reportedly he has picked up the paybook rapidly and his teammates like him, but we know all of that can change on a dime with some poor play. Backing up Mertz will be Jack Miller and Max Brown. Miller did nothing in the bowl game or in the O&B game to prove he can be an effective player, and Brown is still splitting time between football and baseball, although he was full-time with football during the spring. All I want to see is consistency – good reads, good decision-making, decent accuracy throwing the ball in the short and intermediate zones, and limiting bad plays and turnovers. None of the QBs is a high-ceiling playmaker, so these are the things they can do to make the team successful. If Mertz gets injured or plays poorly, this season could easily go off the rails and really turn up the heat on Napier. Napier apparently wanted Mertz all along, but also wanted another transfer QB for competition, and simply failed to land one for any number of reasons. Fair or not, he is tied directly to what happens to Mertz in 2023. Napier reiterated in the offseason that he is most comfortable as the playcaller and de facto Offensive Coordinator, and puts a lot of pressure on him to deliver.
The running back room again looks to be the best and deepest unit on the entire team, and one of the best in the country. Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne return after stellar 2022 seasons. Johnson showed power and surprising speed, while Etienne showed elite burst and moves. They should also be featured more in the passing game in 2023, both to help the QBs stay clean but also because of questions surrounding the O-line and WR corps. Cam Carroll is a 5th-year senior transfer from Tulane who impressed in fall camp with his power and blocking ability, but has been lost for the season to an ACL injury. JUCO transfer Ja’Kobi Jackson moves up in the pecking order now and at least brings some experience to the position. Treyaun Webb is a Gator legacy and held his own during the spring as a true freshman – he will get some chances this fall to provide depth. Coach Jabbar Juluke has shown very well both in recruiting and developing his players.
The WR corps has many questions to answer. It starts with new position coach Gonzales, who stunningly was hired back to Gainesville after Colbert’s departure to the NFL. Gonzales was stained by the association with the Dan Mullen staff, despite good work in that stint and in his first during the Meyer era. There is a ton of raw athletic talent to work with, but precious little experience. Ricky Pearsall was another key portal acquisition in 2022 and immediately became Florida’s most consistent and dangerous receiver. He toyed with the idea of leaving for the NFL, but thankfully decided to stay in Gainesville for one more season – his leadership will be critical to this unit’s success. Sophomore Caleb Douglas has impressed in both spring and fall camp. Ja’Quavion Fraziars and Marcus Burke are in their 3rd year at Florida and have to step up or be left behind. True freshmen Aiden Mizell, Andy Jean, and Eugene Wilson were the excellent recruiting class put together in just one year by Colbert, and all have already flashed in practice and will get early chances this fall. Wilson is especially quick and elusive and may get an early look as a punt returner as well. Coach Gonzales has the pedigree of good development of WRs, but has to overcome the youth and lack of experience within this unit – quickly.
The TE room is the least talented on the roster, and has a long way to go to show it can compete successfully in the SEC. Losing coach William Peagler to the NFL was a good thing, as he showed nothing in regards to recruiting or player development. Russ Callaway was promoted from the support staff, but comes with plenty of experience as a position coach and playcaller. Keon Zipperer was the apparent starter coming into 2023, until he tore his ACL in the spring and was lost for the season. Dante Zanders has lost weight to improve his speed, but showed little last season after moving over from the D-line. Arlis Boardingham is by far the best athlete at the position, but is battling injuries in fall camp – he needs to get some early opportunities as a decent receiving threat to help the offense. Hayden Hanson is the biggest target and by far the best run-blocker, which could get him on the field earlier than expected in what could be a run-heavy offense. Jonathan Odom came on late in 2022 as an excellent blocker, but tore an ACL in the bowl game and may not contribute much until perhaps later in the season. Overall this group does not look promising right now, unless there is a major surprise.
