The Florida Gators went to Columbia and stormed back in the 4th quarter for a 41-39 victory over South Carolina. Head coach head coach Billy Napier spoke to the media after the big win over South Carolina.
Napier: “We got a group of kids, we’ve got a staff that goes about their business the right way. It’s a fun group to coach. It’s fun to come to work every day. We’ve been through some battles. I think sometimes those tough things that you go through in life and I think the game of football resembles life as much as anything. It prepares you for something that’s ahead. I think the character of this group, their ability to kind of sort through winning and losing, to look each other in the eye, to have some integrity, to take ownership of things we can do better at the player level, at the staff level. We’ve struggled on the road and certainly tonight was one heck of a football game.
But I do think some of the toughness that we’ve built, some of the resolve that we’ve built, some of the relationships, this group has done nothing but get closer. I think it’s almost galvanized the group and we came here today to prove something. What a way to win a football game. Lot of credit to South Carolina. Their team showed up and competed. I thought, in particular, on offense they did a lot of great things, caused issues for us and, look, we needed every play all the way down to the end to find a way to win it. There was a lot of situational football today. I’m just really proud of the team’s resolve. There’s a lot of times out there tonight where they could have folded their cards and we didn’t do that. Some incredible play, some incredible extra-effort plays.
Hats off to South Carolina, what a football game, what a venue. Certainly, proud of our team and the character that they showed. That’s a good way to go into an open date, that’s what I would tell you. We’re going to enjoy this thing but it’s important that we keep our humility. We have lots to do to improve as a team. Individual players can improve, parts of our staff can improve and we need to play better going forward, there are definitely things that we can get better at.”
Florida’s resolve on offense:
Napier: “Some unbelievable plays in the game. Graham Mertz, in particular, you can’t help but respect the competitive spirit of the kid, the toughness, the decision-making. I just thought he was fantastic. Never flinched. Look, I get to be around the guy every day. I know how much the guy’s worked all the way going back to the beginning of the process.
This is a young man who came here on a mission and had a plan and he’s worked. He’s a product of his work. For him to operate in our system in the first year the way he does, the level of comprehension, the high-level decision-making that’s happening out there, I couldn’t be more impressed with the kid. I think we’re starting to play better around him. We’re starting to play a little bit better up front. The freshmen tight ends are growing up and we’re getting some play from some receivers and, ultimately, we’re capable. We can score. I think at times, we haven’t been able to execute the system but he’s at the center of today for sure. Very impressed with him as a person and as a leader.”
On Ricky Pearsall:
Napier: “I hugged both of their necks in the locker room and said, ‘This is why you come to Florida to get an opportunity to play in that type of venue in this league and make critical plays in critical moments.’ Ricky is another guy who is the byproduct of a lot of hard work. Those two guys are pace setters, they set the tone. When they walk in the building every day it’s like hey, those two guys, they know how to work. They’re tough, they’re students of the game, they work hard from a self-discipline standpoint, they’re leaders, they’re good examples and they both got character. Special. Fun to coach, man.”
The mood going into the last drive, what was Graham like?
Napier: “When we’re down 10 that’s when it was really thick in there, right? It’s two scores, about nine minutes left. It became very evident we had top put one together and we had to get a stop. We had to burn one of our timeouts on a third down play. We’ve got two timeouts and the clock is ticking. That’s the thing that’s impressive. We didn’t do it just once. We did it twice. (Mertz) made plays on schedule and he made some plays off schedule. I think that’s probably the most impressive thing about it.”
The importance to get the pieces around Graham Mertz going
Napier: “I think, ultimately, our teams are the best when our offensive line is playing at a really high level. Ultimately that’s how we got this job. That’s how we’ve had success moving the ball even since we’ve been at Florida. When we can have balance, when we can play with physicality, when we can rush the ball it makes all the complimentary plays better.
I do think our offensive line, last week — the Vanderbilt week — and this week of practice has been our best two weeks. I think we’re starting to get some continuity. We’ve got guys stepping up. Guys are improving as players. To get Austin (Barber) back is big, certainly. Jake Slaughter, I mean, you can’t compliment him enough. He’s had a good couple of weeks here. The tight ends, they’re both freshmen. I think they’re improving. I think 3 (Eugene Wilson) is unique. You know, he presents you opportunities to be creative and get him plays. I mean he made some incredible plays out there today.
