Florida head coach Billy Napier addressed everything from Graham Mertz’s injury to his relationship with the father of Florida State’s backup quarterback during his Monday press conference to kick off Week 13.
The Gators are hoping to avoid ending the season on a five-game losing streak, but the fourth-ranked Seminoles stand in the way. The twist is that both teams are down their starting quarterbacks. Napier talked plenty about both Mertz and redshirt freshman Max Brown, who is expected to start on Saturday.
He also addressed some of the more critical moments of the Missouri game after getting a chance to review the tape.
Here’s everything Napier said on Monday.
Opening Statement - Part 1
Special week for a lot of reasons. Obviously, one of the more historic rivalries in all of college football and I think it’s a privilege to (have that) opportunity. Not only our players, but the entire organization. You know, this is a game that matters, 24/7, 365.
We’re certainly excited about being in The Swamp Saturday night. A sold-out crowd. I think that’s five straight for Gator Nation, so we’re very thankful for that.
It’s also senior day for a group. This will be their last opportunity to play at The Swamp. Certainly, this is a group that’s done a lot of good in their time. We’ve seen a lot of growth out of these young people.
We’re having Tim Tebow back to recognize him for his college football Hall of Fame (induction). Certainly, one of the best Gators to have ever done it will be awesome to have Tim back this weekend.
Opening Statement - Part 2
It’s also Thanksgiving this week. I think there’s an element of perspective and gratitude here that I think we all can benefit from, and certainly, we’ve kind of started some of the things that we do with the players this week. So, I think in weeks like this, it’s important that every person within the organization and the team understands that their role matters.
I think it’s important that — the people in leadership, players in particular — they need to go out of their way and be vocal about that and making sure that everyone knows that. I think there’s something special about being a part of something larger than yourself.
I think football creates an opportunity and we have to remember, you know, I was talking to the accountability group just a while ago. I think you’ve got to ask your question. What does our team need from me? And certainly, in weeks like this, I think that’s magnified a little bit.
You’re in a position to serve. Well, to me, I think leadership’s about service and really challenge those guys between now and Tuesday. What does the team need from you? What are you going to bring to the table throughout the week? We control how we prepare. We can’t ever lose sight of that.
I think it’s important that we, given the dynamic of this game, certainly the two quarterbacks in that situation there, I think there’s going to be an element of that. So, we control our energy, we control our attitude, we control how we prepare.
We all understand the importance and magnitude of the rivalry game and certainly an incredible opportunity for our team to play against a well-thought-of Florida State football team.
How does the schedule change with the holiday?
We’ll slide things back briefly on Tuesday and Wednesday to grab a little bit of additional time knowing that Thursday we move everything up three hours. So we just exchange a little bit of time there. Add a little bit to the back end on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then we grab some time so that we can speed things up on Thursday.
We try to be out of the building by 4 o’clock on Thursday, give the players an opportunity to spend time if they have family in town or family nearby locally. If not, most of these guys would go to their position coach’s house.
How do things change with Max Brown taking over at quarterback?
We have to play a brand of football that’s relative to Max and his experience, what he knows and what he’s got confidence in.
I think we’ve still got to feature the players that we know are important each week. But with every offense that I’ve ever been a part of, it starts with what the quarterback can do well, right?
So that’ll be part of the plan. No different than they’re going to be going through some of the same dynamics.
An update on Graham Mertz
We took another image yesterday. We felt good about that image. We’re going to basically go in a two-week period here where we’re going to give it a chance for the fracture to start the process of growing back and then we’ll reevaluate things.
In the meantime, we’re going to do exhaustive research on like cases in college football and in the National Football League, relative to players that have been through similar injuries.
Just making sure we’re giving him the best map for him going forward with the rest of his career.
How has Mertz dealt with a late-season injury?
Graham is mature. I think he’s really bright. Much like any great competitor, I think he obviously wishes he was able to do everything he could do for the team. But he’s going to be around and he’ll still contribute to the team in the ways that he can. But yeah, it’s tough, man.
