Watch & Read: Blue out

Press Conference

by Inside the Gators Staff
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Billy Napier and Graham Mertz met with the press on Monday morning to discuss the win over McNeese State and the upcoming game against No. 11 Tennessee.


BILLY NAPIER: How we doing today, guys? We good?

Okay, before we get going here, I do think I had a unique experience this morning. Got invited to go over to the stadium. Today being 9/11, we’re 22 years removed, but we’ve got a group much first responders and military personnel that run the stadiums each year. Got invited to come over and observe that, speak to that group.

I think just a good, healthy reminder here relative to perspective, some of the simple things that we take for granted. I do think one of the things I’ve learned over time is we should have the utmost respect for people that select a career path where they put their life at risk, right? I think got a tremendous amount of respect for that.

I think young people in particular, there’s a little bit of a history lesson. I know I got young kids, and certainly as they grow, when it’s time for that, I think there’s an element to that that they need to understand.

I do think there was a generation of people there that were significantly impacted, and it changed our country. A little bit of a history lesson there for our players and staff today.

I do think great event, would encourage others in the future to get involved in that. I thought it was pretty special this morning early.

I was proud of our staff and I was proud of the leadership amongst our players for how we responded. Certainly independent of the opponent, we did what we should do, what we all expected probably to happen. But I think the way we did it was important. We had the right mindset. I thought the attitude and effort was good.

For the most part played pretty clean. There were a number of things we addressed with the team yesterday. We needed it. It’s been a while since we won a football game. So I was really proud of that response.

I do think it’s a big week. It’s Tennessee week. I think we’ve done a ton relative to educating our players about the rivalry. We do have some veteran players that understand that, that have played in the game.

It’s time for SEC play. Certainly this is an Eastern Division opponent, as well. So there’s magnitude of that. I think it’s a big weekend for Gator Nation. We play at home. We play a really good opponent.

I think when you start thinking about their team, offense, defense, special teams, they have an identity. They’ve got a veteran team. There is a significant number of seniors. I think when you look at that two deep, there’s a ton of experience there. I think they have good personnel and they present variables on defense, the tempo on offense. They’ve done a good job on special teams.

The combination of all three parts of their team presents challenges. It’s going to be a really important week. I think when you play in these types of games, it’s about the preparation during the week, really sticking to your system preparing as an individual player, staff member. Certainly we’re right in the middle of that here today.

Good day yesterday with the team. Really looking forward to the week. Going to work hard to represent the Gators the right way.

What questions do we have here?

Q. Aside from SEC opponent, division opponent, do you handle rivalry games different at all with the program during the week?

BILLY NAPIER: So I think what we’ve tried to do is we try to spend some time in training camp, part of onboarding new group of people, new staff members. I think there’s an element to that where you have new people in the building each year, right? We did some work there relative to going back and really educating everyone on the history and the magnitude of the game. Do you understand that this was the game at one point in time in college football relative to the SEC, the Eastern Division and certainly the national championship picture, right?

It happens early. I do think that’s helped in particular this year. Met with the leadership group at 11:00. Certainly I think some of the things that we emphasize during training camp. Look, we have several of these games, right? They all matter. I think this one is unique because if you go back and look at the history of this game, the importance, so…

Yeah, I think there’s an element to it that’s a little bit different, for sure.

Q. What are your thoughts about maybe this is going to be the last year of divisional play?

BILLY NAPIER: Well, this is one that we know will be present next year. Then I think it’s to be determined after that. We know we’ll play this game next year.

Then there’s a lot of decisions to be made, right? I think we all probably anticipate changes. But ultimately it’s an incredible opportunity, man. I think for me in particular, I can tell you, get a chance to play Florida-Tennessee, it’s a big deal, right?

We’re excited about the challenge and we look forward to the opportunity.

Q. Relative to the flow of the season and goals, how kind of pivotal is this game?

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, it’s a big game. I think any time you play a rival, it’s a big game. Eastern Division opponent, SEC game, home opener when it comes to the SEC. There’s magnitude here as a program.

