Florida football: WR coach Billy Gonzales settling in for third stint with the Gators

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Florida Gators wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales watches a play during spring football practice at Sanders Outdoor Practice Fields in Gainesville, FL on Thursday, March 23, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Billy Gonzales was shopping with his wife and daughter in Miami when a phone call came from Florida football coach Billy Napier last month.

 Gonzales was offered a third chance to coach wide receivers at Florida after Keary Colbert’s surprise departure from Napier’s staff to take a job with the Denver Broncos.

It didn’t take long for Gonzales to accept the job.

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“I was excited,” Gonzales said. “I was really ecstatic about the opportunity to come back and very humbled but very honored to have the opportunity. It’s a prestigious university, Coach Napier is a fantastic coach.”

 Gonzales has spent the last three weeks getting to know a relatively new group of receivers. So far, he’s been impressed with the talent on the field.

“Just going through the different guys, they’ve got great work ethic,” Gonzales said. “There’s length, there’s quickness, there’s size. I’m fired up to have the opportunity to coach them. Everybody’s a little different, everybody’s a little unique in what they bring but as far as them learning, they’ve done a great job here.”

One player that Gonzales has some familiarity with is returning starting wide receiver Xzavier Henderson, who caught three TD passes in UF’s intra-squad scrimmage on Thursday. Gonzales recruited Henderson out of Columbus High in Miami.

“When Coach Napier came and told me, I was pretty excited,” Henderson said. “Because that’s the man who recruited me. He was here when I first got here. He taught me the most I know about playing receiver.

“He’s still bringing that same energy. That’s what I love about him. He’s the same person regardless.”

Third time a charm?

In Gonzales’ first stint as receivers coach under Urban Meyer from 2005-09, the Gators won two national championships in 2006 and 2008. He returned to UF in 2018 to work under Dan Mullen, Meyer’s offensive coordinator during the national championship years.

Florida had initial success under Mullen, reaching New Year’s Six bowls in his first three seasons from 2018-20. But it unraveled in 2021, when the Gators went 6-7, leading to Mullen’s ouster before the end of the season.

Asked about what went wrong at the end of Mullen’s tenure, Gonzales said: “I don’t really focus on anything from the past, for me. This group, not to be rude, but for me, I’m just focusing 100 percent on being here in the present right now. Like I said, I’m honored. Third time here in Gainesville at the University of Florida. It’s a special place to me. For me, it’s about working with Coach Napier, having a chance to continue to learn from him and continue to, for me, to continue to grow and learn a different offense and continue to get better myself.”

Gonzales successfully developed receivers in both of his stints at UF. From 2005-09, receivers Andre Caldwell, Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy and Riley Cooper all went on to play in the NFL. From 2018-21, Gonzales coached Van Jefferson and Kadarius Toney, who have played in the last two Super Bowls with the Rams and Chiefs, respectively. Toney caught a touchdown pass and had a long punt return to spark the Chiefs’ comeback win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 57.

“I try to keep in contact with as many as I can, but I was super proud,” Gonzales said. “Obviously, he had a chance to shine on the biggest stage. Between him and Van having back-to-back Super Bowl champion players, all I can do is be proud of them for what they’ve done because they’ve earned it on their own. We can give them the guidance, but it’s like anything else. For someone to be successful, they’ve got to put the work in themselves.”

Gonzales said he's eager to learn under Napier, who spent four years as a receivers coach at Alabama from 2013-17.

"He’s been in the meeting rooms with quarterbacks, receivers," Gonzales said. "He’s had some great ones so again a chance for me to not just learn from him as a head coach but from a position coach, he’s coached some great players from that standpoint as well.” 

Getting receivers to play physical

Gonzales has maintained a long-standing mantra when it comes to coaching receivers - you don’t block, you don’t play.

In the SEC, it’s vital for receivers to play physical in order to spring big plays.

“Say a great game is 13 catches in a game and you’re playing in it,” Gonzales said. “You're gonna have 50 to 60 other plays where you better be turning it and peeling for your teammates. We go over that constantly.”

Gonzales said redshirt freshman receiver Caleb Douglas demonstrated that physicality during a recent practice. 

“You see him turn instantly and peel up on a defender,” Gonzales said. “That's when you know you've got a good crew. They’re buying into it and understand it. I can not only just help myself, but we're trying to help all 11 of us at one time.

“If all of us can grade a winning performance on the field on one play, you've got a chance to be a highly successful football team. So that's our role as a unit.”