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Billy Napier Details Early Impressions of New-Look Florida Defensive Staff

Can Florida's defensive coaching personnel and roster overhaul result in an improved product in a critical prove-it year in 2024?

Photo: Gators defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong; Credit: Zach Goodall

Entering a critical 2024 campaign for Billy Napier's reign as head coach in Gainesville, Florida underwent considerable personnel changes both on and off the field to begin this offseason. 

Seeing more than two dozen scholarship players depart from the program while bringing in 30 new faces, the Gators' roster will look drastically different next season. And arguably of more importance, the coaching staff will as well.

Particularly, the defensive side of the ball experienced a notable turnover. Three positional assistants — Sean Spencer, Jay Bateman and Corey Raymond — were replaced, with Bateman leaving on his own and Spencer and Raymond dismissed, as the unit attempts to patch up its deficiencies displayed over the past few seasons. 

Only Mike Peterson remains from Napier's inaugural defensive staff, as Austin Armstrong took over for Patrick Toney as the play-caller before the 2023 campaign.

Defensive line coach Gerald Chatman and secondary coach Will Harris step in to command the first and third levels of Florida's defense with years of productive output from the units they've coached on their resume. 

Chatman enabled the Tulane front to post some of the FBS' best marks during his 2023 stint in New Orleans, operating a group characterized by its disruptiveness and performances behind the line of scrimmage.

The Green Wave defense ranked No. 8 in the country in rush defense (93.5 yards per game), No. 4 in turnovers gained (25), tied for No. 22 in sacks (34) and tied for No. 25 in tackles for loss (82.0). The defensive line group totaled 52.5 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, five forced fumbles and four pass breakups.

Meanwhile, Harris comes from the Los Angeles Chargers, where he served as an assistant in 2023. He's showcased a promising coaching prowess during his young career, especially while commanding the entire Washington Huskies secondary from 2020-21, earning praise for his hands-on approach.

He's already begun to showcase that in his first days on the field at UF.

At the same time, former Auburn defensive coordinator Ron Roberts assumes a prominent mentor role for his former protégé in Armstrong while also overseeing the linebacker group. 

Napier said he believes the infusion of those pieces will correlate to greater success on defense in 2024.

"First of all, Will with the defensive backs and Gerald with the front, I think you've got two personalities that rub off on the group," Napier said on Thursday. "There's some urgency there. I do think they're both phenomenal teachers and I think they've got high expectations for their players. I think we've seen improvement there. I think we also benefit from the experience of those groups. A lot of returning players in both of those rooms."

However, despite the fervor the duo provides to their respective position groups, Roberts was the most significant addition to this staff this offseason due to his 30-plus years of experience and previous mentorship of current Gators defensive coordinator Armstrong during the staff's time at Losuiana-Lafayette. 

There, Roberts served as the defensive play-caller while Armstrong served in support on his staff, before the latter became the youngest defensive coordinator in college football with his eventual move to Southern Mississippi.

After two productive years in Hattiesburg, Armstrong left for what he viewed as an upgrade, coaching linebackers at Alabama following the 2022 season. But, when Napier and Co. began their search to replace Toney — who departed to the NFL after one year in Gainesville — the familiarity between the rising star defensive coordinator and Napier led to a quick jump to UF.

He assumed the play-calling duties at 29, although he turned 30 before the year began. His youthful exuberance created positive buzz for a potential defensive resurgence in 2023. 

Over the first four games, that side realized an uptick in play. However, it inevitably collapsed down the stretch, bringing about more questions than answers in year one of Armstrong's control.

As a result, Florida called upon Roberts this offseason to steady the ship and provide a respected veteran ear for Armstrong entering 2024. Napier believes that's what they're getting in the former Auburn and Baylor defensive coordinator.

"And then I would say Ron Roberts, big picture, it's originally his system," Napier noted. "So there's a ton of familiarity there ... We had a good February. The things that we did from a football standpoint, and he and Austin's working relationship there, the mutual respect, that's been healthy for us."

Beyond the mutual respect he and Armstrong have formed for one another over the years, Roberts is well-versed not only as a defensive play-caller but in the specific scheme UF operates.

Soon after his hire, Napier referred to him as the "godfather" of the system, hinting that he could provide a luxury from a minute details perspective to aid the weekly operation to function more smoothly in the upcoming season compared to the last.

"Ron's been a head coach for a number of years. He's been a coordinator for a number of years," Napier said. "Obviously, Austin took his system and put his spin on it. Those guys, they have communicated with each other system since they departed. They're having weekly conversations for the last few years. 

"Ultimately, they're working together to build the installations, to build the scripts. Austin's running the unit meetings, and Ron's doing a good job of creating clarity for the coaches and really helping us to improve the fundamentals."

The new pieces lining the Gators' coaching staff, veteran talent returning to the fold at all three levels and supplementary transfer and 2024 high school recruiting additions have the potential to pay dividends for Florida as it embarks on a crucial prove-it year for the staff.

Napier, who took "a good look in the mirror" regarding his process after finishing below .500 for the second-straight season, is confident that the mix of changes will enable Florida to adhere to its desired brand of complementary football in the upcoming campaign. 

"We've made changes on the staff and, certainly, we've added some really good pieces," Napier said. "Now, we also return a ton of production at all three levels, as well. So, I think it's a combination of experience, some new leadership, some new voices there, and then I think a little bit better detail, discipline, accountability. I think we've got players that are taking ownership. 

"So, I'm hopeful some of the new pieces will work, but also, we've got confidence in the leadership change and some of the philosophies here."

The Gators have already participated in two of the 15 spring practices allotted by the NCAA, as they work toward their spring game showcase on April 13, the final official workout.

Although the intrasquad scrimmage can only detail so much about the team UF will field next season, it'll be the first opportunity for Florida's defense to showcase potential fundamental improvement. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. ET.

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