Loss to No. 20 Kentucky hurts, but growing pains were inevitable in Billy Napier's building process
Billy Napier looked out at the assembled media in the bowels of The Swamp on Saturday night and did something unusual, at least if you’ve been watching Florida’s football program and its 5 head coaches operate since the 2010 season.
He took responsibility for what happened on the football field. A week after a stirring Swamp debut win against No. 7 Utah, Napier’s Gators lost at home in their SEC opener to No. 20 Kentucky, 26-16. As has been the case in all 3 of Kentucky’s victories against Florida since 2018, the Wildcats were the mentally tougher group that, in the end, made enough plays to win. Not the one that committed so many mistakes that they beat themselves.
When it was over, Napier didn’t blame health problems, a lack of focus, injuries, or his offensive staff. He didn’t manufacture a story about death threats or blame the UF administration’s commitment to winning football games. He didn’t say something like “Florida won two in a row and now Kentucky won two in a row.” He didn’t blame the crowd or brag about how Florida had more yards than Kentucky.
Instead, Napier chose accountability.
“Coaching is a lot like teaching,” Napier said after the game, his voice measured and his tone direct. “When the students don’t perform as well as you want them to, I think as a coach and a teacher you have to take a good, long look in the mirror. Execution comes down to coaching. We didn’t execute well tonight. So we have to take a good look in the mirror. That’s what I will do and what our coaches will do. In football, as in life, you have to tell the truth.”
Florida isn’t a simple rebuild. It’s a full-fledged, long-haul project, one that involves restocking talent, developing talent, and rebuilding a winning culture.
The Gators have excellent talent in their starting lineups. They lack much beyond the top 30 names on the roster. That’s a recruiting problem, one Napier inherited from the previous staff and one that, given Florida’s No. 12 ranking in the 247 2022 Team Talent Composite (down substantially from Mullen’s 2021 team, which ranked 7th), won’t get sorted our for at least 2 recruiting classes. Mullen’s first team ranked 12th in the talent composite as well, but the Gators ranked 4th in the SEC in Year 1 of the Mullen era; Napier’s program ranks 5th with another SEC program on its heels.
The Gators also have to develop the talent they bring into the program.
Debate whether recruiting services were wrong about players like Amari Burney or Xzavier Henderson, but the reality is both are high 4-star players who entered this season having delivered little on their signing-day promise. Both have played well in 2022, a sign that Florida’s coaches are connecting and cultivating the talent on the roster. Big plays by other blue chips, like defensive end Justus Boone, are signs that process is likely to continue.
And yes, Florida has to develop its quarterback.
Anthony RIchardson has every objective and intangible quality to become a superstar. He’s big, strong, fast, has a rocket arm, can make throws in tight windows, can make deep throws, spends hours on film, has an infectious personality and a big, UF honors student brain. There will continue to be games where Richardson looks like Superman, as he did against Utah on opening night. There are also going to be some painful moments. This week, when my colleague Connor O’Gara suggested Florida fans keep expectations – and hype – for Anthony Richardson in check while he grows as a starter, he wisely foresaw a game like the one Richardson had Saturday night. From escalating Heisman odds to 14-for-35 for 143 yards with 2 interceptions and just 4 yards rushing? Yes, sometimes a quarterback still has to grown when he’s started just 3 games.
Can you pin Saturday’s loss on Richardson? Absolutely, and that’s the “truth” and honesty about football Napier wants his program to understand.
Richardson threw 2 awful interceptions, one that changed the momentum of a game the Gators were leading comfortably by setting Kentucky up inside the 10-yard line just before half, and another a pick-6 that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. That’s 13 Kentucky points, all on Richardson errors. Eliminate them and it’s hard to see how this game doesn’t at least go to overtime, given how tenacious and improved Florida looked defensively.
So yes, the loss was Richardson’s fault – and that’s on Napier too.
Florida’s staff wanted to challenge the weakness of Kentucky’s football team, which is, by any statistical measure, their safeties and secondary. Richardson, however, couldn’t exploit that, and Napier, left without a vertical threat by Dan Mullen and the previous regime, needed to recognize that sooner and let Anthony be Anthony: a dynamic threat with the football, a powerful runner, and a better passer when he’s moving and rolling out of the pocket.
It was refreshing to hear Napier acknowledge that his staff will do a better job of preparing Richardson moving forward.
Finally, Florida is still a big cultural rebuild.
Steve Spurrier modified the old Lombardi saying when he said “Winning is a habit, but so is losing, and you have to get into the habit of attacking and winning games, not playing afraid and losing them.”
Spurrier is right, and at Florida the habit of winning is gone after a decade wandering the college football wilderness. Florida’s past 12 years have been the worst stretch for Florida from a winning percentage standpoint since integration. Read that again if you must, for effect. Gators fans can admit that or not, but Napier understands it. It’s why he brought in an army of support staff to help with his program overhaul. Culture matters. At Florida, where the biggest win in the past 10 years is either a COVID-19 Cocktail-party W or an Orange Bowl win against the University of Virginia, a small dose of humility and commitment to process from the fan base might help too.
Sometimes, commitment to process pays off.
In 2016, Kirby Smart beat a ranked opponent in Week 1, Year 1 at Georgia. The Dawgs nearly lost to Nicholls the following week. They did lose to Vanderbilt between the hedges on Homecoming. They went 8-5, but Smart recruited until 3 a.m. and canceled his family vacation to win. Now Georgia is the defending national champion and should be ranked No. 1 on Monday.
In 2009, Dabo Swinney lost to a ranked Georgia Tech team in Week 2 and found a way to lose to a bad Maryland team that season as well. Clemson went 9-5. But Swinney found Tajh Boyd, and in 2010 he became Clemson’s quarterback. The Tigers have won two national titles in the years since, despite the early growing pains.
Process, in a sport where fan bases routinely punish patience, can pay off.
It doesn’t mean nights like Saturday in The Swamp are any less painful in the moment.
It just means that if you are accountable like Napier was Saturday and committed to being committed, there probably will be less painful nights in the future.