The first fall camp of the Billy Napier era at Florida is well underway, as the Gators prepare to open the new regime with a visit from No. 7 Utah on Sept. 3 (7 PM, ESPN). We’ll get plenty of answers about the Gators in Week 1 against the Pac-12 favorite, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other questions that will be answered about what to expect from Florida under Napier throughout the 2022 season.

Here are 10 critical questions the Gators will want to answer during fall camp and the months that follow.

1. Florida is red hot on the recruiting trail: Does that continue once toe meets leather?

A large reason for Dan Mullen’s rapid fall from grace in Gainesville was his inability — and in truth, indifference — to the high-level recruiting demands of college football. When Mullen famously deflected questions about recruiting in the aftermath of Florida’s blowout loss to archrival Georgia last autumn, the difference between Mullen and Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had never been more clear. Mullen answered a simple recruiting question about Florida’s slipping 2022 recruiting class by telling a group of reporters, “We’re in the season now,” and “we’ll do recruiting after the season – when it gets to recruiting time we can talk about recruiting.”

Smart, asked the same question less than hours later, essentially stated if you aren’t recruiting you are the captain of a sinking ship. 

Mullen was fired weeks later; Smart’s Georgia won the national championship two months later.

Enter Napier. A slow start to recruiting, coupled with what seemed like a “way-too-early” open letter to the fan base, had many Gators fans in panic mode in June and rival fan bases reveling in schadenfreude. Six weeks later, the panic and rival celebrations appear to have been misguided. Patient but purposeful, Napier has guided Florida’s recruiting efforts to a point where Florida has landed 11 blue-chip recruits in the last 6 weeks, rocketing their class from the mid-40s of the 247 Composite recruiting rankings to the top 10, where they landed Sunday after the commitment of Kamran James, a defensive lineman who picked the Gators over Smart and Georgia. 

Nationally, only Notre Dame (20) has more blue-chip commitments than the Gators (18). The Gators aren’t done yet, either, with at least one more big commitment expected this week and multiple high-profile, available blue-chips expected to attend Florida’s primetime opener against Utah.

Florida also opened a state-of-the-art standalone football facility on Sunday, finally putting them on equal footing with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU and Ohio State, which have recruited with these types of elite facilities for years while the Gators could only promise visiting recruits that such a thing “was coming.”

Napier appears to be prepared to put a signature on a top-10 class, and the commitment of 4-star 2024 linebacker Myles Graham out of Atlanta suggests the Gators are just going to keep coming in 2024.

Recruitniks debate, with merit, whether results on the field matter in recruiting. The most common answer is that they do, but only in the sense that you have to avoid disaster. Clemson and Georgia weren’t winning national championships when recruiting took off in Athens and Clemson. But they were building toward something bigger, armed with great facilities, an army of support staff, and a head coach with a plan and devotion to the lifeblood of the sport. Napier has these things — it will be interesting to see if a football team with a difficult schedule and limited depth impacts the momentum if things don’t go well on Saturdays.

2. What about the maturation of Anthony Richardson?

Richardson showed the college football world (and NFL Scouts) a glimpse of what he was capable of in 2022, making showstopping throws like this one:

And runs like this one:

He also fell flat in his lone start, tossing a pick 6 and committing 3 turnovers in consecutive possessions in Florida’s 34-7 loss to Georgia.

Richardson appears on mock drafts in the first or second round consistently, almost exclusively because of a skillset that screams Cam Newton meets Kyler Murray. Napier’s biggest challenge is to reduce the number of panic throws Richardson makes when his outstanding athleticism isn’t enough to get him out of a jam. Can Richardson reduce the rather ghastly 1 interception per 12.4 throws mark he hit in 2021? Keep in mind that Emory Jones transferred out largely because he was set to lose the gig to Richardson, and Jones tossed 13 picks in 2021, but only 1 per 26.4 throws! In other words, Richardson has to take better care of the football in 2022.