Finally, we come to the offensive line. This unit was a surprising strength in 2022, leading what was one of the best running attacks in the country. However, there have been significant losses to graduation (Torrence) and the portal (Ethan White, Michael Tarquin), which has filled this unit with plenty of questions and concerns. They will not have Richarson’s legs to bail them out occasionally in pass-protection or simply making plays out of nothing. It’s probably good that there are still two O-line coaches in Rob Sale and Darnell Stapleton to try and mold an effective unit. Austin Barber will move full-time to left tackle and is the best returning lineman. The huge loss of Torrence is hopefully offset with getting the top guard in the portal in Micah Mazzccua from Baylor, but he is trying to return from shoulder surgery in the spring and may be playing through pain all season. Kingsley Eguakun returns at center, but continues to struggle against bigger SEC DL. Alabama transfer Damien George looks to have locked down the starting spot at right guard, while right tackle is still a battle between FIU transfer Lyndell Hudson and possibly George if the staff decides to slide Richie Leonard in at right guard. There is actually some welcome depth among returning OL Jalen Farmer, Riley Simonds, and Jake Slaughter, along with true freshmen Roderick Kearney and Knijeah Harris. The raw talent is there to eventually become a good SEC O-line, but the lack of experience and continuity will likely be an occasional problem this fall.
Well, so much for my thinking that 2022 could not be any worse (or just as bad) as 2021’s performance. After all the talk of Patrick Toney being a young, rising defensive coordinator who was heavy into analytics and playing an aggressive scheme, all we saw on the field was mostly the same crap we had been subjected to by Todd Grantham. Players not lined up properly or on time, poor tackling, and general confusion with the scheme – what an embarrassment. Toney somehow was hired by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to be an assistant, and Napier did nothing to stop him – probably saving Toney the ignominy of getting demoted or fired for such a pitiful effort. Good riddance – just another in a long line of analytics guys who think they are the smartest man in any room. Now, Napier has REALLY rolled the dice and hired Austin Armstrong, the former DC at Southern Miss. He was hired by Nick Saban to be a linebackers coach only months before Napier’s offer came and was too good to pass up. At only 29 years old, Armstrong has a LOT to prove, and if he struggles it will reflect poorly on Napier. Armstrong promises to run a similar scheme to Toney’s (scary) but with actual aggression, while allowing input from excellent position coaches Sean Spencer and Corey Raymond. Imagine that – some humility.
The defensive line has more playmaking ability and quality depth than since 2019. The loss of leader Gervon Dexter to the NFL will hurt, but Florida did very well in the portal, acquiring 2 quality DTs in Caleb Banks from Louisville and Cam Jackson from Memphis. Both are huge, and should help shore up a weak interior rush defense. Returning tackles Chris McClellan and Dez Watson will provide a solid rotation, with McClellan having the chance to be the best of the group after flashing as a true freshman last season. Redshirt freshman Jamari Lyons and true freshman Will Norman will have opportunities to get meaningful reps as the season progresses. The DE and Buck positions are well-stacked with talent and depth, but lack experience. Princely Umanmielin is getting pre-season award notice and is the leader of the group. and the best pure pass-rusher. Tyreak Sapp will be relied upon to shore up the edge against the run. The loss of Justus Boone in fall camp to an ACL injury was a huge hit, though, and will force young guys into the SEC fray. The best true freshman is Kelby Collins, who played very well in the Orange and Blue game and now has the opportunity to make himself known very early. Kamran James and T.J. Searcy are other highly regarded freshmen that may have to contribute sooner than expected. Jack Pyburn saw limited snaps last season backing up Boone but will now have to step up. JUCO transfer Quincy Ivory also could be forced into more duty than expected. Again, plenty of talent and depth, but precious little experience – this unit cannot afford any more serious injuries. Coach Spencer is doing good work recruiting and developing this group.
The LB corps comes in with little depth and has to overcome the loss of 2 long-time starters to the NFL in Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney. It’s now time to shine for Shemar James, a top-ranked recruit who gained valuable experience as a true freshman last season. Scooby Williams and Trey Wingo are now in their 3rd year at Florida, and have to step up their level of play. Florida also scored through the portal with Ohio St. transfer Teradja Mitchell and Michigan transfer Deuce Spurlock – both likely will play a lot and have to provide quality depth. Mannie Nunnery transferred in from Louisville and is highly-regarded as a special teams star and very good in pass coverage – something the LB corps struggled mightily with in 2022. Overall this unit should be better, but is dangerously thin depth-wise. Coaches Jay Bateman and MIke Peterson will earn their salaries this season.
The secondary was again hindered in 2022 by a terrible DC, and I can only hope Armstrong is self-aware and humble enough to allow Corey Raymond to show off his coaching skills this season. There is more talent and depth here than in many years, and the potential is there to finally remind the rest of the SEC and country just how good a Gator secondary can be.
