Breaking down Florida coach Billy Napier's offense: How will fans react to it in debut?
Dynamic offenses for Florida football have spanned across all eras.
From Carlos Alvarez, John Reaves and the Super Sophs to the Fun ‘n’ Gun under Steve Spurrier to Urban Meyer’s spread, Florida fans have grown accustomed to big plays, airing the ball out and lighting up the scoreboard.
Enter first-year Florida coach Billy Napier, who will call plays for the Gators on Saturday night against Utah, ranked No. 7 by AP and No. 8 in USA Today coaches poll. Napier’s offensive background began as a quarterback at Furman and continued with stints as an offensive coordinator at Clemson (2009-10), wide receivers coach at Alabama (2013-17) and offensive coordinator at Arizona State (2017).
As head coach at Louisiana last season, Napier ran the ball 56 percent of the time in calling plays for the offense. The Louisiana offense featured some run-pass option concepts, which UF could unveil Saturday night with mobile starting quarterback Anthony Richardson.
“That's an important piece, is the quarterback and the play caller being on the same page,” Napier said. “I think that's the benefit for me is I'm in the room with that guy in a game week. We spend a lot of time together.”
Louisiana ranked third in the Sun Belt in scoring offense (31.1 ppg), third in rushing offense (194.0) and sixth in passing offense (218.5 yards per game).
“We empower every person on the offensive side of the ball, truth be known,” Napier said. “We give everyone input and ownership in their particular area, whether it's field zone, down and distance, or the clock. We've got a lot of people that work to contribute, and I think that we've learned over time that you give them a little piece of the pie, I think that it creates a good chemistry and morale in the building. So, we give everybody an opportunity to contribute during the week.”
Will new offense fly with UF fans?
An unnamed coach in Florida’s Athlon Magazine preseason magazine preview wondered how Napier’s offense would be accepted by fans used to the Spurrier era.
“Start looking at history, it clashes with what we expect Florida to look like, and maybe with what their fans demand,” the coach said. “Billy and (OC) Rob (Sale), didn’t win on spread tempo at Louisiana. Look at the tape. They’re going to come in and get big and mean and try to run first.”
Indeed, Florida fans grew weary of former head coaches Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, who often ran the football and tried to bleed the clock late in games. Florida went 11-2 and reached the Sugar Bowl under Muschamp in 2012 but did it with an offense that scored just 30 points or more four times in 13 games.
“It wasn’t the way that Florida fans wanted, it was with defense and it was lower scoring games and a smaller margin of victory,” said SEC Network football analyst Chris Doering, who starred at receiver under Spurrier at UF from 1992-95. “I do think that there is an expectation that Florida football should be a high-flying, pass oriented, high scoring offense, and I don’t know if that’s possible. I think fans got a little spoiled with what we experienced back in the 90s.”
In 2020, under former Florida coach Dan Mullen, the Gators ranked second in the SEC in scoring (39.8 ppg) with an offense that featured a pair of first-round NFL draft picks – tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receiver Kadarius Toney. Starting quarterback Kyle Trask led the SEC in passing (365.9 ypg) and was a Heisman candidate before being taken in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But after losing Trask, Pitts and Toney to the NFL, Florida’s offense took a step back in Mullen’s final season in 2021, ranking seventh in the SEC in scoring (30.7 ppg) in a dismal 6-7 campaign.
“Hopefully Florida fans will think whatever you can do to win the ballgame whether it’s playing defense or having to run the football more,” Doering said. “I am interested to see how they will take to the style of play that he can implement.”
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Rob Sale: 'We can win the game in many different ways'
One of Napier’s signature wins at Louisiana, a 31-14 upset at No. 23 Iowa State to open the 2020 season, included a 95-yard kickoff return for a TD and an 83-yard punt return for a TD. There also was a 78-yard TD pass from quarterback Levi Lewis to receiver Peter LeBlanc on a play-action pass.
“We want to be able to dictate our style of play,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Rob Sale said. “We want to be able to run the ball, play action. We want to be able to create different tempos to put pressure on the defense. We want them to play the width of the field and the length of the field. We can win the game in many different ways. If we need to throw it, we can throw it. If we need to run it more, run it more.”
Sale is one of two offensive line coaches at Florida — Darnell Stapleton is the other. Napier also convinced preseason All-American standout left guard O’Cyrus Torrence (6-foot-5, 347 pounds) to transfer from Louisiana to UF to set a physical tone on the offensive line.
Sale worked under Napier from 2018-20 before working last season as the offensive line coach for the New York Giants. He will be involved in game-planning.
“First year at UL, we were, Coach Napier was able to probably, in my opinion, win games we probably weren't supposed to be in there by slowing the pace of the game,” Sale said. “Then we were able to put it all together, play complementary football in all three phases.”
Gators focused on big plays on offense
Florida players are confident they will create big plays in Napier’s offense.
“We've got a lot to show, especially after last season,” Florida tight end Dante Zanders said. “We've got a lot to prove. Not even to fans, not even to people around the world, but ourselves. We worked hard in the spring and worked hard this off-season and into fall camp.”
UF remains thin when it comes to proven playmakers at wide receiver. Ricky Pearsall, a transfer from Arizona State, showed promise the first week of camp before injuring his foot. Pearsall returned to practice last week but may or may not be 100 percent on Saturday night.
“It will take a couple of years to build that up, but hopefully they can find a way to be somewhat explosive in the first year,” Doering said. “I would think that having a guy that can run like Anthony Richardson can would be a benefit to this offense, especially in the first year with his athleticism and what he can do to even up the numbers in the box with his threat of running the football.”