Florida football: 3 things we learned from 2022 Gators season, start of Billy Napier era

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

After an emotional 45-38 loss to rival Florida State on Saturday night in Tallahassee, Florida coach Billy Napier pounded his fist on the table during his postgame press conference. 

"Tough one to swallow but we’re going to get better," Napier said. "We’re going to improve. We’re going to use that experience.”

Florida finished the regular season 6-6, 3-5 in the SEC, and will now wait one more week before finding out its bowl destination. 

Questions remain, as to whether quarterback Anthony Richardson will stay or declare for the NFL draft and how many other key players will choose to enter the transfer portal.

Napier will be judged with more scrutiny in year two as he attempts to guide Florida back to national relevance. The Gators haven't competed in the College Football Playoff since it began in 2014 and haven't won an SEC or national title since 2008.

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"We're a team that can be very average and we're a team that can be elite," Napier said the week leading up to the FSU game. "I think that it comes down to doing it when it counts, right? Put the ball down to go execute and go do your job.

"I think consistency is the - that's what we're searching for."

Here are three things that were learned from Florida's up-and-down 2022 regular season:

Florida's front seven on defense was not SEC caliber

Florida lacked size, depth and playmaking ability in its front seven on defense. It's a big reason why the Gators surrendered 30 or more points in five of 12 games, and 40 or more points in losses to rivals Georgia, LSU and Florida State.

The Gators finished the regular season ranked 11th in the SEC in run defense (176.2 yards per game allowed) and 10th in sacks (21).

Florida defensive lineman Gervon Dexter Sr., expected to have a breakout year playing the three-technique, was instead a disappointment, with just 2 sacks and 4 tackles for loss in 12 games. Edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr., wasn't productive on the field and had issues off it. By early November, Cox was kicked off the team due to what Napier termed "an accumulation of issues."

Linebackers Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney played hard but had limitations. Miller was exceptional as a tackler but struggled covering tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Burney was good in coverage but wasn't consistent when it came to tackling.

Freshman Shemar James and sophomore Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr., are potential building blocks for the future in the front seven, but this may be an area Napier needs to address in the transfer portal to get immediate help. 

More depth, talent needs to develop at WR, TE

The injury bug hit the receiving corps hard during 2022 and Florida lacked the talent and depth to overcome it. In their game against FSU, the Gators were forced to start a true freshman at wide receiver, Caleb Douglas, who dropped several key passes.

Daejon Reynolds also dropped a wide receiver screen pass against Florida State after a breakout performance the week before against Vanderbilt (8 catches, 165 yards, 2 TDs).

Asked if the FSU game could have been different with a full complement of receivers, Richardson responded: "Who knows? Who’s to say they would have come in and caught the passes? They could have dropped the passes, too."

Starting receiver Justin Shorter sat out three games in November, while Xzavier Henderson missed two games. Ricky Pearsall was the only Florida starting receiver to appear in all 12 games, finishing with 29 catches for 596 yards and 5 TDs. Pearsall, Henderson and Shorter combined for 9 touchdown catches, six fewer than Tennessee's Jalin Hyatt, who led the SEC with 15 touchdown catches.

At tight end, Keon Zipperer appeared in 8 of 12 games with 1 TD catch. Zipperer, Dante Zanders and Jonathan Odom combined for 3 TD catches on the season, two fewer than Georgia's Brock Bowers.

Florida needs to find and develop more consistent and durable playmakers moving forward to move up in the SEC standings.

Freshman RB Trevor Etienne has star potential

Etienne ended the 2022 regular season on a high note, rushing for a season-high 129 yards on 17 carries against FSU. His 45-yard touchdown run tied at the score at 38, and his 48-yard kickoff return set up Florida's first touchdown of the game.

For the season, Etienne finished with 704 yards and 6 TDs on 6.4 yards per carry, displaying exceptional speed, vision and cut-back ability.

"He’s been doing it all year," Richardson said following the FSU game. "Young player, great player, so shoutout to him. I’m glad he broke free, got him a touchdown. He’s just putting on for his family, repping his last name, repping Gator Nation, I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

At times this season, Etienne didn't get enough touches (4 carries, 9 yards in a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt). He split carries with Montrell Johnson Jr., and should be back returning kickoffs next season. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (8 catches, 57 yards) needs to be developed and utilized to become more of an offensive threat.