Even by the ultra-hectic standards for the Florida Gators football program, the first week of the Billy Napier was an unprecedented roller coaster ride.
Some of it was positive, and some of it was negative. All of it, though, was on par with what Billy Napier warned fans about at his introductory press conference: “You guys are probably going to get frustrated with me. We’re going to be very patient, and calculated about everything that we do.”
Translation: as is usually the case when a coach gets fired, the Florida football program was pretty severely wounded when Dan Mullen was handed the pink slip. Billy Napier isn’t here to put a bandaid over the wound; he’s here to perform surgery on it. And for the ultimate analogy-within-an-analogy: that surgery includes the construction of an army.
First, for the external analogy, the surgery. Surgery takes time to fully recover from. The actual surgery itself is a large part of what makes recovering from severe wounds such a long process. On the other hand, a bandaid can stop the bleeding, and make things seem like they’re going to be all right for a little while. It’s the quick fix. But a bandaid doesn’t actually do anything to address the internal problems. In order to truly get back to top condition, you have to go in there and fix it. Fail to address those internal issues for too long, and they’re liable to doom you later on. Surgery may not be a pretty process, it may not be enjoyable, and it very well might make things get worse before they get better- but it’s how restarts work.
After Florida had finished conquering FSU 24-21, I milled around outside the stadium and casually polled former Gator players who had returned for that game about who they would want to be the next head coach. Among them were former Florida defensive linemen Adam Shuler and Cece Jefferson, and former safety Major Wright. They didn’t all agree that Florida should have fired Dan Mullen. But each and every one of them agreed that if Florida was going to hire a new coach, it needed to be a long-term hire.
“I’m tired of short-term fixes,” another former player told me. “Get it right this time. I don’t even care if Florida goes 3-9 and then 5-7 these next two years (he then paused to laugh at himself and add, ‘that’s not gonna happen but you know what I’m saying,’) …I would trade that bad two year stretch for a coach who has us humming like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Alabama, or even Georgia for the next dozen years.”
Scott Stricklin clearly agrees with that player, who I then reached out to after the hire became official and learned that he was “thrilled with it.” Florida didn’t hire a coach to put together the best makeshift program possible, win 10 games the first year or two, and then fizzle out because of an obvious fatal flaw that was considered rather Debbie Downer-esque to say out loud but that the entire fan base could have seen coming. Florida’s been there before. Three times in the last decade, as a matter of fact: Will Muschamp’s inability to CEO a program and hire competent assistants, Jim McElwain’s incongruent temperament with what’s required at Florida and recruit at a high level, and Dan Mullen’s stubbornness, which led to his failure to do all of the above. Sure, it’d be nice to go 10-2 in Napier’s first year, and potentially even better, but the point of surgery is to ensure that your future isn’t capped at three years of optimal operation before things come unglued again.
As Gator fans quickly found out, though, one of the staples of that surgery is that things are getting worse before they get better. No sooner had Billy Napier taken the reins of the program than the Gators’ already-undersized 2022 recruiting class began to unravel.
Decommitments amidst a coaching change are a fact of life, meaning Florida was always going to experience some hemorrhaging in the wake of Dan Mullen’s departure. And sure enough, three of Florida’s fourteen commits in the class of 2022 backed off their commitments in the transition period between Mullen’s firing and Napier’s hiring: ATH Jamarrien Burt, RB Terrance Gibbs, and perhaps most notably of all, WR Isaiah Bond.
Then the class really started coming off the rails. Within 72 hours of Napier’s introductory press conference, four more members of the class decommitted, more than likely at the suggestion of Napier. Two of them were consensus four star receivers in Jayden Gibson and CJ Smith, the latter of whom might be the fastest receiver in the class, and if Florida had only lost those two plus DE Francois Nolton, most Gator fans probably would have been able to make peace with the overhaul. Not necessarily applaud it- Gibson and Smith are both instant-impact playmakers who could benefit any offense that doesn’t run the triple option- but it likely could have been pardoned as the cost of doing business.
But the real stinger was losing Nick Evers, the unquestioned heart and soul of the class. Not only was Evers Dan Mullen’s handpicked QB of the future from Flower Mound, Texas- say what you want about Mullen as a head coach, but if there’s one thing he knows in this world, it’s the QB position- but Evers was an elite recruiter in his own right (probably better than half of Mullen’s staff, if we’re being honest) and just a tremendous ambassador for the Florida Gators brand. He wound up committing to Oklahoma.
