Since Florida’s failed two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter of a 31-29 home loss to top-ranked Alabama in mid-September of the 2021 season, not much has gone right for the Gators. On that play, one player lined up wrong and another went the wrong way. From there, Dan Mullen’s tenure at UF went the wrong way, too.
Former UF athletic director Jeremy Foley hired three inexperienced football coaches that failed. Ron Zook, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain had only three combined years of head-coaching experience. Zook was fired before the Georgia game in Year 3 of his tenure, Muschamp was canned before the 2014 regular-season finale at FSU in Year 4 and McElwain was essentially pink slipped the morning of the UGA game in Year 3.
Nevertheless, Florida AD Scott Stricklin selected Billy Napier to take over this pressure cooker of a job after four seasons as a head coach at Louisiana in the Sun Belt Conference. Sure, Napier’s four years of HC experience is more than the three aforementioned coaches had combined, but they came at college football’s version of the mid-major level.
For the first 18 months of his tenure, Napier and his staff have been an unmitigated disaster. With every step forward, there’s been multiple steps backwards. After a thrilling season-opening win over seventh-ranked Utah, the Gators lost by double digits to Kentucky as six-point home favorites and then got extremely fortunate to beat South Florida 31-28 as 24-point home ‘chalk.’
When UF seemed to turn a corner with a 41-24 road win at Texas A&M and a 38-6 home win over South Carolina, it promptly laid an egg and lost 31-24 at Vanderbilt as a 14-point road favorite. It was the Gators’ first loss to Vandy in Nashville since 1988, ending a 15-game road winning streak over the Commodores.
With a chance to salvage the season at FSU on Black Friday in a prime-time slot on national television, UF allowed QB Jordan Travis to escape heavy pressure on two crucial plays. One turned into a 29-yard touchdown run and the other – a third-and-10 situation that could’ve forced a long field-goal attempt with a sack that was there for the taking – resulted in a 10-yard run for a first down and a TD on the next play in a 45-38 loss that ended UF’s three-game winning streak in the bitter rivalry.
Year 1 of Napier’s tenure ended with a humiliating 30-3 loss to Oregon St. at the Las Vegas Bowl to leave the Gators with a 6-7 record and back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1978 and 1979.
Napier and his staff had a tough Saturday morning, getting embarrassed once again in their attempt to bring in a quarterback for this year’s team when 2025 verbal commit Austin Simmons flipped from UF to Ole Miss and reclassified to 2023.
However, the Gators bounced back over the next 48 hours and change to land seven commitments for the 2024 class. It started with four-star tight end Amir Jackson, a 6-foot-4 target who is ranked as the No. 108 overall player in the 247Sports Composite. He is the No. 8 TE in the country and the No. 16 player in the state of Georgia (Portal High School).
Jackson chose Florida over Miami and Auburn, and he also had offers from Georgia and Alabama.
Next, four-star defensive lineman Amaris Williams pledged to UF over Penn St., NC St. and UNC. The 6-foot-3, 270-pounder is from Clinton HS in North Carolina. 247Sports has Williams ranked as the No. 4 player from the Tar Heel State, the No. 23 DL nationally and the No. 186 overall prospect in the country. As a junior in 2022, Williams recorded 65 tackles, 44 tackles for loss, 18 sacks and one forced fumble.
About 30 minutes after the Williams news broke Saturday night, the Gators grabbed another commitment from four-star DL Nasir Johnson. Johnson, who hails from Dublin, GA., is 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds.
247Sports has him ranked No. 250 nationally, No. 31 from the Peach State and No. 30 at his position. He had reportedly been a UF lean since his visit in April.
Johnson picked the Gators over Florida St., South Carolina and others. He had an official visit to Tallahassee scheduled for this weekend, but it’s unclear whether or not he’ll follow through on that.
About an hour later, Florida’s momentum continued with the addition of four-star linebacker Aaron Chiles, who is from Our Lady Good Counsel HS in Olney, MD. He picked UF over Michigan and Maryland.
According to 247Sports, Chiles is the No. 1 player from the state of Maryland, the No. 80 prospect nationally and the No. 6 LB. He is the third LB in UF’s 2024 class, joining fellow-four-star pledges Myles Graham and Adarius Hayes to give UF the No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 LBs nationally.
