JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — as new coach Billy Napier ducked behind a double stairwell leading to a small room to meet with local media, just under where he’d speak to hundreds of fans at his spring speaking tour stop at TIAA Bank Field, three local TV crews and a handful of writers greeted him.
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for questions about the location to come in.
More specifically, how important the one game a year Florida plays at TIAA Bank Field is. train coach Dan Mullen didn’t get long before he was being grilled about the importance of the Georgia rivalry. After a 24-17 loss to the Bulldogs in his second season, and with recruiting trailing UGA’s substantially, Mullen was asked how far apart he felt the two programs were.
“Seven points,” he quipped, cutting his reply short.
A year later, Mullen would find a way to top Georgia and, in doing so, reach the SEC Championship Game. Year 4, though, was a big step back, with Florida crumbling and losing 34-7. Three weeks later Mullen was fired.
“I think we’re all well aware of the importance of that rivalry,” Napier said, not ducking away from a question about facing Georgia in Jacksonville. “These are the games that make college football special. I do think that we have tremendous respect for that rivalry and the importance of that rivalry.”
Realistically, Napier has been smart to temper expectations so far. Coming off a 6-7 season and arguably as depleted as they’ve been at the skill positions on offense in the last decade, the Gators are almost certainly looking at somewhat of a rebuilding year.
Quarterback Anthony Richardson has the potential to cover over some of those short-term warts thanks to his innate ability. But there are limits to even what he can do, as his outing against the Bulldogs on Oct. 30 showed.
Still, there’s no denying what having some early success against Georgia, both on the field and on the recruiting trail, could do to galvanize the program.
“It’s a special game and one that has implications on that side of the divisions and certainly presents a number of challenges,” Napier said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to be game-ready for our team to be competitive in that setting. We’re going to embrace the work that comes with that, the challenges that come with that. We’re excited about the opportunity to compete in this league and certainly playing in that game is a part of that.”
But on top of the impact an early win in Jacksonville could have for the program’s momentum on the field, it could also pay dividends in recruiting.
In the 2023 recruiting class six of the Top 75 players in the state are from the Jacksonville area, including four-star running back Treyaun Webb and four-star quarterback Marcus Stokes.
“You look at the list of players from this area, it’s a pretty special list,” Napier said. “There’s some legendary players that come from there, so I think that any time you’re recruiting and putting together your roster, I think our philosophy has been to do it inside-out. I think Jacksonville being in close proximity, there’s no question it’s got to be an extremely high priority for us.”
Like he did on Tuesday night while meeting with fans in Tampa, Napier stressed the importance of locking down key geographic areas in the state. Needless to say, Jacksonville is one of them.
“We’re going to work hard to build relationships here with our new staff and certainly understand the importance of getting good players from Jacksonville to come to the University of Florida,” Napier concluded. “And I think you’re spot on — this year in particular it’s a great year in Jacksonville. Some fantastic prospects and we’re hopeful we can get that done.”