I would tell you they all matter, right? I don’t necessarily think there’s one that doesn’t matter on our schedule, so…

I think the big key here is that we focus on what’s going to help us play better. I think that’s the whole key to the drill. Played these games in the past. Ultimately today is Monday, let’s go do Monday as best we can, put our team in position to win the game.

Q. Second in the nation in fewest snaps your defense has been on the field this year. Nine more minutes a game possession time. Talk about the correlation between keeping your offense on the field and keeping your defense off.

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, I think there’s a commitment there to play complementary football. Ultimately we’ve got off the field on defense. We’ve been much improved on third down.

Look, I think as the season unfolds and we get into the thick of the schedule, some of these statistical things will settle in. But, I mean, there’s no doubt we’ve been better in that area.

Time of possession has been a factor. Ultimately we probably need to create a few more explosives, truth be known. There’s so many things that contribute to those stats early in the year. I think it can be a little bit of a misnomer.

There’s no doubt I’m confident that we’re much improved on defense. We talked about it in the pre-season. I think we’re going to continue to get better, too, because there’s a lot of young players out there playing.

Q. How important is it to keep your offense on the field against a team like Tennessee that likes to run 75 plays a game?

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, the play count number can roll up. I think it’s right in the high 70s relative to both sides of the ball. They’re going to play in the high 70s. We’re going to play in the high 70s.

The play count is going to improve. Depth can be a key component, especially late. I think the game’s about first down, then you got to get off the field on third down. Ball gets into the red area, you got to force ’em to kick field goals. Last year’s game was indicative of that if you dig into it.

Q. What is difference against Tennessee’s offense compared to last year? Different quarterback, offensive coordinator.

BILLY NAPIER: Two new starters on the left side of the offensive line. The tight end is gone. A couple of the receivers that were significant are gone.

But they’ve got skill. I mean, they’ve got some really unique players, some speed in the slot. They’ve got some matchup issues.

The center has been out. I think they’ll get him back. I think he makes it go, his ability to communicate, really dictate the tempo and pace of the game.

The quarterback is a freak of nature. I mean, he’s very, very talented. Not only can throw it but can run it. I do think his ability to rush the ball may be even more effective and more willing it than the last guy.

They’re plug-and-play. They’ve got really good talent there.

Q. You score on the first seven possessions in the game on Saturday. How significant are those developments? How well does that bode for the future?

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, just the ability to execute consistently, independent of the opponent, right? The film is clean. I think for the most part we’re doing exactly what we prepared to do. We did a good job adjusting as they played us a little bit different.

You got to be able to execute. There’s a discipline to execute, right? Make the play. I talked to the team last week. When we watched the film, you get put in position to make the play, make the play. Ultimately I think we did that more often, with more consistency. It’s going to be really, really important as we get into these tougher competitions. The margin of error shrinks. Got to be on your A game.

Q. Any thoughts on the so-called demise of the SEC through two weeks?

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, I mean, I think ultimately it’s hard for me to evaluate anybody else right now. But I do think, look, as we settle in here, the end of the year typically, I think you’ll be able to evaluate that more. To me now it’s more about the Gators than it is about anybody else.

Q. You seem to have an appreciation for this rivalry. Where did you first notice this? Did a game stick out that said this is special?

BILLY NAPIER: Obviously my dad’s family is from Tennessee, right? I’ve got a couple uncles and cousins that have never missed a Tennessee game, right? They’ve flown all over the country to watch them play. Well-versed in this one (smiling).

When your dad’s a high school coach, the parts of the country that my family’s from, the era that I grew up in, Florida-Tennessee was a big deal at that point in time.

Pretty well-versed in this one.

Q. (No microphone.)

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, no, there’s an element to that. Former players. They’re part of that, some of that history we study during training camp.