A fifth player in 48 hours committed to Florida this morning when Creekside HS (Fairburn, GA.) DL Michai Boireau made his announcement. At 6-foot-5 and 370 pounds, Boireau is a space eater in the trenches.
The three-star DL took his official visit to Florida on June 9 and was in Athens this past weekend. He picked the Gators over UGA and also held offers from FSU, Auburn and Boston College.
A sixth player went orange and blue with this afternoon’s commitment from three-star OT Marcus Mascoll. The South Gwinnett HS (Snellville, GA.) product is UF’s sixth pledge in this class from the Peach State.
Mascoll, a 6-foot-4.5, 292-pounder, chose the Gators over LSU and NC St. He visited Baton Rouge on June 2, UF on June 9 and was in Raleigh this past weekend. As recently as a week ago, many industry insiders still felt that Brian Kelly and his LSU staff were in the lead for Mascoll’s services.
Finally, it was fitting that Napier reached into The ‘Sip to snag his seventh player in the three-day span that started with Simmons’s flip to Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss program. EDGE rusher Jamonta Waller, a five-star prospect who 247Sports has ranked as the No. 1 player in the state of Mississippi, the No. 5 EDGE in the country and the No. 28 prospect nationally, committed to the Gators on Monday night.
Waller was in Gainesville over the weekend one week after an official visit to Penn St. and two weeks after visiting Auburn. He held 22 offers from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi St. and Arkansas, among others.
With the seven new additions to UF’s 2024 haul, the class is now ranked third in the 247Sports Composite and second in the On3 Industry Ranking. The Gators have landed two five-star commitments, nine four-star pledges and four three-star prospects.
The 15-man class also has an unranked prospect in interior offensive lineman Noel Portnjagin. He’s not ranked because he’s never played high school football in the United States. Portnjagin is a 6-foot-5, 334-pound player from Germany.
Napier and his staff really needed to create this buzz on the recruiting trail to stop the bleeding for the program on and off the field. The poor on-field results came about despite the presence of a QB in Anthony Richardson who went fourth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft.
The off-the-field results were especially worrisome because UF parted with Mullen due to his recruiting failures, but Napier’s first two classes didn’t measure up to Mullen’s. Both coaches were at disadvantages with their first group due to taking the job less than a month before National Signing Day.
Mullen’s first class ranked No. 14 nationally per 247Sports, while Napier’s finished No. 17. In the second recruiting haul, Mullen’s group was No. 9 and Napier’s class was No. 12.
Furthermore, Napier’s issues in getting QBs to Gainesville has been well chronicled. In his first class, the former HC at Louisiana brought in Max Brown and Jack Miller.
Brown was ranked as the No. 96 signal caller in the 2022 class. He didn’t take a snap as a true freshman and a walk-on was set to back up Miller in the Las Vegas Bowl when Richardson opted out to stay healthy for the draft. Brown also plays baseball at UF and didn’t get much playing time in the Orange & Blue Game this past spring.
Miller was a four-star recruit out of high school when he signed with Ohio St. He appeared in only one game for the Buckeyes as a true freshman and didn’t attempt a pass, but he did produce 23 rushing yards and one touchdown on two carries.
In 2021 at Ohio St., Miller appeared in four games and completed 7-of-14 passes for 101 yards. He suffered a thumb injury in mid-August of last season that sidelined him for about three months.
Jalen Kitna became Richardson’s back up in Miller’s absence and played well in limited action. In four games, Kitna completed 10-of-14 passes for 181 yards and one TD without an interception. The future appeared bright for the son of Jon Kitna, who had a solid NFL career that spanned 14 seasons with the Seahawks, Bengals, Lions and Cowboys.
However, Jalen was arrested on five charges of possession of child pornography last December and was dismissed from the program. Therefore, Miller was given the starting nod against Oregon St.
UF was playing without a lot of players who opted out to stay healthy for the draft or left the team and entered the transfer portal. It certainly wasn’t an ideal situation for the inexperienced QB.
Miller completed 13-of-22 throws for 180 yards. He had 13 rushing yards on 13 attempts, as he was often forced to scramble due to intense pass pressure from the Beavers. UF barely avoided a shutout by kicking a field goal with 37 seconds left.
