(Photo courtesy Florida Sports Information)
On Wednesday, Gators’ head football coach Billy Napier, linebacker Amari Burney, defensive lineman Desmond Watson and outside linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. met with the media to preview Saturday’s game against No. 11 Tennessee.
Here are the main takeaways:
- Although 2-1 on the season, Napier’s squad has made plenty of mistakes early on during the season, mistakes that he calls “disaster plays.” “I think when we play right now, we give the other team a lot of things,” he explained. “It’s all three phases of the game. I think that’s just a product of new systems, new way of doing things. We need more repetition, we need more intentional practice, we need to be deliberate about everything we do.”
- Even with the mistakes, Napier has shown a calm demeanor throughout all three games. “I’m a firm believer that if you don’t have them ready by the time you get to the park on game day, then you probably haven’t done what you’re supposed to do the rest of the year or that week,” Napier explained. He added that there are some things that are unacceptable, such as Trevor Etienne spiking the ball, but that the team has not made major mistakes that would cause him to freak out.
- A big key to Tennessee’s offense is a fast-paced up-tempo offense, an offense that snaps the ball every 20.5 seconds, according to Napier. “I think they’re one of the best at it when it comes to pushing the pedal and playing at a pace,” he said. Napier explained that this comes from them being in year two under Josh Heupel and Hendon Hooker’s unique ability.
- As much as Florida is trying to simulate Tennessee’s pace in practice, they are also trying to simulate Neyland Stadium’s atmosphere, Napier said. He explained that they will create crowd noise in practice to challenge communication for the offense. However, he did explain that playing in The Swamp does help prepare for other tough atmospheres, especially for the Gator defense.
- Florida released it’s Week 4 depth chart during Napier’s press conference, where a number of personnel changes were noted. For starters, linebacker Ventrell Miller was moved to questionable for Saturday after missing the USF game. Napier said he will be a game-time decision based on Miller’s pain management and comfort level. Meanwhile, Jaydon Hill was listed as “probable,” and Napier said his situation will be based on Thursday’s practice.
- The Gators will have two new starters on Saturday with Desmond Watson replacing Jalen Lee on the defensive line and Shemar James replacing Scooby Williams at linebacker. “I think the guy will only continue to improve if he can stay this course,” Napier said about Watson. “It’s a wholesale change in terms of habits, discipline, we’re talking about nutrition, sleep, overall approach. I couldn’t be more proud of the guy.” Both players will be making their first-career starts on Saturday.
- After giving up nearly 300 yards of rushing offense to USF, Burney explained that it was tough coming in the following day to watch film. Mainly, it was tough because the defense knows how good they can be, and they made plenty of sloppy mistakes. “I mean, the good part is we know the mistakes that we made, and we know how to fix them,” he said.
- With Ventrell Miller out last week and a game-time decision this week, redshirt freshman Scooby Williams started last week and true freshman Shemar James will start this week in his place. Burney said he’s offered them advice as a veteran. “Just go out there and just play,” he said. “We’ve been playing since we were 6 years old. It’s the same football game that you’ve been playing your whole life.” He added that Williams, who’s normally quiet, grew on the field with communication and that James plays older than he actually is.
- With Tennessee’s offensive tempo, Burney knows how important it is to stop them. “What we’re seeing on tape is that Tennessee is running plays before the chains can even get lined up,” he said. Burney added that it can be taxing a bit, but if the two teams keep the same level of intensity, it won’t be a challenge. He compared Tennessee’s tempo to Ole Miss’ in 2020 and explained that although Tennessee played with a bit of tempo last season, the Gators 38-14 win in The Swamp has no relevance.
- Heading into their third game against a ranked opponent in four weeks, Burney takes pride in the challenge as a veteran. “We’ve got College GameDay too, so I know I’m excited for it and I’m trying to get the young guys, you know, talking about the experience of College GameDay,” he said. “But I mean, it’s a great opportunity for us that we keep playing these high-ranked opponents in the beginning of the season instead of the end of the season.” He added that the veterans are communicating with the young players on staying focused and not making the game bigger than what it is. “You go out there, they strap up their helmet, we strap up our helmet. We’re gonna hit them, they’re gonna hit us,” he explained.