The CB rotation is talented, but lacks experience. Jason Marshall is the leader and an all-SEC candidate in what likely is his final season in Gainesville. Jalen Kimber and Jaydon Hill have experience and shown flashes, but now have to prove they are consistent players. Devon Moore impressed in limited time as a freshman in 2022, but injuries then and now are limiting his time on the field – he will be relied upon heavily if healthy. There are 3 highly-ranked true freshman recruits that have already made impressions either in spring or fall camp, and all 3 will get an early opportunity to play some significant snaps. Sharif Denson, Ja’Keem Jackson, and Dijon Johnson all have good size and speed, and have shown playmaking ability. Coach Raymond is the best in the business, and excited by this unit as a whole – that’s good enough for me.
The safety position is a real mystery – again. There was plenty of experience in 2022, but precious little playmaking. Trey Dean and Rashad Torrence are gone to the NFL, but they never produced consistently at a SEC level. The 2023 group will have talent, but has scary-thin depth. Kamari Wilson came in as the crown jewel of Napier’s first recruiting class and gained a lot of experience as a true freshman – it’s now his time to lead this group. Miguel Mitchell is a big hitter who must improve in coverage. Michigan transfer R.J. Moten is a Gator legacy and will be counted upon to provide smart play and a steadying hand. Jadarrius Perkins is a senior who has been maddeningly inconsistent, and who might get some reps at the Star position. Finally, 2 highly-regarded true freshmen – Jordan Castell and Bryce Thornton – could work their way into the rotation very early given the lack of depth. Coach Raymond and DC Armstrong have some work to do to coach around this group if they struggle on the field due to injuries or poor play.
The “Gamechangers” made a mockery of that title for most of 2022. The overall performance was mediocre at best, with little excitement except for when Trevor Etienne was inserted for kickoff returns. This entire group has to step up and show major improvement in order to help a team that has little room for error.
Adam Mihalek handled almost all of the FGs and XPs, and has likely won the job for 2023. He performed pretty well as a first-year player in the SEC, but did miss some relatively easy FGs inside of 40 yards that impacted a few games. I expect some improvement this season. Trey Smack returns as well, and will again handle kickoffs. He has the stronger leg and perhaps will get some opportunities on longer FGs, but hasn’t shown the accuracy or consistency of Mihalek. The experience they gained in 2022 will help. Punter Jeremy Crawshaw improved as last season wore on, and could be one of the better punters in the SEC in 2023. He has good leg strength and athleticism, but still could be more consistent with hang time. His Australian Rules football background certainly helps.
The kickoff return game was inept (again) until Etienne was put in as the kickoff returner. He immediately injected some real juice and had some long returns that set up scoring chances for the offense. I’m sure Napier would prefer not to have to use him at such a risky position, but until he has enough quality depth at the skill positions he doesn’t have much choice. The nice haul of freshman WRs could provide a surprise source to improve punt returns, which have been dreadful for the most part of the past 8 seasons. It remains a mystery who might get a chance right up until the start of the season, but I hope Eugene Wilson gets some reps. He has elite quickness and change-of-direction, and this could get him on the field quickly to take advantage of his playmaking potential, as he will be learning at WR all year.
The group as a whole is more settled than going into 2022, which is a good thing. I will say that I’m not a fan of Napier’s method of having multiple position coaches coach different aspects of special teams – I would much prefer he actually hired a dedicated special teams coach and had only one offensive line coach. If special teams struggle again this season, he needs to seriously consider going in a different direction.
Schedule and Outlook
The 2023 schedule is again difficult, with another tough opener and the usual SEC grind. There is no time for easing into the season – the staff and players will have to be ready immediately for a revenge-minded opponent on the road in game one and with scant room for error or poor play as the season progresses.
@Utah – Loss
So many questions for both teams, starting at QB. Mertz for Florida, and will Cam Rising play for Utah coming off of an ACL injury suffered in the Rose Bowl? His backup is out with an injury in fall camp, and they may be relying on QB3. Still, it’s a road game against a well-coached team. I’ll have to see the Gators actually play tough (and well) on the road first.
McNeese St – Win
The hope opener, which should allow the staff to get younger players some experience while playing what’s essentially a controlled scrimmage. As usual in games like this – NO SERIOUS INJURIES is key.