Florida had a verbal commitment for the 2023 class from Marcus Stokes, a four-star QB out of Nease HS in Ponte Vedra Beach. UF pulled its scholarship offer, though, after Stokes uttered a racial slur while singing a rap song in a video that went viral on social media. He eventually ended up signing with West Florida.
The Gators landed a four-star QB on NSD when Jaden Rashada signed his letter of intent. Rashada was set to arrive in Gainesville and enroll early for the spring semester, but that never happened.
Rashada had reportedly agreed to an NIL deal with UF’s Gator Collective, but the organization ended up terminating the lucrative contract that was believed to be worth somewhere in the $11 to $13.85 million range. The Gator Collective and Rashada’s team were reportedly working on a new contract in January but couldn’t come to an agreement.
Rashada never showed up on campus, eventually requested a release from the NLI he signed and once it was granted, he decided to go to Arizona St. A report from The Athletic stated that an NIL deal with the Sun Devils is “nonexistent.”
As if those QB gaffes weren’t enough to chafe Florida’s fan base, the worst was yet to come. With a QB depth chart consisting of merely Miller and Brown on scholarship, the Gators figured to be seeking at least two signal callers from out of the portal.
There were a ton of talented and experienced players available, including the likes of Sam Hartman, Devin Leary, Austin Reed, Spencer Sanders, Tanner Mordecai, Hudson Card, Phil Jurkovec, Jeff Sims and DJ Uiagalelei.
Reed played at West Florida from 2019-21 before leading the nation in passing yards (4,744) at Western Kentucky last year. Reed reportedly entered the portal with hopes of going to UF, but he opted to stay with the Hilltoppers when Napier and his staff went in a different direction.
There were whispers that UF thought it was going to land Tulane QB Michael Pratt. In late December, there were multiple reports that Tulane HC Willie Fritz was going to leave the school to take the Ga. Tech job.
But the Yellow Jackets ended up removing the interim tag from HC Brent Key, who did a masterful job after taking over for Geoff Collins midway through the 2022 campaign. Then Pratt led the Green Wave to a thrilling come-from-behind win over USC at the Cotton Bowl.
With the win over the Trojans and Fritz remaining in New Orleans, Pratt decided to stay at Tulane.
There was also some buzz about possibly landing Coastal Carolina QB Grayson McCall, who has led the Chanticleers to a 28-5 record in his 33 starts over the last three seasons. McCall has a 78/8 career TD-INT ratio and 17 rushing TDs.
When McCall reportedly had some issues with his academic credits transferring from Coastal Carolina to Auburn, his scheduled visit to The Plains was cancelled at the last minute. Needless to say, if McCall’s credits wouldn’t transfer to Auburn, they certainly wouldn’t be able to transfer to UF. McCall ended up remaining at Coastal Carolina.
When Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz signed with UF in late December, it appeared to be a solid get for depth purposes. Napier had added a player that would be allowed to compete for the starting job, but Mertz was most likely just going to add experience galore to the QB room and be a quality No. 2 option.
After all, Mertz is considered by most Wisconsin insiders to be the biggest recruiting disappointment in the program’s storied history. Coming out of high school, he was ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 3 pro-style QB in the nation at 247Sports.
After redshirting in 2019, Mertz was named the Badgers’ starter in 2020 when they were coming off their fifth double-digit win total (10-4 in 2019, but 11 wins or more in 2014, ’16 and ’17) in a six-year stretch. Expectations soared through the roof after Mertz threw seven TD passes without an interception in a 45-7 home win over Illinois and a 49-11 win at Michigan in his first two starts.
Since then, though, Mertz has an abysmal 31/26 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 17-13 record in 30 starts. In the final five games of 2020, the Badgers went 2-3 and Mertz threw only two TD passes compared to five interceptions.
Since completing 61.1 percent of his passes in 2020, his completion percentage has dipped in back-to-back seasons (59.5% in 2021 and 57.3% in 2022). Paul Chryst was fired in October of last year and the Badgers finished 6-6 in Mertz’s 12 starts.
If we exclude the 2020 pandemic year when it finished 4-3 in the shortened seven-game season, Wisconsin’s six regular-season wins last year was its lowest amount since 2001.
