Billy Napier knows Florida’s run game needs to improve after slow Week 1

The run game was supposed to be Florida’s biggest strength heading into the 2023 season, but the Gators rushed for just 34 yards in a season-opening loss to Utah Thursday night.

Trevor Etienne led the way with 25 yards on seven carries, finding most of his success following the outer-right side of the line. Montrell Johnson Jr. had a harder time finding a hole. He was limited to just six yards on three carries, all up the middle.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the way (Utah) plays,” Napier said after the game. “But there’s no doubt that’s an area where we need to improve. We’ve got to get production out of the two backs. We’ve got to give them an opportunity to impact the game. When we did run it, I don’t necessarily know that it was as effective as we wanted it to be.

“There’s no question we’ll have to run the ball more effectively in the future.”

Pro Football Focus gave Etienne an offensive grade of 59.7 and Johnson a 58.5, which is well below each player’s season average from 2022. Florida is supposed to have one of the premier rushing attacks in all of college football, but that was far from the case on Thursday.

Being down a starter on the offensive line provides at least some explanation for the weak ground game. Kingsley Eguakun has started every game for Florida over the past two seasons, and the gap between the center and left guard was non-existent without him on the field.

Florida’s offensive woes were most noticeable when Graham Mertz was taking a hit, but the ground game suffered because of it as well.

Speaking of Mertz, Napier made sure to praise his starting quarterback for a solid debut in the Orange in Blue. Mertz threw for 333 yards and a touchdown, completing 70 percent of his pass attempts and securing a 137 quarterback rating in the process.

“I was pleased with Graham,” Napier said. “I think there were a handful of plays that he would like to have back. A few early that were a little inaccurate at times, but he made a lot of plays too. This was the first game he’s ever thrown for 300-plus.

“For the most part, out there, the guy is doing what we want him to do. The ball is going where it’s supposed to go. Oftentimes, a quarterback gets too much credit and too much blame.”

Napier added that Mertz has a few things to work on, but the passing game needs far less fine-tuning than the running game does. It will be tough to gauge just how much Florida improved from week to week with McNeese State up next on the schedule.

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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire