UF’s Billy Napier hires Joe Houston to fix Gators’ woeful special teams

GAINESVILLE — Florida football coach Billy Napier has hired New England Patriots assistant Joe Houston to help fix the Gators’ woeful special teams.

Florida’s struggles in the game’s “third phase” topped the list of expected off-season changes by Napier, leading Houston to return to the college ranks from the NFL in the wake of iconic coach Bill Belichick’s Jan. 11 departure from the Patriots.

A former placekicker at USC under Pete Carroll, Houston will serve as an analyst rather than one of Napier’s 10 assistant coaches and serve alongside analyst Chris Couch. Couch oversaw special teams in the role of GameChanger coordinator, an error-filled two-season stretch on special teams.

Houston joined the Patriots prior to the 2020 season after eight years at the college level at Iowa State (2016-19), Toledo (2015) and El Camino College (2012-14). He kicked at USC from 2007 to 2010 after an All-American season at El Camino College in 2006.

247Sports’ Jacob Rudner first reported Houston’s hiring, later confirmed by UF.

Following a 39-36 overtime loss to Arkansas Nov. 6 in the Swamp, Napier said he’d address special teams during the off-season. A costly late-game substitution infraction after the field-goal unit ran onto the field as the offense looked to spike the ball led to a 5-yard penalty and a 44-yard missed field goal by Trey Smack.

The penalty was among seven on special teams in 2023.

The most egregious occurred during a 24-11 season-opening loss at Utah when cornerback Jason Marshall and wide receiver Eugene Wilson III ran onto the field simultaneously after the Gators forced a punt. Each wears the No. 3, leading to confusion over who was expected to field the ball. After the 5-yard penalty, Utah got back the ball and scored three plays later.

UF also had 10 men on the field against the Utes, one of five times the Gators fielded too few players on a special-teams play. After the loss, Napier blamed the addition of dozens of new players and season-opening growing pains.

Yet special-teams problems persisted, also including four blocked kicks by Florida’s opponents.

The issues spurred continued criticism of Couch and calls for Napier to hire a full-time coach to oversee special teams. Instead, the Gators’ coach opted to retain Couch, who spent the 2021 season with Napier at Louisiana serving as special-teams coordinator and the director of quality control & analytics. Couch and Houston also will oversee situational football.

Napier needs a two-man approach to be a winning one after going 11-14 mark during two seasons in Gainesville.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at