Hayes: What in the world is Billy Napier doing?
Billy Napier says it over and over. It’s a relationship business.
If you can’t tell by now, he’s doing things his way as coach at Florida. And one thing is clear after nearly 16 months on the job.
If he’s going to get it turned in Gainesville — or if it thuds with failure — it will be with his guys.
After winning 6 of 13 games in his first season, after seemingly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong since his hire in December of 2021, Napier on Wednesday lost defensive coordinator Patrick Toney to the NFL.
Then reverted to relationships.
ESPN’s Chris Low reported that Napier hired 29-year-old Austin Armstrong, who worked with Napier at Louisiana, as the Gators’ new defensive coordinator. Armstrong last month left his position as DC at Southern Miss for the linebackers job at Alabama.
Now he’s the point man for a defense that, over the past 3 seasons, has produced some of the worst numbers in the modern era of Florida football. No matter what you think of Armstrong — and he’s a known commodity in the coaching community despite his age — the hire is risky and out of the box.
Just like Napier’s first critical offseason decision: Signing QB Graham Mertz.
Those 2 moves, along with a roster that doesn’t closely resemble the upper half of the SEC, added another level of uncertainty with a coach who looked like a home run hire.
How else do you explain that, after a season of instability and the week-to-week unknown with QB Anthony Richardson, Napier added the enigmatic former Wisconsin starter Graham Mertz to lead the quarterback room?
That after 3 straight seasons in which the Florida defense set school records for futility, Napier hired a 29-year-old whose connection to the SEC is spending a season as a quality control coach for Georgia in 2019.
These are the 2 moves that will dictate how the 2023 season unfolds — not a solid recruiting class (No. 14, per the 247Sports composite) that diehard Gators fans have rallied around.
Florida has gone from the feel-good hire of Napier to losing 7 games in his first season, to missing on impact players (again) in the transfer portal and responding with 2 strange decisions about pressing offseason decisions.
This after losing to rivals Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee and LSU, losing to Kentucky for the 3rd time in 5 years, and losing to SEC tomato can Vanderbilt.
After the dysfunctional pursuit and signing, and eventual release, this winter of blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada.
After a deal with Tulane QB Michael Pratt fell through at the 11th hour when Pratt decided to stay at Group of 5 school and build on an emotional Cotton Bowl win over USC.
After WKU QB Austin Reed, who led the nation in passing yards in 2022 and had 40 TD passes, entered the portal and wanted to play for Florida — but wasn’t offered and stayed at WKU.
And Napier stuck with Mertz.
After another relationship hire as defensive coordinator, instead of one with SEC experience (Charlie Strong), or an elite coordinator from another program (former Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard).
All of this barely 15 months into Napier’s tenure at Florida.
This has been a heavy slog from Day 1, and from the first 15 practices for Napier at Florida during the spring of 2022 when he first saw — on the field — what he had. It was then that one staffer told me, “The first 22 (starters), we’re OK. The rest? I’m not sure how many are even Power 5 players.”
It was after that first spring when another reality hit Napier: Not only was Richardson a talented athlete and raw thrower, there was nothing behind him on the roster.
Then the season began, and 1 week after a defining season-opening win over Utah, Florida lost at home to Kentucky — and Richardson admitted he had lost confidence.
Napier spent the entire season coaching Richardson with kid gloves, and the last pass from Richardson in a Florida uniform was a fitting 4th-and-12 throw to wide-open tight end Jonathan Odom on a potential game-tying drive against Florida State — that sailed 15 feet over Odom’s head.
Knowing all of this, and just weeks removed from dealing with an enigmatic player at the most important position on the field, Napier signed another in Mertz — who has a career TD/INT ratio of 38/26, and has completed less than 60 percent of his passes.
Instead of getting a legitimate thrower who could stress defenses, Florida will play in 2023 with another quarterback who at various times in his career has lost confidence in his ability to play the game despite playing for highly-respected quarterbacks coach Paul Chryst.
Instead of getting a defensive coordinator with SEC experience — or experience leading a defense at a major program — Florida will try to erase 3 years of miserable defense with a coordinator whose defining line on his resume, like Toney, is working with Napier at Louisiana.
It’s a relationship business, everyone.
And make no mistake, Billy Napier is taking big swings with his guys.