Losing such an outspoken leader- not only a quarterback on the field, but a quarterback of Florida’s greater efforts to sell itself as a program- is never good. Billy Napier more or less guiding him toward the exit is something that would be difficult to come to terms with even if he already had a second quality QB committed. Because he does not, and now has to go recruit one, the move has to seem like a gamble at best and downright dumb at worst.
And for a finale, linebacker EJ Lightsey decommitted on Saturday, six days after Napier first took the podium in Gainesville. That adjusted the number of players to part ways with the program after Napier’s arrival upward to five.
Naturally, the football staff came uncorked, too- and that was also by design. Only a microscopic percentage of the football program’s employees under Dan Mullen is being retained under Napier (though I should note that one of the key holdovers is former Gator DB Vernell Brown in his Director of Football Student-Athlete Development role- an objectively excellent decision by Napier).
And ordinarily, that wouldn’t be cause for concern. Fans don’t seem to have a problem with a general staff overhaul, as everybody from Greg Knox to Billy Gonzalez and the two new secondary coaches that came aboard in 2021 has caught flak from more than just a few people on the internet.
However, tight ends coach Tim Brewster is generally regarded as one of the best recruiters in the sport, and has done an excellent job developing tight ends everywhere he’s been- most notably Kyle Pitts, and even this year with Kemore Gamble in an offense that was limited because of inconsistent QB play. It felt like he would be the exception, the one assistant who could truly thrive under any head coach because of his emphatic checking of the “recruiting” box and his track record of unquestioned success. He was not. And now, for as committed to building his blueprint as Billy Napier may be, that leaves a gaping hole for Napier to have to fill.
Then there’s the loss of wide receiver Jacob Copeland to the transfer portal, which almost feels like a miscellaneous loss at this point. There’s little debate that Copeland acted like a spoiled man-child at times and struggled with drop issues in his career, and it’s understandable to call his departure addition by subtraction from those standpoints. But there’s also no debate of what he’s capable of doing on the field, and when his mind is right, he’s been known to work as hard as anyone to reach those capabilities. And he did gain a lot of sympathy from Gator fans when he signed with Florida despite the obvious objections of his own mother at his Signing Day ceremony.
And last but not least- at least as of the time of publication- came the loss of linebacker Mohamoud Diabate to the transfer portal. Knocks were made on Diabate about his size, the lack of a fit in the new defensive scheme Napier wants to install, and there were a few individual plays of his that, for lack of a better way to put it, did not look like he put forth great effort on (go to about the 9 minute mark of this film breakdown of the Samford game for the worst such example). But looking at the totality of his time in Gainesville, Diabate did far more good than he did bad- and the loss stings an extra measure or two because Diabate tweeted out Napier’s catchphrase of “Scared Money Don’t Make Money” before most people knew what it was, which can only be interpreted as excitement on his end for Napier’s arrival.
But just as having to replace so many people is a part of coaching transitions, so is the act of replacing them. By definition, transitions are two-step processes, with step one being removing the old, and step two being installing the new. Coaching transitions don’t consist of the new guy wiping out the infrastructure and then leaving the program in shambles with no plan to fix it. That’s called dropping a bomb, something you to your enemies in war. What Billy Napier is doing, by contrast, is transitioning from the old infrastructure that was deemed unacceptable to a new infrastructure that will breed success for years to come.
The second part of that- the new infrastructure- is easy to forget with people that Gator fans have grown so fond of like Evers and Brewster being part of the casualties. But it’s already underway, and the early stages of construction are promising. Because part of that construction is more than erecting an infrastructure.
It also includes, as Billy Napier himself put it, “building an army.” And that army is shaping up to be one that carries the power to shock in terms of both quality and quantity.
Each member of that support staff has a specific set of micro-jobs, and it goes much deeper than simply assisting recruits with logistics on their visits. Every minuscule detail of every moment of every day Billy Napier spends as a head coach is meticulously planned, usually with multiple backup plans in place. That includes evaluating prospective recruits before recruiting them, a process that Florida fans have already seen take place, and heard Napier speak about. That includes cross-checking notes with other assistants to look for commonalities and identify patterns. That even includes his bathroom breaks on recruiting visits.
I spoke to a former staffer of Napier’s at Louisiana about how that all worked. “The key is to eliminate the concept of a single point of failure,” the former staffer told me. “That’s the name of the game here. There’s planning meticulously, and then there’s building a bulletproof machine that no recruiting loss to a rival or personnel loss (player or coach) can do any damage to. No matter who decommits, leaves early for the pros, or takes another job, the machine just keeps merrily rolling along.”
Part of that is the aforementioned quantity of staffers. That all goes into the $5 million budget Napier was allotted for a support staff. The other part of it is getting the most mileage out of the $7.5 million budget for his assistant coaches that he can- and that, too, is something that he’s set out to accomplish with both quality and quantity.
Among the host of analysts that Billy Napier has brought onboard so far include Ryan O’Hara (QB), Jamar Chaney (LB) and Joe Hamilton (general personnel analyst on defense). Also joining the Billy Napier staff “army” are Ashour Peera and Kyle Kazakevicius in yet-to-be-announced roles, and Andrew Burkett as the Director of Research & Evaluation.
And this doesn’t even begin to put a dent into the new assistant coaching staff. Billy Napier has hinted that he plans to add between about 40-50 analysts to his Florida staff. For perspective, Nick Saban- who more or less invented the analyst role, at least in the form it exists today- has about a dozen analysts on his staff in a given year, occasionally reaching the mid-teens. Napier already dwarfed that number with his staff at Louisiana. Now he plans to top the numbers of his own norm-shatteringly large staff at UL at Florida, and he’s certainly off to a good start.
But as important as the analysts and miscellaneous staffers are, they’re privates- i.e. soldiers- in the army of General Billy Napier. Above the privates are the assistants with higher ranks- sergeants (the position coaches), and above the sergeants are colonels (the coordinators).
And above them all is the new head strength coach, Mark Hocke, who comes with Napier from Louisiana. The army equivalent here would probably be “Lieutenant General,” as Hocke ultimately answers to Billy Nappier but controls the team in the offseason.
As far as the change goes, while players were clamoring for Nick Savage to be retained and didn’t get their wish, Hocke brings a resume that suggests he’ll do just fine.
Hocke’s coaching career began in 2009 on the strength staff at Alabama under Nick Saban. He helped develop three Crimson Tide teams to win the national title in 2009, 2011, and 2012. At various points during his six-year stay in Tuscaloosa, he worked with sixteen different players who would eventually be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
He then left for Georgia to be the head of the Bulldogs’ S&C program in Mark Richt’s final season in 2015. Richt got fired after that season due to a 10-3 record, but Hocke helped groom a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen in Brandon Kublanow and John Theus. He then spent a year on Jimbo Fisher’s staff at FSU in 2016, a year on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M in 2017, and then reunited with Napier at Louisiana for the next four seasons.
Napier dominated the Sun Belt on the recruiting trail, handed Hocke the keys to the program in the offseason and let him go to work. The culmination of those four years he spent in Lafayette with Napier: four straight trips to the Sun Belt title game, one split Sun Belt title when the conference title game was called off due to COVID, and one outright Sun Belt title in 2021.
As an additional feather in his cap, Louisiana was nominated as a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, which is given annually to the best offensive line in the country. Keep in mind that this is a national award, and though Louisiana recruited the best of anybody in the Sun Belt, these were still largely unheralded offensive linemen he was working with. One of them- the unrated Max Mitchell- developed into a Walter Camp All-American in 2021.
Not only did Billy Napier bring along the guy who worked with that offensive line in the weight room to Florida, he also brought along the man who coached them up on the football field in their dominant 2021 season, offensive line coach, or “Sergeant,” Darnell Stapleton. This is the aforementioned “avoiding the single point of failure” mantra at work. Napier credits both these men for the development of the offensive line, one in the weight room and one on the field. Both are important to the success of a position that requires great strength and dexterity, and so he brought them both along to Gainesville.
Stapleton is a Super Bowl champion, which alone can help on the recruiting trail. But he also has a sneakily strong coaching resume of his own. Stapleton worked as a graduate assistant at Rutgers in 2012-13, working specifically with the offensive linemen on what a friend of mine who covered Rutgers as a student journalist those years called “punch and pad level” fundamentals. In part due to his efforts, Rutgers finished the 2012 season ranked in the top ten for the fewest sacks allowed.
