Billy Napier

2 Reasons Why Billy Napier Can Survive the Hot Seat

After a turbulent 2020-2021 campaign, the Florida Gators were in desperate need of a shakeup after seeing other rising SEC East programs such as South Carolina and Kentucky improve in the win column and having consistently stronger recruiting classes. 

Perhaps in part due to why Florida decided to hire Billy Napier two seasons ago, who had three straight ten-plus win seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette before taking over at Florida.   

There is plenty of upside to him. With the trend of coaching staffs getting younger, a rich history as an offensive assistant, and experience recruiting in the Southeast, the program needed a new voice and approach after Dan Mullen’s inability to bring in elite, five-star recruits, and other SEC teams having their way passing against the defense led by Todd Grantham

Unfortunately, in Napier’s first two years at Florida, those same struggles are eerily similar. After a defensive collapse in the second half of their annual meet-up at Florida State and their inability to close out games (particularly November 4th versus Arkansas and November 18th versus Missouri), the pressure is justifiably on. 

That begs the question— what does Napier need to accomplish in order to alleviate some pressure and bring back the same excitement Gator fans had in the early 2000s and most recently in 2015 when Jim McElwain led Florida to their first SEC East championship game against Vanderbilt?

While Florida is by no means a contender for an SEC championship, making it to a bowl game should be the top priority of year three Napier. If Florida can continue building onto this solid recruiting class and get some early season victories, there is a strong possibility that Napier can survive year three and silence the critics. 

2 Reasons Why Billy Napier Can Survive the Hot Seat

Starts From The Ground Up

According to ESPN, Florida’s recruiting class (as of the writing of this article) has twenty-eight total recruits, with the standouts being DE LJ McCray, LB Myles Graham, and QB D.J. Lagway. It is only of matter of when not if the lights shine on Lagway (likely if Mertz struggles or transfers again). The immediate comparison is Anthony Richardson; both have raw athleticism, a cannon for an arm that allows him to make plays under duress and has an excellent release. 

Ideally, Lagway needs at least one season with Florida’s staff to really be in contention for the starting job but getting these top prospects at a time when not a lot has gone right is encouraging. 

The biggest immediate contributor out of the recruiting class (excluding transfers) seems to be McCray. A Standout from Daytona Beach, Florida, McCray played on both sides of the football, totaling forty-seven tackles, three sacks, and two scores during his 2022 season (On3 Media). 

From watching his tape, what stands out the most is his explosiveness and versatility. Austin Armstrong should have no issue plugging in McCray to multiple packages and schemes. Although he still needs to refine the more technical aspects of his pass-rushing technique, he has every physical skill set to be an immediate impact player. 

There is Opportunity to Build Momentum

There has been plenty of discussion surrounding Florida’s schedule, having one of the hardest in the country, which is true and should not be minimized. 

Finishing the season with a slate of Georgia, Texas, LSU, Ole Miss, and Florida State is brutal. However, there has been little to no attention being paid to the first seven games of their schedule. 

Samford, Mississippi State, and UCF are all games Florida should win. The matchups to pay attention to are a home matchup against Miami and the September 6th home matchup against Texas A&M, as they set the tone for the rest of the season. 

Some may argue that Florida’s rematches versus Kentucky and Tennessee are the games that should be further analyzed. But compared to Miami and Texas A&M, Kentucky and Tennessee do not have the same immediate pressures. After nearly a decade of questionable coaching hires and underperforming, there will be a different type of tension that will ultimately serve as a catalyst for what the back seven could look like. 

What Florida cannot afford is another lackluster start like they did versus Utah in 2023. The defense came out flat, giving up a 70-yard touchdown pass on the first drive and the offense couldn’t get anything going until garbage time.

Any similar performance in those critical first five games will start the same conversations about Napier in early December and possibly be the nail in the coffin. 

A Sense of Purpose

For almost all the wrong reasons, this is the most attention the Florida Gators have had in recent memory. The annual matchups versus Georgia and Florida State are annual traditions that should be cherished but fans haven’t had a reason to care. Perhaps that rings true for this year if Florida only manages five wins again. 

Napier has preached the slow burn since his opening press conference as head coach: “We’re going to have a very specific plan in recruiting and evaluating. And that will start with a major emphasis in this state. This is a talent-acquisition business.” (Gators Wire). 

Now that he has had three seasons to enact that specific plan, a sense of urgency, enthusiasm, and grittiness to a team that every fan outside of Gainesville has counted out. Florida has every resource to succeed along with consistent top-ten recruiting classes over the past decade. It’s going to take a considerable step forward for AD Scott Stricklin to not go for the splashy hire in the 2024 offseason. 

An upset win versus Georgia, payback versus Kentucky, or a victory versus Florida State would be a great headline. But one game does not offset a decade narrative of inconsistency. Ultimately, Napier’s fate will be determined by their bowl game status, how their homegrown defensive talent develops, and how the team responds to adversity. 

Main Image: Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

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