I think injuries sometimes for players, those are some of the more challenging things that you go through because you think about things that you could do differently. But ultimately, a lot of these things, it is what it is.
I think he’s done a terrific job for our team. I think he’ll continue to do that.
On FSU's quarterback Tate Rodemaker
I’ve got a long-standing history with Rodamaker. His dad is a long-time friend of my dad’s.
When I was growing up, Coach Rodamaker was always around at different events and camps and things that we go to. I think we even started the recruiting process a little bit with him at Louisiana.
He’s a coach’s son. He’s very bright. This is his fourth year in the system, right? So he got there in ’20. He’s acquired reps throughout his time there. He’ll have a good grasp of what they do. A little bit different type of player, but certainly he’s got his strengths and they’ve got terrific skill around him.
There will be an element of experience. I think that’s the big thing, and he’s played. I think if you go back to the Louisville game last year, he had to step in there and play, and he’s played a lot when the games have been in control. They’ve put him in there, so there’s a pretty good sample size of him playing.
How did Max Brown perform on Saturday?
Max kind of did what I thought he would do. I think Max is a competitor. He’s got a he’s got a level of belief in himself. He’s always been a very confident guy.
For the most part, I think we had the one ball exchange, the ball handling issue, but outside of that, he did what he was supposed to do.
I think we changed gears a little bit there to try to help him out. I think (he made) a critical fourth-down throw into a tight window, and then he threw a nice ball outside on the double move. His first play in there, he throws a strike to Ricky on the naked (route), so he did a lot of good things.
He’s been working hard since the first day he’s gotten here. He’s improved. I think the players, he’s got good connection and camaraderie with the players. They see him every day. They know who he is and what he’s capable of.
Which plays stood out the most in the close loss to Missouri?
There’s a handful of situational calls in the game. Trevor knows not to run out of bounds. I mean, I think it’s a simple mistake there, and I think the grounding penalty before the half was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. We’re about, I would say, 10 or 15 yards away from the kick line there. So, Graham obviously can do better there.
Then, I think the fourth-and-17 call, you know, we just got to do a little bit better job in the hook areas of the field. We’ve got players there. There’s players in position there. We just have to have a little bit more awareness, and we can execute the rush plan a little bit better.
There are 12 to 15 plays in that game that impacted the end result. When you lose these games by these point totals, it’s all magnified, right? Every possession counts. We’re talking about 12 possessions a game on average for both sides of the ball.
I think each one of those where you don’t maybe get the results you want, there’s something in that position that you can point to that you can do better. That’s who that’s where we’re at as a program. Every time we put the ball down, no matter who the opponent is, that margin of error that you’re talking about, I think that’s who we are. That’s where we’re at.
Every play counts. Every possession counts.
On Mertz returning for another year
I’ll let him handle that. Much like we’ve done with players in the past, they have their process that they want to go through, and out of respect for that, we’re going to allow them to do that.
But Graham has been fantastic, and again, we’ll let him figure out how does he want to announce his decision.
On utilizing the quarterback run game more often with Brown
That’s what we do, right? Every offense that you have is based off what the quarterback’s really good at and certainly Max is a little bit different type of player.
They’re kind of going from Jordan Travis to Ryder Maker, and we’re going from Graham Mertz to Max Brown. So, there’s an element of change for both teams.
Certainly, that’s part of the strategy relative to the game.
Any regrets on the fourth-and-17 call?
We called what we called, and I think we have players in the area of the completion. I think we need to do a little bit better job distributing in our zones. We did rush four. Look, I think hindsight’s 20/20. I mean, there’s other options, right?
We spend a ton of time on these fourth downs, got-to-have-it scenarios, and I think we went with what we thought was best at the time. Oftentimes it’s not about what you do; it’s how you do it, and there’s a coaching and player element to both, if that makes sense.
