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UF coach Billy Napier on firmer ground in Year 3 with Gators

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Enjoying an oceanside lunch Monday, Florida coach Billy Napier noticed a swimmer at the mercy of the raging Atlantic surf.

Napier could relate to the struggle.

“The waves just kept smashing him and knocking him down,” he recalled prior to Gators Caravan. “I kind of felt like that guy for two years.”

Napier enters Year 3 with an 11-14 record after consecutive losing seasons. Along the way, he has retooled his staff, remade his roster and recalibrated his approach.

“Every six months … the job’s changed,” he said.

UF enters a pivotal offseason with 30 new scholarships players, four new assistants coaches, revamped strength and nutrition programs and a new structure featuring a chief of staff and general manager amid relaxed transfer rules and increased player movement via the NCAA portal.

The school changed leadership and strategy to Florida Victorious in April 2023 and away from the failed Gator Collective to better capitalize on name, image and likeness legislation.

Napier, unlike the overmatched landlubber he pitied Monday, feels like he’s finally on a solid footing.

“We’ve built really good processes and systems when it comes to the portal and NIL in particular,” he said. “You kind of finally feel like you’re standing in the boat now.”

Smoother seas could be ahead, but headwinds remain. The Aug. 31 season opener against Miami kicks off one of the nation’s toughest schedules, featuring six teams among the top 17 of the AP’s season-ending Top 25.

Napier said the coming weeks and months will be critical.

Other than a handful freshmen signees set to graduate high school, the entire team returned for the summer semester Monday and began offseason workouts Tuesday. The missing first-year players, including 4-star linebacker Aaron Chiles, will arrive in two weeks.

Coaches are allowed to work with players eight hours a week and also stage meetings. Napier said a core of veteran returners, led by sixth-year quarterback Graham Mertz, positions the Gators to make significant strides prior to fall camp.

“[During] summer you really find out what type of team you are because there’s a lot of voluntary work,” Napier said. “Your leadership is important.”

The Gators feature 85 scholarship players after two years under the NCAA limit, but still could add through the transfer portal.

Five-star defensive back Cormani McClain and Arizona State wide receiver Elijhah Badger are visiting Gainesville this week.

The 6-foot-2, 165-pound McClain, a former UF recruit who committed to Miami, signed with Colorado and coach Deion Sanders. But after an up-and-down freshman season McClain decided to leave.

Badger totaled 135 catches for 1,579 yards and 10 touchdowns the past two seasons.

Either player could require a winning sales pitch.

“For the first time we can be picky,” Napier said. “We’ve learned that you don’t want to be doing business in the spring portal if you can control it. The player availability, it’s a little like NFL free agency in terms of the compensation and the market.

“It’s a completely different animal than the winter portal.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com