Richardson’s progress, at least to this writer, is all about football maturity. Off-field questions seemed bizarre: one story about Richardson getting a late-night speeding ticket reminded me of the thousands of college students a year who get speeding tickets and don’t have to read about it in newspapers; another story questioning his off-field maturity suggested Richardson needed to do better to lead Florida off the field too, but didn’t mention that Richardson was an honors student who has a host of community service initiatives he’s involved in, including pediatric cancer research, where he’s taken a leadership role. In the NIL era, it’s more important than ever to tell the whole story.

But there is football progress to be made with Richardson — and it starts with protecting the ball for a Florida team that finished 11th in the SEC in turnover margin in 2021.

3. How good can this RB room be?

While Florida has depth issues in other areas, the Gators’ RB room is one of the best 3 in the SEC, perhaps even top 2. Nay’Quan Wright, the projected starter, has been a menace in camp, despite missing the spring with an ankle injury. Wright forced more missed tackles than any Florida runner in 2021, including Dameon Pierce, the senior who has shined early in the NFL preseason with the Houston Texans. A fluid, agile runner who is faster in pads than his 40 time suggests, Wright, a junior from Miami, is the ideal complement to his backup, Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson, who piled up 838 yards on his way to All-Sun Belt honors as a freshman. Lorenzo Lingard, a former 5-star who, finally healthy after years of battling leg injuries, had a monstrous spring, will factor into the rotation as well. Trevor Etienne, with the NFL bloodlines and All-American big brother, is another blue-chipper who rounds out a talented quartet.

The best thing about this room is its versatility: Wright averaged 11.8 yards per reception as a lethal pass-catching weapon under the prior regime, but he is plenty good between the tackles as well. Johnson should get the bulk of the short yards carries and is an outstanding blocker. Lingard gives the Gators breakaway speed in the second level and spent the spring working hard on becoming a reliable pass catcher. A position group with diverse skill sets is a coordinator’s dream because it makes you multiple: the Gators have that in their backfield for 2022.

4. Will anyone emerge at wide receiver?

Florida’s wide receiver room is the opposite of the proven running back room: many questions, few answers.

Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall led the Sun Devils in receptions, yards, touchdowns and yards per target in 2021, but he injured his foot early in fall camp.

After Pearsall, there are plenty of blue-chip talents, but zero proven commodities. A bigger problem? The receiving room lacks a true vertical threat, aside from Pearsall. Jacob Copeland was the best of that group, but he transferred to Maryland in January. Xzavier Henderson has a great 40 time, but is slower in pads (the opposite of Nay’Quan Wright). Justin Shorter, a former 5-star, does his damage underneath or on corner routes in the red zone. Marcus Burke, a big recruiiting win, is a 50/50 red-zone specialist for the time being. Trent Whittemore could be Florida’s most reliable possession weapon, but he’s suffered brutal injuries in back-to-back seasons. Ja’Quavion Fraziars came on strong at the end of 2021 but has just a few games of college experience.

In other words, there are a whole lot of unknowns after the injured Pearsall and Shorter. How this group develops may be the difference between 6 wins and 10.

5. Is Florida better at defensive tackle?

Former 5-star Gervon Dexter had a productive sophomore year, registering 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 10 pressures and forcing 2 fumbles. He was then snubbed and left off the first- and second-team preseason All-SEC groups. Dexter, a Florida captain, called that “motivating,” and he certainly has the size and first burst to play his way high onto NFL Draft boards this fall.

But he’ll need help.

Desmond Watson could be a mighty force for Florida at nose, but he came into camp at 410 pounds and the staff would like him at 390, where they think he could play and contribute more consistently. Spring practices saw promise from former blue-chip Jalen Lee, and early enrollee Chris McClellan is strong enough now to be a factor as a freshman, assuming he can work on the too-high pad-level technique issues identified by Sean Spencer and the staff upon his arrival.

Florida hasn’t had consistent quality play at defensive tackle since eventual first-round draft pick Taven Bryan manned the middle. That has to change for the Gators to be as good as they hope to be defensively in 2022.

