As Hootie once said, “There’s two times a year, man — football season and waiting for football season.”
Unfortunately, we are currently in the latter.
However, the waiting season isn’t all terrible, at least for coaches. The offseason allows coaches some opportunities at professional development. There are clinics that pop up all over the country, attracting coaches from far and wide. There are also opportunities to visit colleges and watch spring practice. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to see various members of the Florida football staff in both settings.
I had the chance to hear Billy Napier speak at coaching clinics in both Tampa and Orlando. I was also able to hear from defensive coordinator Patrick Toney in Orlando.
In Tampa, Napier was addressing the Florida Coaches Coalition, a group seeking to help improve pay across the state for Florida high school football coaches. The clinic attracted college coaches from all over the country: Tom Allen of Indian spoke in the morning and brought his whole staff, and the entire staff from FAU was there. At one point, there may well have been more college coaches there than high school coaches.
Napier was given a prime speaking spot, as the final speaker before the mid-day break. He had probably the largest crowd of all coaches that day.
Napier shared his experiences growing up as the son of a high school coach. He mentioned that he spoke to the Governor about helping out the high school coaches in the state when he was in Tallahassee for “Gator Day.” Napier told the crowd that growing up, he always envisioned himself being a high school football coach, and wanted to have his own team and call plays, just like his father. He went to get his masters degree and be a graduate assistant at Clemson because his dad told him he could “make $6,000 more a year” with that degree. But while he was a GA, he saw something that changed his perspective and made him want to pursue a career in the college ranks.
At that time, Napier’s dad, Bill, had one of his most talented teams at Murray County High School and they made it to the state quarterfinals. Billy asked his boss, Tommy Bowden, if he could go watch his dad’s best team play in the playoffs; Bowden obliged, and Billy was watching from the sideline that Friday night. Murray County was up against a team that had double-digit future Power 5 players. Napier said his dad tried everything he could to pull out the victory, including a surprise onside kick. Unfortunately, Murray County couldn’t overcome the talent gap that night and lost.
As he stood on the sideline watching this unfold, Billy was struck by the notion that it would be a lot easier to win if you could choose your players. That night, Napier learned about the importance of recruiting.
After a few more personal anecdotes, Napier started talking about his #Formula for winning games.
He spoke about this formula in both Tampa and also at the Glazier Clinic in Orlando. In Tampa he really went into detail on the #Formula, while in Orlando he delved more into game-planning and game-week preparation.
The game-planning stuff was really interesting as a former coach. In coaching, you are always looking for better ways to put your plans into practice. A lot of coaches will game plan for certain situations like the red zone, the goal line, third downs, or being backed up against your own end zone.
Napier and his staff break things down situationally as well, but they do it in a bit of a different way than most coaches I’ve seen. He and his staff have broken the field into different areas and then tally many plays actually happen in each zone during the course of the game. For instance, Napier said they don’t spend a ton of time practicing plays at the goal line, because very few plays actually happen there in a game.
This time management tactic at practice will inevitably show up on the call sheet. If I only see or anticipate three plays on the goal line in the course of an average game, then I probably don’t need to carry 10 different goal line plays into a game.
This thought process allows the coaches to maximize practice time and understanding for the players. It also creates some certainty for the players: “I don’t need to master every play in the playbook, I need to master this set of plays this week.”
In addition to the practice information, Napier also spoke about some of the off-field aspects of the program. One of my favorite slides he shared was a look at the Florida organizational chart, revealing what Napier’s much-discussed “army of people” looks like as a branching diagram.
Patrick Toney spoke at the same Glazier clinic in Orlando. I heard him speak on defensive back play and also third downs.
Toney struck me as being really sharp. Much like Napier, Toney seems like a very detail oriented coach. A great example of this meticulousness is how they teach tackling: It’s not simply “eyes up, see what you hit, explode through the ball carrier”-type stuff, but a nuanced approach, as they have different tackles for different situations on the field.
There’s a way they tackle if they are forcing the ball back inside. There’s a way they tackle if they are on the sideline. There’s a way they tackle if they are chasing the ball carrier from behind. And there are corresponding drills for each tackle.
They have given the defensive players a toolbox for tackling, and coaches then teach them the best tool to use based on the situation.
The advantage of this should be no or few gray areas for the players. And on defense that is important. You want guys to play fast on defense. Cloudy minds equal slow feet.
In terms of scheme, Toney showed some of the things they liked to do on third down. We spoke about a few of those things in the past. He also related a quote — with a handy visual aid — that laid out his philosophy on defense: “Make the same things look different, and different things look the same.”
Toney was an impressive guy to hear speak. He was very knowledgeable, and I felt everything he was presenting had thought behind it.
And that’s the impression I got from both Toney and Napier: These guys are very intentional in what they do. Things have been well thought-out, and there is a reason behind everything they do.
If you want some more info on each presentation, check out the video below. I’m able to get a little more in-depth on the presentations without making you read 10,000 words.
Practice and Gators Chalk Talk
After the various third-party clinics around the state, I was able to attend the chalk talk that the Gators hosted in Gainesville. Included in that clinic was a chance to watch practice. The team was in full pads and practicing in the indoor facility.
