Graham Mertz’s return was ‘No. 1 thing’ for Florida, says Billy Napier ahead of critical 2024 season

Results have yet to show up on the field for third-year Florida coach Billy Napier. But exiting spring practice, the waters around him are calmer than they have been at any point since he replaced Dan Mullen following the 2021 season.

“We’re two years in, and this is the first offseason where we feel like we’re not solving a major problem or building out a system, and it’s been great,” Napier told Josh Pate of 247Sports as part of the Pate State Speaker Series. “I think we’ve been able to focus on our time on the things that really matter.”

The Gators now feel at home in their $85 million Heavener Football Training Center, their NIL program has been streamlined, and Napier has tweaked his staff following an 11-14 start to his tenure. Externally, though, major questions remain. A five-game losing streak to cap the 2023 season sent Napier’s stock spiraling, and now he now enters a critical campaign marked by one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

But Napier described the 2024 Gators as the “best group of players we’ve had.”

“We’ve completely rebuilt the player experience at the University of Florida,” he said.

How that will translate to the field come August 31 when the Gators host Miami in a seismic season opener is to be determined, but Napier shared some insights with Pate that shed light on where Florida stands.

QB Graham Mertz is catalyst

Skepticism over Florida’s acquisition of Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz last offseason was warranted. The veteran signal-caller threw 21 interceptions over the 2021 and 2022 seasons while the Badgers struggled to generate explosive passing plays. He turned out to be a great fit in Napier’s system, however, throwing for 2,903 yards with 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 2023.

Now, he is back to use his sixth and final season of eligibility and is expected to be one of the SEC’s top passers.

“It’s the No. 1 thing when you talk about Florida football … Graham Mertz coming back to play another year of football,” Napier said. “We get a player who I think has a renewed confidence. He starts this offseason as the leader of the team. Completely different place than he was in when he arrived here last year.”

Napier has come under fire for clinging to his role as Florida’s offensive play-caller, and he plans on calling the shots again in 2024. In an era when many head coaches with coordinator backgrounds have relinquished those duties to focus more on a CEO role, Napier is bullish that he is well-equipped to remain as a play-caller, especially now that other elements of the Florida program are falling into place entering his third season.

“I don’t think the place is under construction,” Napier said. “I think it’s built, and I think this is going to allow me an opportunity to focus a little bit more on the things that matter, and play-calling is a part of that.”

While the continuity between Napier as a play-caller and Mertz as the quarterback offers a solid foundation for the Florida offense, Napier isn’t blind to the questions. Top receiver Ricky Pearsall is off to the NFL, the offensive line is evolving again after an inconsistent season, and last season’s leader in rushing touchdowns, Trevor Etienne, transferred to Georgia.

“Ultimately, what I learned last year is that we’ve got to play good around Graham,” Napier said. “We’ve got to protect Graham and have really good, complementary play at all the positions on offense. When we do that, he can be very effective.” 

Tough schedule ahead

Three of Florida’s four nonconference opponents are in-state foes from power leagues, beginning with the opener against Miami. The Gators also face UCF on Oct. 5 and close the season at Florida State. Their league schedule brings no breaks; Florida will play four straight games in November against teams ranked in the top 10 of Dennis Dodd’s pre-spring top 25.

“I think the schedule thing is a hot topic,” Napier said. “But you know, I don’t know that it’s going to change at the University of Florida. Given our current dynamic, the league that we play in, the nonconference schedule that we play, it’s always going to be challenging.”

Ultimately, seven of the 12 teams on the Gators’ schedule are in Dodd’s pre-spring rankings, and among the other five are competent foes like Texas A&M, Mississippi State, UCF and Kentucky. The only should-be gimme is a Week 2 date with FCS foe Samford. It’s a daunting challenge for a program coming off three consecutive losing seasons.

But as that challenge gets closer for the Gators, it approaches with Napier feeling more stability than at any point so far in what’s been a rocky tenure.

“If your roster is stable, then that creates less chaos in the next six weeks,” Napier said. “You’re able to allocate your time on things that really matter. I feel like we’re finally playing with a lead from the roster management standpoint, and that’s going to allow us to focus on relationships with players, how to teach better, how to do things a little bit more efficient in June when they get back. I think we’re finally in a good place when it comes to that.”


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