On recruiting implications of rivalry games
One of the things that’s been interesting about this group that we have committed is I think they understand where we’re at relative to our current dynamic. Part of the pitch and in the conversation, I think there is a desire to be a part of something being built. How do we get Florida back to where it’s been before?
We have to acquire really good groups of players back to back to back. I think there’s a good relationship between this class and some of the younger players in our team. I think there’s some key people within each of those groups.
Look, anytime you struggle as a program, there’s an element that affects recruiting, there’s no doubt about it. But there’s also, early in your tenure, I think there’s a reality relative to the big picture.
Some are up for the challenge. This is a unique place and a special place. It’s a great group and I think they’re made of the right stuff. They’re up for the challenge.
Recruiting is always a battle. I don’t know that it’s ever been easy. We’re trying to recruit elite players in every position. We have a number of them committed and we’ve got about a month or so to get to the finish line.
I’ve been pleased with their response, let me put it that way. Ultimately, they have relationships with the players on our team and that gives them insight into what’s it like here and what’s taking place here. I think that gives me some confidence if that makes sense.
We all understand you got to stack several groups back to back to get to where you want to go. So, we’re in the process of doing that. So yeah, winning and losing affects recruiting.
Momentum affects recruiting. There’s no doubt about it, but we’ve got a great experience to sell here and one that I think people have confidence and belief in.
On being two plays away from a 7-5 record
We’re a team that can be competitive with about anybody if that makes sense. We’re capable of beating anybody and anybody’s capable of beating us, if that makes sense. I mean, I think that’s kind of who we are.
I think our struggles have been inconsistency. We’re yet to put it together, a dominant performance in all three parts for a team. Some of that is injuries, lack of depth. We’re not going to allow excuses to creep into what we’re trying to accomplish.
We’re trying to improve. We’re trying to get the most out of our players. It’s a fun team to coach because we’ve got some veteran players that are just awesome in their approach, attitude, leadership, they maintain energy, the work ethic to practice habits, and then we got a lot of guys that don’t, they don’t know any different, right?
I mean, we’ve got a lot of young cats that are just showing up and it’s like, what’s next? I think there’s some things about that you respect.
We are what our record indicates. We’ve come up short in a handful of games. We can coach better and play better. That’s what I think about. I’m thinking about things we can do. I’m going back to that question that I’m asking our accountability group. What does our team need from you now?
Ultimately, we’re in the service business, right? We’ve got to do we got to do the best job we can do for our people, from a leadership standpoint, both the players and all parts of the organization. I can tell you that this is a resilient group just being around them the last couple of days.
We went to Missouri and competed. Played our butt off. It’s not perfect. We’ve got work to do in that area.
On external factors affecting the team this week
All of those are external but they have an impact. There’s no question about it. When you lose a couple in a row, you’re looking for buttons to push. I think this week provides some of that.
We haven’t had that problem, so I think for me, that’s been one of the blessings about this team. We don’t necessarily have that issue. I’m not looking for some secret formula to get them to play hard. I think there’s some intangibles and loyalty that’s been developed.
They want to they want to do their job and do their best for each other, so we just need to do our job a little bit better. That’s the key.
Napier's view on the transfer portal
I think the NFL analogy is realistic. You want to build your team through the draft. You want to add quality players through free agency that fit, maybe fill needs, and I think ultimately that’s the approach that we’ve taken and is the approach we’ll continue to take.
I’ve said this to you guys many times. This math problem changes every day. We may not have a salary cap, but we do have roster number limitations, right? So, that’s the cap. Ultimately, it’s a fluid dynamic, but there’s no question I view it very much like free agency. No different.
If we go get a Ricky Pearsall at receiver, we go get a Graham Mertz at quarterback. I mean, there’s a number of examples of that. You’ve got to evaluate your team annually much like the National Football League does, relative to what you need.
It’s almost like the old junior college model. You used to go get players at positions where you had depth issues or you needed a significant impact player. Now that this game’s evolved, the portal provides that.