Tennessee – Win
It might be blind faith, but I think the Gator defense will play with pride and purpose in this one after last year’s embarrassing effort offset the best performance of the offense in 2022. They’ll likely have to, as I’m not counting on the offense to look completely functional yet. A huge game for Napier to show the rest of the SEC that Florida is improving.
Charlotte – Win
Another chance for the Gators to play some backups after a tough game. It also comes before an important road game at Kentucky – that’s sad to say.
@Kentucky – Loss
If Florida has lost at home to Tennessee before this one, the “noise in the system” will be ramped up. The Gators have lost 3 out of the last 5 to the Mildcats, including 2 straight after rolling to 32 straight wins in the series. Another big game for Napier to show his “plan” is working.
Vanderbilt (Homecoming) – Win
Florida should have enough motivation for this one, after the collapse in Nashville last season started the death spiral that ended 2022. Vandy is still Vandy, and without some of their key players from last season. The Gators need to put on a good show.
@South Carolina – Loss
The Lamecocks got embarrassed in Gainesville in 2022, and will have extra motivation. I’ll still be on the “prove it” side for SEC road games until Florida and Napier show better. It’s tough to see the Gators struggling against teams like this recently.
Georgia (Jacksonville) – Loss
Crazy things happen in rivalry games, but the talent and depth gaps are just too vast for the Gators to win this one. A good showing and some tough play would help. Florida really needs to show it’s on more level footing starting in 2024.
Arkansas – Win
This will be a much-needed win for the Gators. Arkansas lost a lot off of last year’s team, but still have KJ Jefferson at QB, who’s a load as a runner. Sam PIttman is a good coach who has his team ready to play. If the SEC season has already gone poorly, this could be ugly.
@LSU – Loss
Florida has simply let L$U get into it’s head recently, and is not as talented or deep as the Tigers right now. Death Valley is always one of the toughest places to play, and I don’t see the offense ready to carry the load it will need to in this environment. It’s hard to believe Jayden Daniels could be one of the best two QBs in the entire SEC – what a down year for the league.
@Missouri – Win
The Gators could be in desperation mode by now, and will have to find a way to not lose to the interlopers of the SEC. Eli Drinkwitz is a punk coach who has shot off his mouth too often about Florida. Napier better win this one.
Florida $t. – Win
It may be a stretch at this point after the SEC grind has come to an end, but here’s hoping that Mertz is still upright and the defense has matured and has actually received some legitimate coordination from Armstrong by now. The Criminoles are vastly overrated, propped up by last year’s soft schedule and fortunate wins to end 2022. If Jordan Travis is still healthy and their starting QB, contain him in the pocket and actually tackle in open space for a change, and their offense will be in trouble.
Overall Record 7-5
SEC Record 4-4
2023 is a season with so many questions and variables that it is extremely difficult to predict with any level of certainty. There is key turnover with players and coaches, and the schedule (as usual) will not allow the staff to hide any weaknesses nor have the luxury of an easy opener to get valuable reps and experience before things get real. 7 wins is actually optimistic compared to most predictions by other analysts and by our friends in Las Vegas, who have Florida’s win total over/under at 5.5.
Florida comes into the season with it’s best raw talent since 2020, but also a lot of inexperience and youth in the 2-deep roster. There will be injuries as always, and can those unproven kids provide the level of play and depth needed both to compete against elite teams and also maintain a high level of play through the grind of a SEC schedule? This staff has a LOT of work to do to cobble together both schemes and rotations that maximize what they have to work with. If the offense can’t provide an effective passing game to move the chains and score efficiently, opponents will load up against the running game, and the defense will wear down as the season progresses. At least this year’s team has the same staff and routine to work with, and there should be very little of the attitudes and friction caused by the Mullen holdovers.
Lots of new faces in key roles – again – and a lot to prove to themselves and the country – again. You can’t hide in the SEC, and the good (or bad) will be exposed soon enough. The season could go a lot of ways, and we’re about to see where. With all of the uncertainty – especially at QB – I believe winning 7 games would be a successful season. Anything above that would be a bonus – which is just another indictment of the current status of the program. But, if injuries hit key players, it could be a tough road to get to even 6 wins. It’s a shame it’s come to this. Patience, which is in small supply in college football – especially in the SEC – will be needed as Florida continues the road back to legitimacy and competing for championships.
It’s that time again……Heeeeeeeeeeeere come the Gators!