Billy Napier on injuries to Myles Graham and Kam Waites, the team’s progress, and more

by | Mar 24, 2024 | 2 comments

Following the Florida Gators’ fifth spring practice, Head Coach Billy Napier offered insights into the team’s progress, the effect of new staff members, the challenges of managing a team in today’s college football landscape, key injuries, and the potential for an explosive offense.


Opening statement:

“I think one of the things that has become very evident is the new staff members are making an impact. I got a ton of conviction about the new people that we’ve added to our team. I’ll tell you, it’s given me a little bit of energy. I can’t compliment enough that group as a whole…  Ron Roberts, Will Harris, Gerald Chatman, Joe Houston, Jon Decoster, Jake Sankal, obviously Tyler (Miles) was with us last year in a different role. New staff members are making an impact. And I think the other thing I would say is we come off of spring break and Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and we finished strong today. I thought we knocked the rust off Tuesday, defense probably got the best of the offense Thursday and the offense probably won today. It was competitive. There’s intensity, a little different level of focus with this group. There’s a healthy respect between the offense and the defense, and I think we’re making progress there, we’re building culture. I think we can compete and still come back together and be a team. For the first time you’ve got experience, you’ve got some young talent, there’s depth, so there’s more competition. Overall, I would say the new staff members are making an impact and I think the practice has been intense, focused, competitive. We’re getting better because of that. I think we’ve got to continue to learn how to practice, but overall it’s been a good week. It’s good to finish the right way.”

The learning curve for new coaches:

“Continuity in system helps and continuity in process helps. I think we’ll continue to get more efficient, we’ll refine all of that. We’re able to run a good practice partly because the equipment crew, the video crew … the second-tier staff. I know there’s a lot to be said about a bigger staff and the infrastructure and those things, but it does allow you to absorb attrition. So, new leadership but the people underneath those people help get them up to speed. I think that’s the theory behind it. Third year doing this and I think the practice format and approach as stayed relatively the same, and I think there’s some familiarity with guys like Ron, who has been with me in the past, and then some new ideas from the new coaches that worked for some really accomplished coaches – (Willie) Fritz, (Chris) Petersen, (Jimmy) Lake, (Bill) Belichick, NFL backgrounds. So I think all of that has been for our team.”

On the topic of whether it is becoming increasingly challenging to maintain a coaching staff in today’s college football landscape:

“Yeah, I think if you take a look around the league, it’s always in my opinion been a 25 to 30 percent throughout the entire organization. I think you can always anticipate losing about that much, whether you’re making changes or you lose people to promotions. I think we spend, we have people in charge of that, preparing for when we do have openings. We’re always kind of building that data base. I would tell you that worked for us this year. We were prepared and went through some processes and ultimately hired good people.”

Regarding the maintenance of a list of potential coaches for the team to pursue if necessary:

“100 percent, 100 percent. Have a staff member assigned to do that. They’re in charge throughout the entirety of the year. You kind of build contingencies plans. You have to protect yourself in that regard.”

Ron Roberts’ impact on improvement:

“The more people that you have on both sides, in all parts of your staff, that have leadership ability, that have significant experience, this is unique in that Ron is kind of the original — he created the system so you have the creator of the system. He knows the entire history, the evolution, he can talk about the very beginning. He’s got a number of people that have worked for him in the past and have moved on in all levels of football. He’s mentored a lot of good coaches who have had success on the defensive side of the ball. It’s interesting because he and Austin have worked together in the past so there’s a healthy respect there. Then you’ve got Will who has coordinator experience and has worked in some really good defensive systems in the past. I think there’s good camaraderie there. I think those guys are able to put their ego on the shelf and it’s showing up.”

Regarding a specific example of how a new coach has changed Florida’s approach to something:

“I think Joe Houston has done a good job from a situational football standpoint. He’s brought a lot to the table. We’ve worked a specific area today where we hard count and then take a delay and can improve our hang punt situation. That’s one example. We kind of combined the special teams component with the situation football component, the analytics. All of that is under one roof. I think that each day, he’s been able to help me and I think he’s been able to help Chris (Couch). He’s done a good job in that regard.”

On what situational football encompasses:

“Field zone, [down and distance], clock, all of the things relative to that. Just coaching format of practice, tackling, the best drill scenario to teach in a better sequence. It’s another set of eyes just in terms of observing practice and then watching the practice film. It’s been healthy.”

Joe Houston’s impact:

“I think more of just, ‘Hey, these are things we’ve done in the past.’ There’s a different level of detail. The NFL, there’s no academic meetings, there’s no recruiting official visits. It’s ball. There’s a different level of detail that they can bring to the table and it’s been really good.”

Improving tackling:

“There’s a lot to be said for consistency in verbiage across the board in special teams and defense and then I think the sequencing of drills to recreate the game for the players and take it step by step and then you take the practice film and coach the fundamental situations that show up. It’s one of the things we’ve done a little bit differently, in a team setting I’m able to coach the entire team relative to those things that show up that apply to what we’ve been emphasizing. We worked Texas vice drill the other day in practice, here it is in a practice setting and here’s the fundamentals that apply. There’s no doubt that Ron, Will and even Joe have done a good job of helping us develop our plan to improve the tackling.”

