Victorious debut provides validation for Napier at Florida

Florida coach Billy Napier, front right, and quarterback Anthony Richardson (15) watch from the sideline during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) (Phelan M. Ebenhack, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Defensive tackle Tyreak Sapp finally got to bed around 4 a.m. following Florida’s season opener.

He woke up a few hours later still reveling in a 29-26 victory against seventh-ranked Utah that set the tone for coach Billy Napier’s tenure and provided validation for a new regime that spent nine months tweaking and tuning nearly every aspect of the program.

The extended celebration ended as soon as Sapp walked into a team meeting Sunday afternoon.

“You got to understand you can’t be complacent,” he said Monday. “You’ve got to understand that there’s room for improvement, and the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. You’ve got to take that for what it is and move on to the next week and have laser-beam focus on the next team and get ready for your next opponent.”

On tap for the Gators is their Southeastern Conference opener Saturday night against No. 20 Kentucky (1-0), which stormed the field after upsetting penalty-prone and 10th-ranked Florida 20-13 in Lexington last October.

That loss was the start of Florida’s freefall, which led to Dan Mullen getting fired in November and Napier being hired a few days later.

Napier has made sizable strides since taking over in Gainesville. If the win against Utah gave his rebuild a jump start, beating Kentucky would thrust the Gators another step closer to returning to national prominence.

Florida is expected to move into The Associated Press Top 25 college football poll, which will be released Tuesday, and Napier already is bracing his team for a week of praise.

“How is this group of players and this staff going to handle everybody patting them on the back for the next week?” Napier said. “I think it’s one of the things about the University of Florida. You’re in a state with 21 million people. You’ve got a huge alumni network. You’ve got unbelievable amount of passion.

“So when it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. Learning how to navigate that, ignore some of the subjective opinions and call it what it is.”

It’s really good right now.

Anthony Richardson looks like a budding star, a 6-foot-4, 232-pound quarterback with the size to take on linebackers, the speed to run by defensive backs and enough arm talent and improvisation skills to make opposing defensive coordinators lose sleep.

His offensive line appears stouter than it’s been in years. Receiver Ricky Pearsall, a transfer from Arizona, looks like a legit playmaker. And Florida’s defense has enough bright spots — pass rusher Brenton Cox, linebacker Ventrell Miller and cornerback Jason Marshall, for starters — to offset the unit’s run-stopping woes.

Richardson masked other deficiencies. The sophomore ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 1:25 to play. He also completed 17 of 24 passes for 168 yards and was at his most dynamic during a 2-point conversion early in the fourth. He pump-faked a blitzing linebacker while spinning in the air and then outran another defender before finding a receiver all alone in the back of the end zone.

The conversion was the play of the game until linebacker Amari Burney intercepted Cam Rising’s pass in the end zone in the waning seconds. It was the second of two goal-line stops for Florida’s defense.

It also set off a raucous celebration in the Swamp in front of 90,799 — the 10th-largest home crowd in school history and the largest for a home opener. Athletic director Scott Stricklin gave Napier two game balls in the locker room afterward, one from Florida’s first touchdown and another from the final score.

It was a memorable moment in a night filled with them, all of which could do wonders for Napier’s program and its current trajectory.

“When you’re new and you’re doing things a different way and you’re trying to establish trust and you’re trying to connect with people, I think that it’s important that they see progress,” Napier said. “They taste a little bit. …

“There’s always a little bit of doubt until they see, ‘Hey, maybe we’ve got a chance here.’ I think early on in your tenure you’re always looking for these type of opportunities. And it ain’t over.”


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