The field was ringed by high school coaches, a few recruits, and even a professional coach or two. Everyone that I spoke with was impressed by the pace and efficiency of practice. There are no breaks at a Napier practice. Players go from drill to drill with no time wasted. For example, while the special teams is working on punting with returners, the quarterbacks are on the other end of the field working different throws.
The practice was fast-paced and spirited. I spoke with one long-time state championship-winning high school head coach as we watched the beginning of practice. He commented that he could already tell that the practices were more intense than last season after seeing the first five minutes. I didn’t see prior practices beyond granny footage on Instagram Live, but the intensity and efficiency of the practice did stick out to me.
Both of the featured speakers for the chalk talk after practice mentioned the intensity. Former NBA coach and author Kevin Eastman said that the constant movement reminded him of the fluidity of a basketball practice.
The other featured speaker was Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. Rhule spoke with the team after practice and all the coaches there for the chalk talk joined the huddle so they could hear his message. He told the players that they just made it through a tough practice and mentioned to the coaches later that he thought it was a great practice.
Rhule also challenged the players after the practice to eliminate the mistakes that cost them so many games last year. He brought up that the Gators were 121st in penalties last season. He also said he couldn’t believe that the University of Florida football team only managed to force 13 turnovers last season, and went on to chide the offense for giving the ball away. He told the team they were talented, but that before they can win, they have to understand why they lost.
Napier stood behind him, smiling. It’s always nice as a coach to have an outsider come in and reinforce your message — especially when that outsider is an NFL head coach.
I was able to sit down with our good friend Riley Reed and discuss spring practice. Riley was able to get to four different Florida practices this spring and has also observed college practices all over the Southeast. I get his perspective on a Billy Napier led practice below.
As for the chalk talk, I got a chance to sit in on a clinic talk from QB analyst Ryan O’Hara. O’Hara is a member of a team of off field coaches that specialize in quarterback play — a crucial unit for this staff construction, because while former college quarterback Napier is the Gators’ de facto quarterbacks coach, he does not have an on-field assistant helping him.
Coach O’Hara began his talk by stating that they wanted to do two things with the quarterbacks: 1) Build the Person; and 2) Develop the Player.
Building the person involves forming a relationship with the player, giving them the tools they need to be successful and creating trust through communication and honesty. For example, you may have to tell a walk-on type guy that he will likely never play, but also share how he can help the team. Clear expectations and open communication help players understand their role and how they can best improve.
Developing the player involved four areas of focus.
- Knowledge: Master the details of playing quarterback
- Discipline: Hold yourself and teammates accountable to repeatedly do the right thing
- Confidence: Belief in yourself and the team earned through constant, correct repetition
- Command: Being in complete control of yourself and the team regardless of circumstance
O’Hara then talked about the importance of the way the program is structured. We’ve all heard about Coach Napier breaking down the year into eight phases, but how can that help the quarterbacks?
According to O’Hara, they are constantly installing the offense. They will install the offense during one of these phases, and then restart in a later phase. He believes that by the time the season has rolled around, they will have installed the offense five separate times, so quarterbacks are constantly getting refreshed on schemes and are able to apply newer knowledge to the subsequent installations.
Coach O’Hara then discussed some of their passing game schemes. I won’t go into specific detail here, but in general I believe this offense is very quarterback-friendly. I spoke a little bit about it in my look at the Orange & Blue game.
O’Hara also spoke about how their warmups and some of their drills are structured. As somebody who was previously a one-on-one, personal quarterback coach, O’Hara has a great grasp of effective drills for individual skill development. He spoke about a few of those. While he isn’t able to instruct on the field, he still has a hand putting things together behind the scenes.
I came away feeling like the experiment of not having a dedicated, on-field quarterback coach could work for this staff.
Napier is taking a different approach with the way his staff is constructed, and that puts a greater emphasis on “off the field” staffers. Despite the clamoring about Napier wearing three hats as the head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach, I believe this staff has put a premium on quarterback development. They have at least three coaches dedicated to the position group, and even though most of them are “off the field”, they still have a large hand in development.
A lot of work can be done with a quarterback off the field. Having multiple coaches that players can go to almost ensures that any QB who seeks out chances to learn will have somebody to sit with in the film room or go over things on the white board. I think they have the right plan to develop these players — but plans have to be executed, of course.
I’ve spoken with coaches from across the state of Florida about Napier and his staff while at these clinics, and they all seem to be very impressed with Napier. They thought he commanded the room when he spoke and really liked his analytical approach to the game. Toney got rave reviews as well: Everybody thought he was really sharp and communicated his concepts very clearly.
Likewise, I heard raves about Florida’s practice. Efficiency and intensity were the buzzwords in those conversations.
Additionally, all the high school coaches felt like they were being treated really well at the Chalk Talk. Living legend Ashour Peera made sure to go table to table and check on each group. Coaches remember these types of things.
It’s important for the Florida staff to establish these relationships across the state, and they seem to be off to a great start.
But as Coach Napier recently said, it’s all a little easier when you’re still undefeated.