- After being a role player the last two seasons, the true sophomore will be making his first-career start on Saturday, something he’s obviously excited about saying that he’s excited to start in a hostile environment. “I feel like that’s going to be a test for me, but I feel like I’m ready for it,” he said. Watson explained that defensive line coach Sean Spencer told him he was getting the start on Tuesday.
- Watson’s journey to and now through playing at Florida hasn’t been conventional, to say the least. The main concern between the previous staff and the new staff has been managing his weight. Watson weight as much as 432 pounds when he enrolled and is now down to about 415, according to Florida’s online roster. “It’s been crazy, a little roller coaster,” Watson said. “I got down last year, I went back up, and I’m down again so I mean it’s been a long journey but it’s fine I’m keeping it going down.” He said it’s worth it, though, as the reward for his hard work is playing time.
- Although massive in size, Watson has displayed impressive agility over the last three weeks, which comes from practicing with his older brother growing up. His brother, who was only about 5 feet 9 inches tall, would do agility drills, and Watson would try to follow him. He also explained that another strength to his game is his physical strength. “The weight room is like the second home for me. I like squatting. I’m agile and limber. I can get low on power things. I’m strong on bench.” Watson said his max on squat is 720 pounds, while his max on bench is 520 pounds.
- Watson went viral on social media for a tackle against USF running back Brian Battie, where he lifted the runner off the ground and slammed him. “I didn’t even know it looked the way that it did,” Watson said. He added that it felt like a routine tackle, but the crowd noise, his teammates’ reactions and the replay on the screen showed him what really happened. Watson added that he’s seen it “at least once or twice” every time he opens his phone.
- Watson also raised questions with a tweet of a picture of his viral tackle with the caption “Wasted scholarship.” Originally, people thought he was trash-talking Battie, but Watson said that wasn’t the case. “Mostly it was when I first got here people were saying they had wasted a scholarship on me because of my weight and stuff like that,” he explained, “but I always knew my ability so I felt like once I made some plays I’d post it out about a wasted scholarship.”
- With an up-tempo offense that Tennessee runs, Watson said the defensive line and outside linebackers have made sure they are as prepared as possible, especially with depth as a concern. “After practice me and a couple of outside linebackers and some of the defensive linemen do some extra drills or during periods when we’re not doing much, get some extra sprints in,” he said.
Brenton Cox Jr.
- Despite leading the team in sacks last season, Cox Jr. has yet to record a sack this season. ““I’m nowhere where I want to be,” he explained. “I’m just out here trying to hustle, do whatever it takes for the team to win. So far, I got a lot of tackles. No sacks, but I’m still working.” He expressed how frustrating it is for the defensive line, but added that they’ve played three good quarterbacks back-to-back-to-back. “So we just take the good and the bad and keep hustling,” Cox Jr. said. “One day we’ll get to him.”
- With Tennessee’s pace offensively, Florida won’t have much time to make substitutions for a defensive line already hurt by depth. “That’s the thing; it’s not really a rotation when you’re going that fast,” Cox Jr. said. He compared it to 5-on-5 basketball, where the only rotation you get is through a dead-ball situation, but explained the team is well-conditioned. Cox Jr. also compared this Volunteer offense to Ole Miss’ 2020 offense.
- A former Georgia player himself who is from Georgia, Cox Jr. understands the significance of playing Tennessee. He explained that he has family in Tennessee, so there’s a personal connection. Additionally, with the Gators already 0-1 in SEC play, Cox said it’s crucial to get the win. “All East games are worth double around here,” he said. “Yeah, we fell short one game so this game is like, honestly it’s like a championship game for us so we got to take it serious.”
- Although he won’t be directly next to him on the line, Cox Jr. praised Watson for the work he’s put in and earning the start. “Very inspiring,” he said of Watson’s progress. “I saw him when he first walked in the door. I’m like, ‘Yeah. That guy’s going to be a problem when he gets a chance to get on the field and show it.’” He said that he’s really impressed with Watson’s first two steps and his bursts off the line.