“One of the plays that I think was awesome in the game was — Coach Spurrier used to say, ‘God smiled on the Gators’ well when we threw that slant to Ricky and it got tipped up in the air and Tre Wilson caught it and kept running, I would say God smiled on the Gators today. Very appreciative of the attitude, the energy, and the effort of the staff. I challenged the staff early in the week. Lead your men. Impact the players. Let’s play our best football. Knowing that it was going to be that way, having been here a few times in the past, this place is a tough place to play. That quarterback is a good player and they’ve got some good skill players around him. Good day.”
Starting fast and finishing fast
Napier: “I think we know from an analytics perspective the importance of starting fast in the game. If you can score on the first possession, it’s huge. If you can be ahead at halftime, it’s huge. Without making that too big of a deal with the player I think it is important that you start the right way in particular on the road. If you think about our issues on the road, we’ve sputtered a little bit early.
We had a good plan and we started with a good mix there early and we executed it at a high level. Featuring a lot of different players in that drive and Mertz was outstanding. Yeah, this is a big deal. I think, ultimately, that is what we’ve learned from the two road losses. The big thing is, when the ball gets spotted and it’s time to play, we need to throw the first punch. We need to be lathered up and ready to go and be aggressive in how we play. It was evident that we had that early. Now, defensively, we’ve got work to do to try and figure out some of the issues that we had tonight but when we needed a stop. We got a stop.”
On Spencer Rattler
Napier: “Yeah, first of all, their offensive line played, that’s where they made the biggest improvement in my opinion. I think they shuffled the deck, they played them in completely different spots this week. It’s evident that was a point of emphasis in the open date, and they created some run lanes in there. The back is tough to tackle. We knew that coming in, but he’s a big, heavy, he runs with the right demeanor. And look, they’ve got some unique skill players out there that present matchup problems for you.
So you put an extra hat in there, then all of a sudden, you’re isolated. And the combination of that and his ability to extend and escape, ultimately, that’s where he caused the most problems for us. He’s a good player, everybody knows that. I think they got good offensive line play around him today. Protected him a little bit better, had a running game to complement him. That’s what they haven’t been able to do. I think that’ll be beneficial for their team go forward, if they can continue to do that.”
The use of Eugene Wilson
Napier: “Yeah, I mean, I think we’re trying to get the guy touches. And I think when you’re a matchup team, you’re a man-to-man, bracket team, not to get too technical but you know, where he’s at is important. So, moving him around I think is an important part of the game. So, we’re getting there from a skill standpoint, to where we’ve got a number of players that can create matchup issues for you. He’s definitely on that list.”
Carrying momentum into the bye week
Napier: “Yeah, I think it’s probably more important to remember what we felt like in the past than it is to remember how we feel right now. Look, the game was won during the week in my opinion. We had the best week we’ve had. We worked on Sunday evening. You know, we challenged the staff, we challenged the players, ‘Do a little extra this week.’ I’d be walking around the building throughout the day, I’d see a guy doing something, you know, it was like extra. That was kind of the theme. I see Graham Mertz, and he was adding a little bit on top of what he already does, right? So we had a fantastic Tuesday, Wednesday, those two days in particular were our best days we’ve had.
And look, I’m not just talking about players. I’m talking about all parts of our organization, from equipment, video, to the look squad. I mean, our Job-Taker defense this week was outstanding. We have a group of about probably 17, 18 kids that simulate South Carolina’s defense. We call them Job-Takers, right? And they were phenomenal. The accuracy of the looks, the effort that they gave. It takes a team, and I thought all parts of the team had a good week. And ultimately, the character and resolve of the team, that’s what’s impressive to me. There’s nine minutes to go in the game and we’re down to 10, right? So, to put two drives together and to get that stop, you know, we could have hung it up and they didn’t do that. So, it’s a fun group to coach. That’s what I would tell you.”
Kahleil Jackson’s catch
Napier: “Oh man. I mean, K Jack, you know, he’s a guy that’s grown up a lot. And I tell you, look, I’ve always had conviction that he’s a good football player. I can remember walking off the field after the first practice and being like, ‘Who’s that guy?’ You know, and he just really has matured as a person. His attitude, his consistency, he’s stepped up in a major way. I mean think about, we got Caleb Douglas and Andy Jean, you know, are banged up. And here, you know, this guy was not only a starter in the slot early, we moved to X at the halfway point. And he’s a guy. He’s a durable, tough, consistent competitor. He’s got my respect and I think his teammates respect him too.”
Photo credit: Maddie Washburn, UAA Communications