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Florida coach Billy Napier overhauls floundering program and might relinquish play-calling role

FILE - Florida head coach Billy Napier paces the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Napier needed to make changes. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Florida coach Billy Napier needed to make changes.

He ended up overhauling nearly every aspect of his floundering program.

And he might not be done.

Napier hired a “head coach of the defense,” an “expert in the special teams space” and a new strength and conditioning coordinator during the past two months. He also created spots for a chief of staff as well as someone charged with messaging and motivation.

Napier and the Gators are counting on all the new faces making a huge difference this fall. If not, all of them could be elsewhere in 2025.

“We need to go get some traction on the field and I think we will be tough to stop,” Napier said Wednesday.

Napier is 11-14 in two seasons in Gainesville, falling well short of expectations that followed the two-time Sun Belt Conference coach of the year from Louisiana-Lafayette. He’s already changed the majority of his initial staff and is under NCAA investigation in relation to a failed name, image and likeness deal with former quarterback signee Jaden Rashada.

Rashada flipped from Miami to Florida in December 2022, at least in part because of an NIL deal worth nearly $14 million, and signed with the Gators a few weeks later. But he never enrolled after the deal fell through. He landed at Arizona State.

The Gators have since reorganized their NIL collective amid an ever-changing college football landscape that includes several high-profile lawsuits and a burgeoning transfer portal.

“There’s probably a lot more sanity as we speak to maybe 18 months ago,” Napier said. “I think we at least kind of understand what’s required. But we need change; I think everybody knows that.

“I’m hopeful we can at some point kind of create some guidelines and parameters and kind of move forward and get back to coaching ball.”

Napier made significant changes on defense, special teams and in the weight room.

He hired former Auburn defensive coordinator Ron Roberts as executive head coach and co-defensive coordinator, reuniting Roberts with mentee Austin Armstrong. Roberts will now “coach the coaches” on that side of the ball, Napier said.

He hired former New England Patriots assistant Joe Houston as senior special teams analyst, counting on Houston to be able to help the Gators eliminate constant mistakes in that phase of the game.

And he hired former New York Giants strength coach Craig Fitzgerald to the same job and reassigned close friend Mark Hocke to the “player development space.” Napier described Hocke’s new role — he’s assumedly keeping his $750,000 a year salary — as helping with messaging, motivation and themes.

Napier also has tweaked the team’s offensive setup, although he stopped short of providing details. Napier could give up play-calling duties for the first time in seven seasons as a head coach. He said tight ends coach Russ Callaway will “acquire more responsibility.”

“All that is to be determined,” Napier said. “I think we’ve got time to figure those things out. … How we define that, I think we’ll work our way through that. Ultimately, Russ is a heck of a young coach.”

Entering his third season at Florida, Napier had to take a swing at doing things differently. His offense was inconsistent, his defense was historically woeful and his special teams units provided more head-scratching moments than game-changing momentum.

His latest recruiting class fell apart late, too, dropping from third to 16th in 247Sports' composite rankings. Napier bounced back a bit by signing 11 transfers, including former Alabama cornerback Jameer Grimsley, former Washington safety Asa Turner and former South Carolina linebacker Grayson Howard.

“We really went for high character, leadership traits, production in the portal,” Napier said. “That was kind of the theme of the year. If we’re going to add players at this point in their career, they need to really be team oriented and high character, bring some things to the team other than just the production on the field.

“We’ve learned that a little bit over time.”

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