He then went to Bucknell for the next four years, a stint that was highlighted by his coaching of offensive tackle Julien Davenport in all four years. A four year starter, Davenport racked up All-Patriot honors all four years and was named a first-team All-American by four separate publications. The Houston Texans selected Davenport in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, marking the first time a Bucknell player had been drafted since 1969.
Then it was off to Sam Houston State as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator, where Stapleton helped oversee one of the best ground games in the Southland Conference. In 2019, behind an offensive line that included two All-Southland Conference selections, running back Donovan Williams finished with the second-most yards on the ground in the conference.
And then in his one year at Louisiana, Stapleton groomed the offensive line into a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award and turned Max Mitchell into an All-American. That unit paved the way for an offense that averaged 406 yards per game- a number that’s negatively skewed by two bad games out of thirteen- and won the Sun Belt Championship Game.
For his first hire at the level of “Colonel,” General Napier brought along Patrick Toney, a rising star in the industry who was just named the Gators’ new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. He’s thought to be bringing a 4-3 scheme to Gainesville, but while change does sometimes make for rough starts to coaches’ stewardship, the name of the game with Toney is improvement over time.
Toney got his start at Southeastern Louisiana in 2012, where he worked with the safeties as an assistant for two seasons. In his third season of 2014, he was promoted to the safeties coach and special teams coordinator. His Lions’ pass defense improved in nearly every statistical category during his time there, including red zone efficiency and pass efficiency defense.
In 2015, Toney left SELA for Sam Houston State as the secondary coach. After a rough start to the season, Toney’s secondary settled down, allowing just one of its next twelve opponents to score 30 points in a game. The Bearkats rode that improved defensive backfield all the way to the FCS Playoff semifinals, where they ran into a buzz-saw and lost to #1 overall seed Jacksonville State.
Toney’s penultimate stop prior to Florida was at San Antonio as the Roadrunners’ safeties coach. After an adjustment year in 2016, the Roadrunners’ secondary was tremendous in 2017, finishing 19th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and playing a big part in why UTSA finished 7th in the country in total defense that year.
Toney, like Hocke, then left to spend the past four seasons at Louisiana with Billy Napier. He first joined the Ragin’ Cajuns’ staff as the secondary coach in 2018. UL’s defense took tremendous strides during his time there, beginning with improving from 432 yards per game in 2018 to 373 in 2019. Toney was then promoted to defensive coordinator in 2020, and again improved tremendously, limiting opponents to 355.4 yards per game that year. Enter 2021, and another step forward for the defense, holding the opposition to 345.1 yards a game.
In most places, Toney would have been seen as the big fish of the staff, the hottest name in coaching to join the program. But at least so far, that title is reserved for the other secondary coach- Corey Raymond, the long time LSU assistant who played an enormous role in LSU’s claiming of the “DBU” title. He’s being brought on staff as the cornerbacks coach at the level of “Sergeant,” but that comes nowhere close to doing his resume justice. In short, Raymond is one of the most proven and successful position coaches in the sport.
The most important thing to know about Raymond is that LSU fans are absolutely incensed about Billy Napier poaching him from Baton Rouge. Raymond is an LSU man, through and through. He played at LSU from 1989-91, enjoyed a six year career in the pros and then returned to Baton Rouge in 2006 to begin a long, decorated coaching career.
As an assistant strength coach in 2007, Raymond helped guide LSU to a national championship. Following his third season in Baton Rouge in 2008, he left for a two year stint at Utah State to coach the cornerbacks, and then a solitary season as the DB coach at Nebraska in 2011. In 2012, he returned to Baton Rouge once more- and his career really took off.
Raymond spent a full decade coaching the LSU cornerbacks, half of which he served as the overall DB coach. During that time, he coached seven first-team All-Americans: Eric Reid (2012), Jalen Mills (2015), Jamal Adams (2016), Tre’Davious White (2016), Greedy Williams (2018), Grant Delpit (2018 and 2019) and Derek Stingley Jr. (2019, 2020). So far, thirteen defensive backs to be coached up by Raymond at LSU have gone on to be selected in the NFL Draft- and that number is only going to keep rising as guys like Derek Stingley Jr., Eli Ricks and more members from the Tigers’ secondary in the past few years enter the Draft either this year or next.