Hartman apparently had his heart set on being the next QB at Notre Dame. Whether or not Napier and his staff had a higher evaluation of Mertz than Leary or they were just skeptical of Leary’s recovery from a season-ending injury in 2022 is unclear.
Maybe Mark Stoops and Liam Cohen just did a better job of recruiting Leary? Whatever the case, the former NC St. QB who had a 35/5 TD-INT ratio in 2021 ended up at Kentucky. Regardless, it’s another stain on Napier’s resume of getting players at the most important position on the field to Gainesville.
After the Orange & Blue game concluded with the fewest points scored (17 in a 10-7 final) in the program’s history of playing the spring game, Napier told the media that the Gators were “definitely” looking to the late portal window to add another scholarship QB.
When the few decent signal callers on the board committed to other schools, it became clear that Napier was counting on Simmons reclassifying to the 2023 class. Even in that scenario, it would’ve been a 17-year-old QB who was expected to be playing as a junior in high school instead of in the SEC.
On Saturday morning with Simmons’s decision to go to Ole Miss, it became official that UF will have only have three scholarship QBs on the roster this season. To put it mildly, none of the three offer much in the way of optimism for a frustrated fan base.
But when asked about the QB situation at the annual SEC spring meetings in Destin two weeks ago, Napier said that he “felt great about the body of work of the guys in that room.”
I’m all for the glass-half-full approach, but “great” isn’t the word that comes to mind when examining the body of work from those players. Was it the three points scored in Las Vegas with Miller under center or Mertz’s 31/26 TD-INT ratio in a 30-game sample size that inspired such excitement and confidence (or delusions of grandeur) from Napier?
I don’t know. What I do know is that Florida has its lowest season win total (5.5 at most betting shops) in program history. Most books have the Gators as underdogs of eight (Circa) to 9.5 points (DraftKings and multiple offshore shops) for their opener at Utah.
At DraftKings, they’re 7.5-point home underdogs vs. Tennessee, 21.5-point underdogs vs. UGA, 16.5-point underdogs at LSU and 9.5-point home underdogs vs. FSU.
Napier went winless against the program’s biggest rivals (LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and LSU) in 2022. As previously noted, his first two recruiting classes weren’t on par with Mullen’s and he’s incomprehensibly going into this season with a dearth of talent at QB.
So yes, it’s an enormous understatement to say that UF’s 48-hour run of recruiting success was just what the doctor ordered, but the QB of the future – five-star DJ Lagway – won’t be eligible until Week 1 of the 2024 season.
And the immediate future still seems doomed for failure and losses galore. Unless UF somehow finds a way to win seven games in 2023, it’ll be the first time the Gators have endured three losing seasons in a row since 1945-1947.
When Muschamp was hired at UF in December of 2010 (11 years before Napier scored the coveted gig), he said at his intro presser that “there are no five-year plans in the SEC these days.” I’ve often thought about that quote during Napier’s first 18 months on the job at a time when the portal provides coaches with the fastest opportunities to re-tool a roster in college football history.
Napier has repeatedly uttered phrases like “process, patience, phases and evaluations” to a fan base notorious for always having high expectations and limited patience or tolerance for losing football games. With the QB situation being what it is in 2023, it’s seemed as if Napier is leaning on his buyout – believed to be around $32.5 million after Year 2 – making it a given that he’ll be around for a third season.
Maybe he’s right about that? UF did just pay a hefty buyout to Mullen and spent $85 million on its new football facility that opened in 2022.
But what happens if Florida goes 4-8 this year? Will Lagway and other blue-chip recruits stick with their verbal commitments when NSD gets here?
Is Lagway going to be ready to start in Week 1 as a true freshman? If not, will Napier do a better job of securing a veteran QB from the portal that’ll be ready to win SEC games in September of 2024?
Napier just enjoyed the most promising 48-hour span of his tenure, but what took so flippin’ long? These verbal commitments won’t be viewed as legit success until pen hits paper on NSD, so let’s hold off on scheduling any future parades in Gainesville.
Maybe the last 48 hours will ultimately be viewed as when Napier and his staff turned the corner? For now, though, there are still way more questions than answers when it comes to Napier and whether or not this dude is really the right guy to lead the program that Steve Spurrier once called “this great big ol’ battleship that we call Gator football.”