Q. Josh Heupel, the challenges he brings?

BILLY NAPIER: I think obviously the uniqueness of the offense, the tempo. They’re snapping the ball. They run about three plays a minute, right? I think they’re first or second in the country in pace. There’s an element to that that’s unique.

We can speed the tempo up, but we don’t do it every play. But I do think, yeah, the uniqueness in a typical week, right? They’ve had success moving the ball and scoring points. I think there’s an element to that. Not only the personnel, but also just systematically.

How you going to play ’em? What is your fast ball going to be? What are your curve balls, slider? How can you dictate the pace of the game a little bit? I think there’s some things to that.

I’ve got a lot of respect for what they do.

Q. The Gators rotating a lot right now on defense. What is the challenge there in terms of being organized, getting guys in place?

BILLY NAPIER: Well, the game presents opportunities to sub. Obviously they’re going to do everything they can do to eliminate some of those opportunities.

I think one of the things we’ve done here, although it is young, I do think we have developed some depth there at most every spot on defense. I think that will be a critical piece of the puzzle. It will be hot and humid in there. Our ability to sustain, keep the game where the depth can affect the game.

Q. What are your thoughts on the offensive line rotation, saw a lot of Lyndell Hudson.

BILLY NAPIER: Third tackle, very capable player. I think he’s impressed me. He did just show up in June, so there’s an element to that. I think he’s continuing to learn and grow and develop more knowledge of the system.

I think every week he gets a little bit better. But, yeah, gives us a swing tackle there, which we didn’t have in the opener. Had some issues there.

We get Kingsley back this week, which I think will be a positive. Look, Jake was player of the game. He played significantly better week one to week two. I think there’s some elements of that that’s helped us developing some depth.

Q. The direct snap with Eugene, what is the potential for that package? How dynamic can he be in that role?

BILLY NAPIER: Every year you’re trying to take the skill players that you have and come up with unique ways. Who is your quarterback? Who are your skill players? What can they do? There’s no doubt that guy is good with the ball in his hands. There’s an element to every week we need to find ways for him to touch it.

We’ve got a group of skill. We’re going to build our system around the skill.

Q. How daunting is that to recreate in practice from your scout team, guys who don’t have a lot of experience at that speed?

BILLY NAPIER: Yeah, I think it’s a really good question. That’s part of teaching and coaching, is how do we recreate the game for the players. There’s a skill to that. We don’t just show up this week and think about that. We’ve been working on how we’re going to do that.

I would tell you coaches, we all bounce back and forth ideas in terms of how we do that. How we practice, some of those strategic ways to recreate the game when you play these different teams.

I mean, the game continues to evolve, right? You see people go to the other end of the spectrum, get in the huddle every play. That’s one thing that’s unique about the SEC is the diversity in scheme, not only on offense. You get extremes on both ends, but you also defensively the number of variables you get in terms of front pressure coverage.

You got to have systems on offense and defense that are rules-based that have the ability to adapt. You got to play different ways each week to find ways to win.

I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re built the way we are, is so that we can handle those variables.

Q. Having a third tackle, what is the benefit of being able to use that swing position, maybe in the interior, Najee?

BILLY NAPIER: Najee played some center in the game, too. Look, you’re trying to develop depth. We know history would tell you that you’re going to get banged up a little bit at some point.

We commit to playing a fourth inside player and a third tackle most weeks, if they’re all healthy. You got to build contingency plans, not only in how you play the players but how you practice the players, anticipating a guy getting banged up as we go.

Ultimately you’re trying to create value for the player for the next level, if a guy can play center, whether he’s the third tackle or one of the inside players.

Playing both sides, there’s some value in that, as well. It’s a good question and certainly that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Q. You gave a lot of credit to the fans last week. What kind of atmosphere are you expecting for a night game against Tennessee? Seems like marketing is asking fans to wear blue.

BILLY NAPIER: Rick volleyed that one up for you there (smiling).