(Some credit Raymond with 14 NFL Draft picks. I do not because although he did receive some direct coaching in the offseason, Tyrann Mathieu never actually played a down under Raymond’s stewardship.)
Regardless of whether or not you want to include Mathieu, all of that is just scratching the surface of Raymond’s list of accolades. Three former defensive backs of his (again, not including Mathieu) have been selected to the NFL Pro Bowl a total of six times. Delpit won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2019. And though LSU’s pass defense has fallen off the rails the last two seasons (because let’s face it, as long as they weren’t facing Florida, everything fell off the rails for LSU the last two seasons), in his first eight years in Baton Rouge, his Tigers were near or at the top of the SEC in terms of pass defense efficiency.
The last position coach, i.e. Sergeant, that General Billy Napier has brought on was Jabbar Juluke. Juluke comes over from Louisiana with Napier, and will be taking the running backs coach role as well as the title of Assistant Head Coach.
Juluke is another young, hotshot coach with a stock that grows by the day. It all started at Louisiana Tech in 2014, where he coached the running backs for two years. The numbers for his rushing game (which, fun fact, included former Florida QB Jeff Driskel!) weren’t spectacular there, finishing with 148 and then a slightly-improved 156 yards per game in 2014 and 2015, respectively, finishing in the middle of the pack of the FBS both times. But that 2015 average was ruined by one anomalous game against Southern Miss in which LT never even tried to establish the run, finishing with -2 yards on the ground for the day in a 58-24 loss.
Juluke then moved across the state to LSU, where he joined forces with Raymond for one year in 2016. That year, he coached a pair of All-SEC running backs in Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. Fournette currently stars on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Guice would likely be tearing it up in the pros as well if he wasn’t a terrible person. Juluke then left for an uneventful one-year stint at Texas Tech, and then joined Billy Napier in Lafayette in 2018.
Juluke’s 2019 season at Louisiana was one for the history books. The Ragin’ Cajuns ran for 3,604 yards and 42 touchdowns as a team, both of which set new school records and qualified for third in the country. As such, Juluke was named FootballScoop’s Running Backs Coach of the Year. Two of the running backs responsible for those totals, Eli Mitchell and Raymond Calais, were eventually selected in the NFL Draft.
His other three years in Lafayette weren’t too shabby, either. UL finished with the 22nd best ground attack in the country in 2018 (218.7 yards per game), 21st in 2020 (213) and 34th in 2021 (191.9).
And all of that is barely even scratching the surface of what this Billy Napier army is going to look like when it’s all said and done. Countless more staffers will come on board in the coming days and weeks (some of the rumored new assistant coaches include Tosh Lupoi from the Jacksonville Jaguars and bringing Ja’Juan Seider home), and pretty soon, new players will follow.
As was the case with the staff, Florida will be replacing the outgoing players with new players (because again, that’s how transitions work), both via the transfer portal and through the age-old recruitment of high school athletes. Billy Napier has explicitly stated that he won’t be adding a ton of players to the 2022 class in December. But even still, a flurry of four-star and five-star prospects, including Georgia defensive line commit Shone Washington as well as uncommitted safeties Devin Moore and Kamari Wilson, have demonstrated sudden interest in Florida in the final days before the Early Signing Period after Napier reached out.
The key, of course, will be to see what Napier can do in the 2023 class and beyond. If the work he’s done in one week for the 2022 class is any indication, Gator fans should be excited for what lays in store down the road.
So for as difficult as it may have been to part ways with some of the people associated with Gator football, it’s important to note that it’s all part of Napier’s plans to surgically repair the non-functioning infrastructure that Dan Mullen left in place. Gator fans will miss Nick Evers and Tim Brewster. But the show will go on without them, and it won’t skip a beat.
Above all else, it’s critical to remember that none of this is supposed to be easy. The beginnings of projects like these aren’t meant to be fun. Neither analogy in play here- performing surgery or building an army from scratch- is a process that anybody would describe as easy or quick. It’s the end results that make it all worth it. And in just one week on the job, we have evidence that the surgery appears to have been a success, and that the army is being built as we speak.
Now, we sit back, and we wait. We wait for the rest of the surgery to be completed, and we let Napier finish the job of building that army he was talking about.
And one day not too far down the road, we can all sit back and enjoy our reward for being patient.