6. How much does a healthy Ventrell Miller improve this defense?

Miller’s loss in 2021 was, in a word, devastating. At a minimum, it likely cost Florida the LSU game; LSU’s then-anemic run game steamrolled the Gators, compiling a season-high (for LSU) 321 yards rushing and bulldozing Florida’s undersized linebackers in the process. Miller, a first-team All-SEC preseason selection in 2021, returned for a super senior campaign healthy and knowing that if he can stay that way, he’ll play on Sundays next year. There isn’t much depth around him in the middle, but Miller is an All-SEC caliber player and a rising tide that should lift all boats.

7. Will Brenton Cox Jr. place Alex Brown’s single-season sack record in jeopardy?

Brenton Cox Jr. believes it is. Named to the Bednarik Watch list, Cox was a second-team All-SEC preseason selection who led the Gators in tackles for loss (14.5), sacks (8.5) and pressures (22) last season. He closed the year with back-to-back games with 4 tackles for loss (FSU and UCF). He also garnered 13 of his 22 pressures on the season in the campaign’s final 4 games. Cox made it his personal goal to break Alex Brown’s 13.5 sack single-season Florida record in 2022. If he does that, he’ll likely earn All-American honors, as Brown did when he accomplished the feat in 1999. Most Gators fans, however, would settle for consistency from Cox, who has games where he is conspicuously absent a bit too much for their liking. Perhaps a new scheme will help Cox find consistency — and chase a 23-year old school record in the process?

8. Is this the SEC’s most underrated offensive line?

The most surprising text message exchange I’ve had about this Florida team this offseason came from a rival assistant coach, who texted this:

“They recruited well on the offensive line under (Mullen). Now they add the (O’Cyrus) Torrence kid, who every SEC program would have loved to get. (Richard) Gouraige is perfect technically, even if he isn’t the best athlete. Ethan White is a monster who we should have offered. They did a great job getting him in shape. (Kingsley) Eguakun was one of the only guys that could block us consistently. That unit is going to be really, really good — maybe the most underrated or improved in the league.”

Let’s say this assistant is right, and Florida is as good up front as their size (pound for pound, the Gators will have the beefiest line in the SEC) suggests they can be. What does that mean for a team where the best position group is running back? What does that mean for a team with a first-year starter in Anthony Richardson who is a genuine dual-threat player?

In short, it probably means good things. And the assistant didn’t even mention Michael Tarquin, a 4-star who picked Florida over Oklahoma and has shined throughout fall camp, giving the Gators much-needed depth and options at tackle.

This is a group that could be special.

9. Does the team stay together if a brutal early schedule translates to losses?

Florida opens against one of the best-coached outfits in the country. Utah is also elite at the game’s most important position, quarterback, with first-team All-Pac 12 returning starter Cam Rising gracing a host of preseason All-American candidate lists. Perhaps the Utes will wilt in the fourth quarter in the Florida heat, but the nighttime start does the Gators no favors and a Florida team playing in Game 1 under a new regime certainly won’t be expected to win by anyone outside its rabid fans.

Instead of the traditional cupcake after a tough game, Florida will face media darling Kentucky in The Swamp the following week, meaning the Gators open the year against two of the most physical teams in college football this season.

A Sept. 17 home tilt vs. USF should be a win, but the Gators have one projected loss (Utah), and two coin-flip games (Kentucky, at Tennessee) on the September slate. Will Napier and the staff be able to hold the locker room together if the Gators start 1-3?

10. What does “Life without Mick” sound like?

Mick Hubert retired suddenly in late May, depriving the Gators, and the sport of college football, of one of the game’s most legendary voices.

There’s no replacing the only broadcaster in college sports history to call a baseball, football and basketball national championship. Saturdays in The Swamp won’t sound the same without Mick’s “Oh Mys” and “the Gators have taken the lead!” calls.

But someone has to try, and Sean Kelley, a longtime industry veteran most recently with ESPN, will get a crack at it this autumn. Kelley has called all 3 major men’s sports, which was important to Scott Stricklin and the UF administration in the hiring process, and he’s no stranger to big moments, having called NBA Conference Finals for ESPN and Major League Baseball playoff games.

But being a voice of the SEC will be a new challenge, and replacing one of the most legendary voices in the sport — that’s heady stuff.

It will be interesting to see how Kelley fares in his first season at the helm in Gainesville.