5 things to watch for when Florida hosts Utah to open the 2022 season

·4 min read

Florida Gators football is back.

On Saturday, Billy Napier will lead the Gators onto the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the first time as the new head coach at the University of Florida. There’s been no shortage of talk and hype surrounding the new regime in Gainesville, but now it’s time to put the team to the test.

Florida’s opponent, Utah, isn’t the typical season opener the Gators see, but it’s a good chance to see exactly where UF stands. The Utes won the Pac-12 last year and were two quarters away from a Rose Bowl victory before Ohio State came back to deny them.

These two teams haven’t met up since 1977, but there should still be a healthy competitive spirit. Utah is looking to prove itself as a legitimate CFP threat out of the Pac-12 and Florida’s expectations aren’t ever low. Napier expects mistakes, but limiting enough of them should help things stay close into the second half.

The debut of Billy Napier

UAA Communications/Leslie White

All eyes will be on Billy Napier Saturday in his first game as the head coach of the Florida Gators. As a Group of Five coach that jumped to the SEC, Napier has shaken off the doubters well with his recruiting and professional demeanor leading up to the season. What happens in the game matters more, though.

If Napier seems out of his depth during week 1, that narrative could spiral and create a lack of confidence. If he’s able to manage his players and guide them through the inevitable missteps they make, Florida could be in for a surprisingly successful year.

Napier has talked the talk over the offseason, but now it’s time to walk the walk. That doesn’t mean Florida needs to win to get things started on the right foot, but the game does need to be competitive.

It's finally time for Anthony Richardson to shine

James Gilbert/Getty Images

After last year’s quarterback controversy led to disappointing results for Florida, redshirt sophomore [autotag]Anthony Richardson[/autotag] is the unquestioned starter for the Gators going into 2022. Fans have been clamoring for him to take over the starting role since week two of last season, and now he has to shine.

Behind Richardson is… no one. Well, there’s redshirt freshman [autotag]Jalen Kitna[/autotag], but expected backup [autotag]Jack Miller III[/autotag] is out for a few weeks as he rehabs from thumb surgery. We know Richardson has a big arm and magic feet, but he needs to be consistent and safe early on if the Gators are going to have a shot against Utah.

How will the running back rotation shake out?

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[autotag]Nay’Quan Wright[/autotag] enters the season as the Gators’ starting running back, but it was a bit surprising to see freshman [autotag]Trevor Etienne[/autotag] as a second-string option. There is an “OR” between him and Louisiana transfer [autotag]Montrell Johnson[/autotag], which is surprising considering he should know Napier’s offense the best of the group.

It’ll be interesting to see how this group shares snaps and what [autotag]Lorenzo Lingard[/autotag]’s role will be after being left off the three-deep, game-day roster released ahead of week one.

Improvement on defense

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The offense wasn’t really the problem last year at Florida. There were issues, yes, but the defense really fell apart for the second straight season. Remember, Todd Grantham was relieved of his duties before Dan Mullen’s time at Florida came to an end.

Napier has been in damage control mode all offseason, and there should be enough talent on the roster to make do. Utah can run the ball well and should be a solid early test for a relatively inexperienced group. [autotag]Gervon Dexter[/autotag] and [autotag]Brenton Cox Jr[/autotag]. are names to watch up front and [autotag]Jason Marshall[/autotag] Jr. is the new No. 1 in the cornerback room after a strong freshman year.

The return of Mohamoud Diabate

AP Photo/John Raoux

[autotag]Mohamoud Diabate[/autotag] was one of the key pieces of Florida’s 2021 defense. Despite the unit’s woes, Diabate established himself as one of the top talents on the team after taking over a leadership position among the linebackers following [autotag]Ventrell Miller[/autotag]’s season-ending injury.

Since transferring to the University of Utah, Diabate has spent plenty of time talking smack leading up to his return to the Swamp. It’s all in good fun, but things could get chippy out there once the whistle blows.

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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire