Week One, Big One - Florida Gators (2024)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The nine months since being named head coach at Florida, obviously, have included a lot of firsts for Billy Napier. Maybe not so many new experiences, per say, but certainly different ones. Relocating the family and learning the surroundings, for openers, allthe while trying to establish fresh professional relationships across the state. Add getting to know his players, galvanizing his team and moving into a sparkling fresh football facility to the list. Pretty important stuff there, too.

But now comes the best of the firsts.

Napier did the offseason, did talking season, did preseason. On Monday, the flag dropped for the start of UF's 2022 regular season, which officially kicks off Saturday night when the Gators face seventh-ranked and defending Pac-12 champion Utah at sold-out Spurrier/Florida Field. The game is being billed — and not without merit — as the program's most ambitious and anticipated season opener in decades, given the opponent, the excitement bubbling around the start of the Napier era and eagerness of the Florida fan base to witness the unleashing of promising sophom*ore quarterback Anthony Richardson.

"We all understand Gainesville transforms on game day, and I'm certainly excited about experiencing that for the first time being on this side, right?" Napier said during his first game-week news conference Monday at the Heavener Football Training Center, adding a plea tothe Florida fans to do their part. "Be there early, know that you're part of the team, and that you can contribute and help our team in terms of the game."

Napier, 43, did 15 years as an assistant — including stints alongside Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Alabama's Nick Saban — before landing his first head coach's post at Louisiana in 2018. He went 40-12 over four seasons with the Ragin' Cajuns, including a run to the program's first Sun Belt Conference championship in 2021. That season began with a 38-18 loss at 18th-ranked Texas, an outcome from which the team bounced back to win the next 12.

How his UL teams handled those four openers (both the good and bad) will factor into how the Napier Gators deal with their orange and blue debut.

Billy Napier's season openers at Louisiana

YearOpponentSiteOutcomeThe Aftermath
2018GramblingLafayette, La.W 49-17Finished 7-7 (5-3 Sun Belt)
Lost to Appalachian State in SB title game.
Lost to Tulane in Cure Bowl.
2019Mississippi StateNew OrleansL 38-28Finished 11-3 (7-1)
Lost to App State in SBtitle game.
Beat Miami-Ohio in Lending Tree Bowl.
2020@No. 23Iowa StateAmes, IowaW 31-14Finished 10-1 (7-1)
Beat UT-San Antonio in First Responder Bowl.
2021@No. 18 TexasAustin, TexasL 38-18Finished 12-1 (9-0)
Beat App State in SB title game.
Finished 16th in final Associated Press poll.

"It's really important for our players this week to focus on the things that are going to help them play well in the game. I think preparation is the key to confidence," he said. "We've worked here to kind of inform our players that life's not designed to give you what you want or what you need. Life is designed to give you what you deserve."

And that's where Napier, a stickler for details and discipline, comes in.

"Coach Napier really emphasizes a 4D structure," fifth-year tight end Dante Zanders said, "making sure each player also knows their position as well as the assignment and the scheme of everything."

On that front, Napier spoke Monday to the unique nature of a season opener. Most of them, he believes, are lost instead of won.

That could certainly be the case in a game between two power conference foes playing their first game of the season. Especially for a Florida team that had a penchant for self-destruction last season, be it with penalties (120th out of 130 FBS teams) or turnover margin (minus-9 and 121st).

"We've done a lot of mock situations to prepare for this week. It's important in a game week that you set priorities, that you avoid clutter, that you really focus on controlling distractions," said Napier, adding that a sizable representation of his coaching and support staff went through the same process with him at UL. "Execution is what's going to decide the game. Anything that doesn't contribute to that, I think could be a distraction this time of year. So we try to map it out for them, and I think it takes self-discipline and focus and keeping the main thing the main thing throughout the week so that you, ultimately, each week, you start over. It's almost like you're taking a final exam each week. It's a new set of material, new personnel, new venue, new variables, new matchups. This is an opener. You have a little bit of extra time, so that changes a little bit. Each week, erase the board, start over, and begin preparation for another competition, another challenge."

The closest thing this group can compare this task to is the spring game, which was back in April and, frankly, is really no comparison to the kind of challenge the Utes present, what with their 14 starters back from a team that went 10-4 and twice destroyed Oregon, including a 38-10 laugher in the Pac-12 Championship Game, before losing a 48-45 shootout to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

The last couple weeks, Napier has marched his players through their normal Saturday game-day routine — hotel, meetings, Gator Walk, pregame — in previewing what lies ahead. Along the way, it's safe to assume the staff has spoon-fed the players morsels of info and preview game-plannedfor the Utes, who enter their 18th season under Coach Kyle Whittingham.

Yes, do the math. Whittingham is still there after being promoted from defensive coordinator when then-Utah coach Urban Meyer bolted for Florida in 2004.

[Note: Napier is UF's eighth head coach since then, counting interims, in the time the Utes have had just one.]

Week One, Big One - Florida Gators (1)

Whittingham's 18th edition figures to be one of his best. Of the eight starters back on offense, both quarterback Cameron Rising (2,493 yards, 20 TDs, plus 499 rushing yards, 6 TD in '21) and 6-foot, 238-pound tailback Tavion Thomas (1,108 yards, 21 TD) are preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year candidates. The Utes averaged 36.1 points per game last season, plus209 yards on the ground with 37 rushing touchdowns. That ground game figures to be a serious test for a UF defense that was oftentimes gashed up front in finishing ninth in the Southeastern Conference and 71st nationally against the run (153.6 yards per game).

"This is a very good standard," UF senior linebacker Amari Burney said. "We've got a lot of respect for Utah and the run game. We're just going to go out there and play and see what we can do for real."

Week One, Big One - Florida Gators (2)

Defensively, the Utes were third in the league and 28th nationally, allowing 344.1 totalyards per game. Starting at linebacker will be Mohamoud Diabate, who left for Salt Lake City by the way of the transfer portal after tallying 170 tackles and six sacks for the Gators the previous three seasons.

"It's going to be a big tone-setter because they're an experienced team. They won their conference last year, made it all the way to the Rose Bowl and everything," Zanders said. "For us to open against them is an experience that's a great opportunity, too, to show and prove what we're made of."

Not to mention a big-time barometer for Richardson, now the undisputed UF answer under center after sharing the spotlast season with Emory Jones (now at Arizona State) and despite a resume that shows just 39 completions over 12 games during his career.

The 6-4, 232-pound Richardson, however, spent basically the entire spring, offseason and preseason taking first-team reps, with Napier, who will call plays, constantly in his ear. The Gators figure to be improved at the wideout position, with the addition of junior transfer Ricky Pearsall (48 catches, 580 yards, 4 TD at Arizona State in '21), but likely will lean on a running game that rotates a trio of backs, spiked bythe big-play potential that Richardson flashed in moments last season.

A Kadarius Toney (remember him?)at quarterback, was how Zanders described Richardson.

At the very least, that would be exciting, but the coach is expecting more.

"I'm very pleased with Anthony's attitude and approach. I think he's really worked hard to have a better comprehension of the system, a lot of reps," Napier said. "He loves the game, and I think he's bought into this. The preparation, ultimately, is going to give you the confidence so you can go play fast and make good decisions and put the team in a position to win."

From the jump. Even against an outstanding team. At least, that's plan. Should make for an exciting week first week.

On that front, Napier was asked if he's outgrown the first-game butterflies, especially being the new guy and all.

"I don't think I'm ever going to be beyond that," Napier said. "As a competitor, man, football in particular, you work the entire year and you only get so many opportunities to compete."

And there's also something special about the run-up to that first one. A really big first one, no less.

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Week One, Big One - Florida Gators (2024)

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