Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
When Billy Napier took over the Florida football program he made a very smart move in consistently telling people that it was going to take him a very long time to rebuild the Gator football program to a point where it could resemble its halcyon National Championship days. And...you know what? He’s right!
Dan Mullen might be an offensive wizard with brain worms who constantly feels a need to prove the haters wrong, but he’s also one of the worst blue-chip recruiters in the country. And while Florida can pull in a few 4- and 5-star guys just by having the word “FLORIDA” emblazoned on their gear, Mullen’s roster management was so dismal and overly-reliant on diamonds-in-the-rough that only he could polish, that anyone who replaced him would be faced with a massive overhaul if they didn’t share Mullen’s penchant for development and tactical superiority. And, given last year’s results, you can see that Napier did not share those traits:
Florida should not be going 6-7, and that’s with a 3-3 record in one score games! They were so inconsistent that they beat the 10th-best team in the country (Utah) AND lost to Vanderbilt. In the same year! Napier’s staff believed that the problem was the roster so vehemently that the portal in Gainesville is logging overtime. 26 Florida players began an exodus away from Florida while 12 players arrived on the Gators’ roster via portal, and the numbers shake out eerily similar:
- 13 offensive players portalling out (and most went to G5/lesser P5 programs)
- 6 offensive players portalling in
- 13 defensive players portalling out
- 6 defensive players portalling in
So if was a “Jimmy’s and Joe’s” problem and not an “X’s and O’s” problem, then Florida is certainly on the path to rectify that. And, as fans of Missouri, we’ve seen the portal’s ability to throw numbers at a problem, indeed, work out (at least once, anyway). But it’s still a risky way of building a roster and there’s no guarantee that everyone will click in the first year playing together.
Again, this is Florida! They won two national championships in three years not even 20 years ago! It just feels wrong, whether you like the program or not.
Billy Napier - 2nd Year - 6-7 (3-5)
So at least we know Billy Napier is an honest guy when it comes to gauging program rebuilds. And we know that he’s worked closely with Nick Saban and Dabo Sweeney so he has plenty of information on two different ways to build a national championship-caliber football program. But his first year on the field was a total dud, and given the rise of other teams in the East, it’s hard to see Florida doing any better in Year Two. How will the natives feel about back-to-back minor bowl appearances? There definitely needs to be some semblance of growth and improvement this year or else ol’ Billy might not be long for these parts.
Rob Sale - Offensive Coordinator: With a 1st Round NFL Draft Pick at quarterback Rob Sale’s first Florida offense finished a healthy 24th in the country. However, most of that lofty ranking was thanks to Anthony Richardson creating big plays and, of course, now Richardson is an Indianapolis Colt. All offenses require big plays to occur but having an offense rely solely on explosive plays is, a.) not what a Sale offense wants to do and, and b.) not advisable. How the offense changes in Year Two will be interesting, especially with the hard reset the offensive side of the ball is experiencing this year.
Austin Armstrong - Defensive Coordinator: Former DC Patrick Toney had only fielded good-to-great defenses in his time with Billy Napier but his ‘22 Florida defense was bad. 69th-in-the-country bad. And so now Toney is a defensive backs coach for the Arizona Cardinals and Austin Armstrong will take a swing at salvaging the Gators’ defense. At 30 years young Armstrong has only been a football coach for seven years since graduating from Huntington College, and only three of those years has he been an on-the-field coach. But he took over as Southern Mississippi’s defensive coordinator in 2021 - inheriting a unit that ranked 94th in the country - and improved it to 89th in one year then improved it again to finish 40th in 2022. Clearly, Napier and friends are hoping for a similar meteoric rise in quality.
Jabbar Juluke - Running Backs
Billy Gonzales - Wide Receivers
Russ Callaway - Tight Ends
Darnell Stapleton - Offensive Line
Sean Spencer - Defensive Line
Mike Peterson - Edge Rushers
Jay Bateman - Inside Linebackers
Corey Raymond - Secondary
So how does an offense that ranked 86th in rushing the ball and 86th in passing the ball still finish as the 24th-best offense in the country? Big plays, baby! It was the only way the Gators moved the ball and most of that was thanks to their scattershot quarterback. The “oops all haymakers!” offense had the 114th-ranked completion rate (54.5%), 76th-best success rate on standard downs, 73rd-best success rate on passing downs, and ranked 122nd in offensive line penalties. That was countered by being the 4th-best explosive offense in the country, including 1st in rushing explosiveness, 20th in passing explosiveness, and 5th in big-play rate (plays of 20+ yards gained). The offensive line was too glitchy to reliably protect the quarterback and running back and the quarterback was inaccurate and prone to getting sacked, so Florida’s offense was just a series of big plays for both sides every single snap. And now the Gators imported four offensive linemen from the portal plus a disappointing blue-chip quarterback who couldn’t cut it at Wisconsin. It should be an interesting year for the offense in Gainesville, to say the least.
