After the first few practices, you can look around and see that Florida football is on the verge of becoming a team that won’t force fans to throw bricks at their TVs.
If you’re not sure what that means, don’t worry. The important thing is that the players seem to understand the message.
Proximity means being close to someone or something. I wouldn’t have used it, but Billy Napier became the first coach in NCAA history to throw it at a press conference a few days ago.
“There’s a term called closeness,” he said. “I challenge you at the next press conference we have, you can give me the definition.”
Napier wasn’t trying to sound like a linguistic snoot. He was pointing out one of the ways he is reorganizing the program.
You’ve heard a lot about Napier’s focus on detail, discipline, structure, accountability, and more. We are now beginning to see these concepts in action.
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Fixing small things to solve big problems
“It’s the little things,” offensive guard O’Cyrus Torrence said.
“We’re all on the outside in white socks,” defensive tackle Gervon Dexter said. “You won’t see a blue sock there.”
Pre-Napier was more of a fashion hodgepodge. In a vacuum, sock compliance isn’t a big deal. Georgia would have beaten Florida last year with mismatched lead socks.
But trivialities matter. They form the footballing version of the broken windows law enforcement theory.
He argues that serious crimes are spawned by disorder. You short-circuit that by tackling petty crimes, like vandalism, vagrancy, and public intoxication. Not everyone buys the theory, but New York City tried it 30 years ago and the crime rate plummeted.
In the football version, tolerating small fouls leads to the mess that results in 15 penalties against Kentucky, including eight false starts. That leads to a back mislining up in a crucial 2-point attempt against Alabama.
It leads to the Shoe Toss Heard ‘Round the World. This leads to an average of 8.1 penalties per game and 120th out of 130 FBS teams in penalties per game.
It all leads to a 3-9 record in the last 12 games against Power 5 teams and a fanbase looking for bricks to throw.
“It was a problem we had – just discipline,” Dexter said. “I think that was the biggest thing that needed to be changed.”
There’s really only one way to instill discipline – the old-fashioned way. Napier uses the term “engineered difficulty”, which is close to “Welcome to Marine Boot Camp”.
Day 2:Three takeaways from the Florida Gators’ second fall football practice of 2022
Each team has grueling practices and likes to believe that more guys threw up in the trash cans than the other camps. Torrence and running back Montrell Johnson followed Napier to Gainesville from Louisiana. They heard their new teammates talk about pushing physical limits.
“Me and Montrell were laughing before we started,” Torrence said. “These guys thought they knew what was coming, but they really didn’t. You could see the recognition when the guys dropped to their knees.
Building a team concept
The key is not the number of players who end up on their knees. It makes them buy into the fight and see the bigger goal. They’re not just doing it to help their NFL Draft stock. They do this to help the guy kneeling next to him.
This is where proximity comes into play again. When the new training facility opens in a few weeks, Napier plans to revamp locker assignments twice a year so players will have to mingle with different faces.
He does the same at pre-season camp, having a room for unknown players with each other. He wants every player to know the name and hometown of every other player.
“There’s something to be said for developing loyalty and galvanizing the team,” Napier said.
It’s too early to tell if it works. Players say yes, but it’s planned. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer proudly recalled how Justus Boone met a teammate at the end of spring training.
“That’s not what we do,” Boone told him. “We expect more.”
“When you start to understand that, you start to get them talking like that, man, that can be special,” Spencer said.
For a special season, UF could also use a few other things. Like a proven quarterback, SEC-caliber playmakers and depth.
After the first few practices, you look around and you’re not sure what you’re seeing with these things. But you also look around and see no blue socks or broken windows.
Consider this a very good start.
— David Whitley is the sports columnist for the Gainesville Sun. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.