The potential for the offense to be more explosive:

“I would say that’s one of the things that stood out to me today. The blocking on the offensive line was cleaner. I think we added some length on the edges. I think Devon (Manuel) and Brandon (Crenshaw-Dickson) in particular, being 6-7, 315 — in that range — and having some experience as players, the pocket is cleaner. Even some of the freshmen, Caden Jones, Fletcher Westphal. We’re able to protect and hold the ball a little bit longer. I think there’s no question Graham Mertz is a very capable passer and I think he’s proved over time when the pocket is clean he can process and distribute the ball. We still need to work with some of these young receivers. We’ve got some development to do there. Chim Dike has been a nice addition.  He’s proven here just in a couple of days that he can make our team better.”

Graham Mertz making a case for for recruiting Dike:

“No doubt. I think sometimes that’s the way it works. It gives you conviction. Your personnel people got an opinion. You go through your process and you have an opinion but just to hear it from Graham, I think our strategy with the portal this year was, ok, they’ve gotta bring more to the table than just the production. What are the other extra dimensions, right? From a leadership, and character, what type of things do they gotta bring to the locker room. I think that’s where Chim’s really separated himself. He’s a team-oriented guy that’s got leadership and character and he’s had a lot of production in the past.”

Injuries to Myles Graham and Kam Waites:

“Yeah, probably two significant ones would be Myles Graham. He had an injury coming in and went through phase one and phase two. We said, ok when we get to spring break and we feel like this is going to be a long-term issue then we want to go ahead and get it fixed. We made that decision and we anticipate getting him back for fall camp. Kam Waites had a strained calf and a soft tissue injury. Nothing major there but he’ll be out for a bit. Those are the main two. We’ve got some other soft tissue things but, overall, those are the main two.”

More on Kam Waites injury:

“Probably going to be tight (to get back before spring camp ends). Probably a grade two strain there. But not a longterm issue. He’s done a really good job. Had a good offseason. Sometimes these soft tissue things are perplexing but he’ll be back.”

The opportunities for other linebackers with Shemar James and Derek Wingo limited and Graham out:

“I think in particular, you take a guy like Manny (Nunnery) who’s coming back, year two in the system. I was eating dinner with Manny the other day and just talked about how he’s so much more comfortable just living life. He knows the routine, knows where everything’s at, comfortable with the defensive system. He’s showed up. He’s having a good spring camp. Pup Howard, obviously, has continued to get reps and looks like he’s got a promising future. I think, sometimes, injuries present opportunities. (Austin) Barber’s a little banged up but we’re getting these rookies, they’re getting valuable reps. It allows you to develop some depth.”

Mannie Nunnery’s role:

“Yeah, I mean, I think Mannie had good production at Houston, you know? I mean, he’s a size-speed player and he looks the part. I mean he was like the National Special Teams Player of the Year at one point at Houston. And he got a ton of experience last year. So I think, new voice in the room, you know, that has a complete understanding of the system, right? Has coached that position in the system. Austin has coached that position in the system, right? So I think that has allowed him continuity in system and then two guys that have experience coaching the position. Mannie’s a good example of the entire team. I go back to, you know, we’ve got a lot of guys who have experience that came back. This team is a hungry group. You know, they’ve got something to prove. I think it has a great mix of veteran leadership and young talent, right? There is something about this group, it’s a fun group to coach, and I think the practice environment has reflected that.”

Milestones he hoped to achieve by this point in the spring:

“Yeah, I don’t necessarily know that we’ve got quotas that we’re trying to hit or anything like that. I mean, we evaluate every single rep of every single day, right, and then we take the entire practice, and then we kind of build our plan for improvement for the next day. And I think I would just say, I’m evaluating Florida, you know, and obviously it’s completely different than Louisiana to some degree in terms of the evolution of our team. But experience matters, you know, and I think we had 20,000 snaps of experience, I think year one and year two. And we’re working with a group that’s got 41,000 snaps of experience, right? So, it’s a veteran team. There’s a different level of leadership, accountability, the character dynamic. Just look forward to coming to work, and I think the new staff has created some energy and they’re making an impact. The combination of those two things has me excited. I believe in our team, I do. I walked off the field today, I think we’ve got a chance to have a good football team.”

Position groups that has stood out so far:

“I think that the secondary. Obviously you’ve got some — Gates is coming back from injury. You’ve got those young players that have experience, Devin Moore, Sharif Denson, Jordan Castell, Bryce Thornton, all those freshmen that played are back. Then you throw Jason Marshall in the mix and then you had a couple of these portal safeties. You know, I think that group is making progress. I like the, yeah, the offensive line. You know, I think that the height-length on the edges, the moves, we took Damieon and moved him in the guard, Jake got significant experience. We’ve just got more depth than we’ve had, and therefore we have competition, and therefore practice is more competitive. We can make adjustments. You know, you’re either above line or below line each day, and hey, your reps are being adjusted. This competition, I think makes everybody better. So you know, there are positions that need to improve, but I don’t know that that’s for public. We’re always, at this point in the process, the team has to continue to improve, each individual, each position group, the units. But we’re just, we’re a more experienced team.”

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