Look, I think what’s understood sometimes doesn’t need to be said, if that makes sense. This is Florida-Tennessee. I think our fan base pretty well-versed in this one.

But we are encouraging our fans to wear blue. Look, our fans have an opportunity to contribute to the game. They are truly part of the team. They can impact the game. There’s an energy that they provide for our players, but there’s also an element where they can make it very difficult for the opponents.

It’s one of the most iconic and more challenging venues in all of college football. I anticipate that Saturday night, it will be at its best. I know our people take great pride in their role and what they bring to the table.


Q. How much have you done into this rivalry a little bit? Do you have an appreciation for what it means?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Completely. I mean, I have been blessed to play in a lot of different rivalry games in the Big Ten. I mean, for me, when you get somewhere new, I never really experienced this, because at Wisconsin it was the first thing I had, from day one it was Minnesota-Iowa, you understood the rivalry.

One thing I truly appreciate is the second we got here, it was something we talked about, rivalry games, what it means, the history behind it. I’m sure he’s talked about during camp we did a little lesson on each rivalry game.

My notebook was filled just with the history of it. I mean, I think any time you get into a week like this, it’s bigger than just this team. It’s the Florida Gators, and that’s everybody, fans, coaches, families, people that have played here.

I mean, it definitely gets you excited.

Q. Any recollections, have you YouTube’d any of them?

GRAHAM MERTZ: I wish you guys could see the video they put up there. It went back years. In a short little 30, 45-minute window, you got a quick rundown of every game that has been played.

What you see when you watch those games is the passion and the love for this place. I think that’s one thing that the current players, we saw that. You definitely want to embody that. Not only rivalry games, but every game.

I think any time you get a chance to watch a game like that, games played in the past, it’s very exciting.

Q. What are you filling up your notebook with?

GRAHAM MERTZ: For me, it’s understanding the emotion behind it. Really, like, the passion. I’ve been a part of rivalries, like I said. Just understanding the newness of it. For me it’s gaining that appreciation for what’s come before me, really being able to honor that.

I mean, this morning flipping back and just looking through it again, realizing it’s bigger than me. That was definitely exciting.

Q. What has it been like hearing from some guys that played for the program, motivate yourself about this game?

GRAHAM MERTZ: I definitely completely appreciate any time they get up in front of us and speak. They bring the energy. Like I said, passion, energy. They embody that every day.

You can tell when it’s a rivalry week, they get a little more amped up. They got up in front of us during camp. You could tell how much it meant to them.

As a current player, it’s got to mean that and more to you, to really honor those guys that came before you.

Q. You’ve obviously had success with some sustained drives. To get the deep shot in the second half, what does that do for the confidence of you and the offense, showing have you that capability?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I mean, for us, we do that every day in practice. For us, it was just when the opportunity presents itself, coach harped on it all week, it was just make the play. If it’s the right look, what we practice all the time, it’s our job to make the play.

For us, we work on that stuff. Early in the game, they kind of threw a little three deep safety, three double cloud look at us, changed a little bit of our shot plan up. When the opportunity presented itself, made the play, so…

Definitely exciting.

Q. Coach wants to see more explosive plays. To that point, how much does it come down to taking advantage of those opportunities maybe than altering anything this offense is doing right now?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think we definitely have the skill players to push the ball down the field. I know we’re going to. It’s not really a concern of mine.

For me, this past game, I wasn’t going to force anything. When you zone it off, you got bracket coverage out there. For me it was making the right decision moving the ball.

We’re fully capable of pushing the ball down the field.

Q. Do you feel like your timing after two games is improving?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Oh, yeah. I think the game, any time you get a chance to play this game, it presents opportunity to grow, whether it’s a look you saw. We had a couple in the first game where we might have been a little bit off on our communication. Gives you chance to clean it up. I feel like the season, it’s a little bit quicker in your reaction time to correct things.

The game presents that. So definitely week to week you want to see that growth, and I’ve seen it.