Quarterback - Graham Mertz - Redshirt Senior
One of the rare blue-chip football prospects hailing from the Sunflower State, Graham Mertz had precisely one good game as a Wisconsin Badger and followed it up with progressively worse showings as the years went on. While it is fair that he has a history of being inaccurate, interception prone, inefficient, and a sack magnet, he also brings to the table an inability to effectively run the ball! It’s hard to say what Napier’s staff saw in the tape that encouraged them to bring him on campus, but the other options that Florida has - the equally inaccurate Ohio State transfer Jack Miller, UConn graduate Micah Leon, and 2-star true freshman Parker Leise - were clearly bad enough that another body in the room was going to be a positive, regardless of quality. Mertz seemed to have plenty of chances in the spring to secure the job, we’ll see if fall camp either solidifies his status or reveals a new challenger.
Running Back - Montrell Johnson, Jr. - Junior
Of the four runners who finished the year with more than 10 carries, two are gone (Anthony Richardson and Nay’Quan Wright) but Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne return, and those two combined for 60% of total carries, 59% of total rushing yards, and 55% of total rushing touchdowns. The running game wasn’t great last year but both excelled at running through 7+ man boxes and getting at least 3 yards after contact. It’s a worthy assumption that having a competent offensive line in front of them could boost their solid performance of ‘22 into the next level for ‘23. Tulane transfer Cameron Carroll might also break into the rotation to add a third option in the mix.
Wide Receiver - Ricky Pearsall - Senior
Last year’s Florida offense had six guys get targeted more than 16 times in the passing game and only one of those dudes - Justin Shorter - is gone. But Florida seems fairly confident in the receivers it currently has, so much so that it was one of the few positions that did not take a transfer in to the position group. Ricky Pearsall led the receivers in targets (59) and yard (661) but those types of numbers would have put him third at a program like Georgia or fourth at Ohio State; hell, 59 is the same number of targets that Barrett Banister had last year at Missouri! If Florida’s dreadful catch rate can improve by even a few points this receiving corps could have a much bigger impact.
Last year’s Florida defense was not very good at its job. Yeah, they were ok at limiting explosive plays - and still ranked 67th, mind you - and had a decent tackle rate. But they ranked 101st against the run, 107th against the pass, and 103rd in points allowed per scoring opportunity. The fact that Missouri lost to this team was, for me, the most frustrating aspect of last year, simply because the entire team - but especially the defense - was absolutely pathetic. The Gators are trying to paper over the holes by importing six defenders to plug in gaps immediately, as well as bringing in a new DC to call plays. I’m not sure how much that can fix in one year but, hey, we all saw it work just fine last year so there is a chance!
Defensive Line - Princely Umanmielen - Junior
Florida’s defense was one of the worst havoc creating units in the country, finishing with a 14% havoc rate which ranked 95th in the country. The Florida defensive line mustered a mere 3.2% havoc rate which was good for 118th. and that was with current Chicago Bear Gervon Dexter on the team! They do return almost everyone else, including the Princely Umanmielen (who had the second most snaps on the line) and the massive Desmond Watson - aka “Big Wiggle” - who was tasked to lose some weight from his massive 415-pound frame and proceeded to balloon up to 449 during the offseason. Outside of Dexter the line didn’t make many plays or tackles so the guys they portalled in should compete for playing time immediately.
Linebacker - Antwaun Powell-Ryland, Jr. - Junior
The line might have been allergic to creating havoc but Florida’s linebackers ranked 20th in the country in havoc generation. Unfortunately for the Gators, they lose their three of their top four linebackers but do return their third-leading sack artist in Antwaun Powell-Ryland, Jr. The Gators also bring in two linebackers from the portal to offer immediately replacement value, including Deuce Spurlock from Michigan and Teradja Marshall from Ohio State. The linebackers were the one solid unit on last year’s squad and it’ll be imperative for the transfers to avoid any drop off to realistically see an entire defensive renaissance.
Defensive Back - Jason Marshall, Jr. - Junior
The Gator secondary was terrible last year and lost three of their top four defensive backs, including freshly-minted Missouri Tiger Tre’Vez Johnson. They played man coverage a ton and gave up about 7.6 yards per pass attempt, regardless of coverage played, which is not healthy at all. They also had one of the lowest PDs-to-INC in the country, which is supposed to be a strength of man coverage! As is typical for the rest of the defense, they brought in plenty of transfers to force improvement but there’s a long road ahead to get to competence.
So what does it all mean?
I don’t want to be the kettle calling the pot black but, even as a fan of a team who did a portal-powered blood transfusion to force improvement in a single unit...that’s really hard to expect to happen every single time. Florida’s defense was so bad and they brought in six guys to improve it in hopes that the other guys can improve. Similar for the offense: six transfers in, four of which were offensive lineman, and yet there is not a clear-cut competent quarterback to lead the unit to success.
To put it bluntly, I’m very bullish on Missouri winning this game. Yes, things can change as we get through the season but Florida is going to have to show me some improvement and an ability to nail their transfer evaluations before I give them the benefit of the doubt.
There’s nothing wrong with a long build, even at a school like Florida. But when you do a long-term build you don’t get to skip steps in the process (even in the transfer portal era!) and I’m not going to assume anything about this team until they can show an identity and competence on the field. Yes, they beat Missouri last year, but if the Tigers are even half as good as we think they can be, this should be a win at home.
I can’t believe I just put that curse in the world. Shame on me!