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Florida enters year 2 under Billy Napier amid lowest expectations in nearly a decade

Florida head coach Billy Napier speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Florida head coach Billy Napier speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier opened fall practice talking to his team about expectations — internal ones, anyway.

The once-mighty Gators are mostly an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference these days. Coming off consecutive 6-7 seasons — one in former coach Dan Mullen’s final season and the other in Napier’s inaugural campaign — Florida was picked to finish fifth in the Eastern Division in the league’s annual preseason media poll.

That's one spot above last.

It was the lowest preseason prognostication for the Gators since also coming in fifth in 2015, former coach Jim McElwain’s first season. Florida responding by winning the East that year. Could it happen again? It would be an unbelievable long shot considering Napier pretty much has an overhauled roster after losing quarterback Anthony Richardson and 14 other starters.

“I really feel like we’re going to shock a lot of people this year as far as the standard is so low right now,” cornerback Jaydon Hill said. “It blows my mind a little bit. But then again, we’ve just got to win games. It just comes down to winning.”

Florida hasn’t won nearly enough for a fanbase that grew accustomed to it under legends Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. Although the Gators have enjoyed pockets of success since, they have yet to put it all together in terms of recruiting talent, developing players and building a consistent contender.

Napier had a detailed plan when he took over in November 2021, but it didn’t account for having to navigate a burgeoning transfer portal or a constantly changing name, image and likeness landscape.

So Napier sounds more like a coach entering their first year rather than one expecting the kind of second-year jumps that helped vault Spurrier and Meyer to stardom. He’s implemented several team-building exercises, including moving players into on-campus dorms for the opening week of training camp and rooming them with guys from other position groups.

They’ll eat every meal in an old-school dining hall — no phones allowed — and work on developing leadership as much as perfecting concepts, formations and plays.

“I think it’s important that we connect and try to create crossover relationships in all parts of what we do,” Napier said. “It’s absolutely important to what we do.”

Adding another layer to his unification efforts, Napier has a get-to-know-your-teammate initiative that requires players to be able to provide names and hometowns on the spot for 10 colleagues pictured.

“It’s one thing to know the guy’s first name, but it’s another thing to know his first and last name, where he’s from, part of his story, and I think with time we’ll get to that place,” Napier said. “But it’s about agreeing that there’s an expectation, and then, ‘Hey, if you can do better, you can do better.’ I think that’s the key to the drill. That’s where we’re at as a team.”

It’s a far cry from having to tamp down expectations of making the College Football Playoff or winning championships. No one’s ruled those out in Gainesville, but most would agree they seem more plausible down the road.

Florida returns seven starters from last year’s team and has a number of transfers to work into the mix. Quite possibly the main reason for Florida’s humble preseason forecast is because the team appears locked into starting former Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who completed 60% of his passes for 5,405 yards, with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, in four years with the Badgers.

Florida lost four-star QB recruit Jaden Rashada in a failed NIL deal in January, leaving Mertz and former Ohio State backup Jack Miller to compete for the starting job. All signs point to Mertz taking the first snap when the Gators open the season at Utah on Aug. 31.

Although Napier appears to have Florida on the path back to national relevancy; the team’s 2024 recruiting class is ranked third behind Georgia and Ohio State, according to 247sports.com. In the meantime, the only expectations he’s focused on are the internal ones.

“The expectation we’re going to establish for each other ... should be much higher than any outside narrative or outside opinion,” Napier said. “If I’m walking around the building each day, if I’m living life and I’m most concerned with not letting the people down that are going to be in this team meeting in a couple hours, that’s the most important piece.”

The Associated Press is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.