Q. How important was that to get out there and have that sense of confidence that you can go and execute, you don’t have to force things, run according to plan?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I mean, I think we all know any time a team plays this game, you don’t execute, you’re not going to win. I mean, that was my point of emphasis all week, that it’s all the little details we need to be urgent, we need to execute them.

I was super, super proud of how the guys responded. I know this week will be a good chance to build on that. Obviously I’m excited to start practice up and get this thing rolling. We started yesterday.

Q. First SEC game, in Wisconsin did you play any SEC opponents?

GRAHAM MERTZ: I think I played every other conference, if I’m correct on that. I think I played everybody else.

I mean, I’m definitely excited. First SEC game in the Swamp. I know the place will be rocking. Wearing all blue, like coach said. Definitely be fun.

Q. How important is, a team like Tennessee, which wants to run 80-something plays a game, how important is it for Florida to control the tempo of this game?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Obviously I haven’t really studied a lot of their offense, but I know they run tempo and want to run a lot of plays.

For us, I mean, I’ve played an offense that has a lot of time possession and controls the rock, comes out of a huddle, gets up on the line. For me it’s a little bit different. But we know we can do that.

Yeah, I mean, any time that you go into a game, the time of possession, the control of the clock is defensively a big impact. It will be a point of emphasis.

Q. You scored on your first seven drives. How significant was that for the unit? Have you had many games where you guys were that efficient to start out? What does that bode for the future?

GRAHAM MERTZ: I think it’s great. Like I said, I think we got to build on it. I think the tape was good in the sense where you saw guys executing their job. That’s a good opportunity to build on your confidence, so…

I think when you get out there and you’re executing, moving the ball, that definitely sets us up in a great spot for this week to build on it.

Q. First game in the Swamp?

GRAHAM MERTZ: It was awesome. I’ve been blessed to play in a stadium like Camp Randall. Now I’m even more blessed to add a second one, and that’s the Swamp. I think add a little moment of reflection in there, growing up, that’s what I grew up watching, games like that, seeing that. I’ve been blessed in my career to experience a lot of different environments. The Swamp is special. It was awesome, man.

Q. This one is going to be a little more exciting.

GRAHAM MERTZ: That’s what I’ve been hearing (smiling).

Q. Is it going to mean to get Kingsley back? The depth is coming along, too.

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, shoot, I’ve seen King for the past two weeks want to be out there. He’s got an edge to him. He’s excited. It will definitely be great to get him back.

I’m so proud of Slaughter getting in there. He’s had that thing rolling. I’m definitely proud of that group. We’re getting King back, definitely excited for him, too.

Q. You were talking about players improving after a loss. How much is that reflected by what you saw in Slaughter?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I mean, Slaughter had a great week. I think he had an edge to him. He knew what he wanted to put on tape, and he put it on tape. Coach talked about it, kind of make-the-play mindset. I think he did that all night.

Going back and watching the tape a couple of times, you saw him finishing blocks, making the right calls, great communication. It was definitely a good game for Slaughter.

Q. One of the things you said about Eugene, besides the athleticism that’s obvious, is how quickly he picks up on stuff. Can you dig in on that a little bit?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I think the big thing he’s done, like, any time you’re in practice, someone’s going to make a mistake, you’re going to make a mistake, I’ve made mistakes. It’s the time after that, what happens. Do you dwell on it, or learn from it, move forward and apply the information you were taught.

You come in, you’re going to have those slip-ups when you’re a young guy. It’s what you do after that that sets you up for the future.

I think one thing he did, yeah, early he might have had a few things he messed up on early in camp, but it was how quick he realized that, learned from it, moved forward. I always call it to the toolbox, took that tool, put it in a toolbox. Now he’s carrying a big toolbox around everywhere.

That was impressive at that young of an age. You come in, you want to do everything right. When something doesn’t go right, it can kind of affect you. Shoot… It dwells. For him, it was all business. I might have messed this up, but I learned from it.

