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UF’s Billy Napier praises impact from Gators’ new coaches

GAINESVILLE — The Florida football team entered March with renewed hope, new faces and a new attitude.

The Gators expect sweeping changes to help produce different results following consecutive losing seasons.

After UF wrapped up its second week of his third spring, embattled coach Billy Napier said he sees immediate and impactful results from the changes to his coaching staff.

“One of the things that has become very evident is the new staff members are making an impact,” he said Saturday. “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.”

Florida football coach Billy Napier gets pumped up before the start of the Gators' 2022 spring game April 14, 2022 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Florida  coach Billy Napier is counting on his new assistants to bolster the Gators.  (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Three new assistant coaches, led by a familiar face for Napier, and an additional special-teams analyst have elevated the intensity, improved the operation and added some tactical twists.

No newcomer has invigorated and tested his players like defensive line coach Gerald Chatman. The 36-year-old who arrived from Tulane is a live wire with a booming voice and a relentless message not for the faint of heart.

“He told me he was going to coach me hard — that’s something I appreciate,” sophomore defensive lineman Kelby Collins said. “Obviously you guys have heard him … loud. He just holds us to a higher standard than maybe we hold ourselves sometimes. He’s not going to let you slack or be lazy or play with bad technique.

“He’s a perfectionist.”

Collins, the top-rated player in UF’s 2023 class, said he’s learned techniques Chatman picked up during a wide-ranging career. That includes two seasons as a defensive assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2019-20 working with some top veterans, including Geno Atkins, Sam Hubbard, Carl Lawson and Carlos Dunlap, a former Gators standout.

New defensive line coach Gerald Chatman during the Gators' practice on Thursday, March 7, 2024 at the Sanders football practice fields in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn
New defensive line coach Gerald Chatman during the Gators’ practice earlier this month at the Sanders football practice fields in Gainesville.  (UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn)

New secondary coach Will Harris also arrived with enthusiasm and NFL experience, having served last season as an assistant secondary coach for the Los Angeles Chargers following several stops at the college level. Harris’ four-year stint at Washington (2018-21) culminated with the 2021 Huskies leading the nation in fewest passing yards allowed (142.9 ypg), touchdowns allowed (6) and yards yielded per attempt (5.4).

“He came in with a lot of energy, ready to coach us,” fourth-year cornerback Jason Marshall Jr.

Harris, 36, played at USC (2005-09) under Pete Carroll, one of the best defensive minds of his generation.

Napier hired veteran Ron Roberts in late December for his wealth of experience and reputation built over three decades coaching the college game, including 2018-19 at Louisiana during Napier’s first two seasons in Lafayette. There he developed a bond with current Gators 30-year-old defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, a Ragin’ Cajuns’ graduate assistant in 2018, and laid much of the foundation for the defensive scheme at UF.

“He created the system,” Napier said. “He knows the entire history, the evolution. He can talk about the very beginning.”

New UF co-defensive coordinator Ron Robert during the Gators' practice on Thursday, March 7, 2024 at the Sanders football practice fields in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn
New UF co-defensive coordinator Ron Roberts is the architect of the Gators’ current scheme implemented at Louisiana when Billy Napier was in charge. (UAA Communications / Maddie Washburn)

As the team’s co-defensive coordinator also coaching inside linebackers, the 56-year-old Roberts aims to revive to the Gators’ defense, which ranked near the bottom of the SEC the past two seasons, and oversee a young staff.

“He’s mentored a lot of good coaches,” Napier said. “There’s good camaraderie there. Those guys are able to put their ego on the shelf, and it’s showing up.”

New special-teams analyst Joe Houston, the final key staff addition this past offseason, faces a similar challenge. Costly special-teams miscues played a key role during losses at Utah and at home against Arkansas.

After four seasons with the New England Patriots, Houston will serve alongside analyst Chris Couch, who oversaw special teams in the role of GameChanger coordinator. Houston was a teammate with Harris for two seasons at USC, where Houston kicked from 2007 to 2010 after an All-American season at El Camino College in 2006.

New UF secondary coach Will Harris during the Gators' practice on Thursday, March 7, 2024 at the Sanders football practice fields in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn
New UF secondary coach Will Harris brings more NFL experience to the Gators’ staff.  (UAA Communications photo by Maddie Washburn)

Houston also will delve into analytics to help the Gators better manage game situations like the chaotic ending to the loss against Arkansas. During the 39-36 decision on Nov. 4, the field goal unit raced onto the field while the offense prepared to spike the ball in the waning seconds of regulation. The ensuing 5-yard penalty culminated in a missed 44-yard kick by Trey Smack that would have won the game.

“He’s brought a lot to the table,” Napier said of Houston.

Top LB signee Graham has surgery

True freshman linebacker Myles Graham will miss the rest of spring practices following back surgery to repair herniated discs sustained in high school. He participated in two practices before doctors decided it was best that he address the issue so he could return by fall camp, Napier said.

The son of former Gators running back Earnest Graham totaled 275 tackles the past three seasons, including 82 at Gainesville’s Buchholz High as a senior after he moved to Florida from Atlanta. He also rushed for 600 yards, averaging 9.7 per carry in 2023.

Meanwhile, offensive lineman Kam Waites suffered a strained calf muscle that will sideline him for some time. Spring practices conclude with the April 13 spring game.

The 6-foot-8, 350-pound redshirt junior lost 25 pounds during the offseason and had impressed at left tackle.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@nospmohtge

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