Yeah, now he’s out there making plays.

Q. What is the combination like with that football IQ and what else he brings?

GRAHAM MERTZ: It’s great. As a quarterback, I think I can speak for that whole room, they’re all wired like that. I think that’s where he got it from. He saw guys do that right when he got in.

That just gets me excited because I know we’re on the same page. I know that I can come to them with anything, they can come to me with anything. We’re only going to get better.

It’s definitely exciting. It’s really fun to go out there and play this wonderful game with them.

Q. Direct snap package with Eugene, what’s the potential for that? Will you be lobbying for him to toss it back to you?

GRAHAM MERTZ: He’s the fast one, man. I’d rather have him have the ball in his hands.

No, that was definitely fun. We repped that during the week. It was fun to see it executed on game day.

Q. Have you got it up in the slot?

GRAHAM MERTZ: We’ve done it a few times. A couple years ago we did a little wildcat package. Any time I’m out there, I just make jokes, Throw me a fade, throw me a post. Never happens. I don’t know why. Great, undefeated.

Q. 74% completion percentage. How realistic, what is the number you’d like to keep that at?

GRAHAM MERTZ: I mean, I think the biggest thing for me is I don’t really think in numerical percentages. For me, I play my best and we play our best when we’re executing, moving the ball. That sounds so cliché, but that’s how I think of it.

I don’t go into a game saying I’m going to throw 80%. That will all come when we handle business. For me it’s all about the process, all about execution. If I’m doing my job, that will come, so…

Sounds really cliché, but that’s exactly how I think about it, man.

Q. How much of a confidence builder is it to have a game like you just had where regardless of the opponent, every throw you make, you don’t miss throws?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Yeah, I mean, I think it just comes down to playing quarterback. I mean, understanding the look you’re getting, understanding the weakness of the look on defense. My job is to attack that weakness, find it and attack it every single play.

The perfect call called. Where is my outlet? Where is my check down? Staying ahead of the sticks, not taking negative plays. Really that comes during the week of prep. You try to work through each progression. That’s the time in the meeting room watching film, walk-throughs, to where you’re set up. When you have the opportunity to make the play, you’re going to make it because you’ve seen it multiple times.

Yeah, I think it’s a balance between going aggressive but also being decisive in what you’re doing and making the smart play.

But, yeah, we’re going to take shots. Everybody in football loves the deep ball that’s a touchdown. In my mind, that will come when you make the defense cover everything else. If they play deep…

Q. Who was your Tennessee coming up?


Q. Yes.

GRAHAM MERTZ: For me growing up, I was just a fan of college football, man. I don’t know why, I just had a flashback. I was a big poster board guy. I would have a poster board of all my favorite teams. It was like every single college football team on the poster board.

I think I grew up with the appreciation of college football and rivalries. I mean, everybody enjoys watching the games that are the rivalry games that have a lot of history. For me, I’ve never had one rival my whole life. I have had appreciation for these games. You grow up wanting to play in these games, so I’m excited for it.

Q. Jersey of one team?

GRAHAM MERTZ: Tebow jersey (smiling).

Q. (No microphone.)

GRAHAM MERTZ: Of course.

Q. (No microphone.)

GRAHAM MERTZ: I’m going to have to check.

Q. Joe Milton, Big Ten guy. Is there anything you remember about that game, hints of the defense?

GRAHAM MERTZ: During a game, I’m pretty locked into what’s going on on our side of the ball, how they’re playing us.

I think the big thing I just saw live was his arm, everybody talks about his arm, but it’s live. It comes out hot. I mean, I think that was a while ago. Shoot, 2020, COVID, Big House, empty, that was odd.

That’s the one thing that stood out live. I really haven’t had the chance to watch them on the offensive side up front ball yet this year. I’m sure I’ll watch a little bit during the week.

Video courtesy Gator Vision | Transcript courtesy ASAP

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