One game into the Billy Napier era and expectations are off the charts

GAINESVILLE — Is that how you want to do it?

No relaxation in expectations, doesn’t it take a minute to settle? Just walk right into a stadium of 90,799 people and blow their crazy minds?

Say this about the new guy, he knows how to say hello.

Florida fans have been waiting months to see the latest boy wonder in the college coaching world, and Billy Napier somehow managed to surpass even an optimist’s best hopes in his Gator debut.

He took a team that finished last season in the dumps and introduced it to America on Saturday night by beating No. 7 Utah 29-26 in a thriller that will no doubt raise anticipation to starry-eyed levels.

He played when the moment called for it and played it cool when the situation was right. His team was (mostly) disciplined, his quarterback was (occasionally) excellent, and his explanation was (completely) mediocre. And when it was over, it went with fireworks and dance music.

“Pretty good game of football, huh,” he smiled.

I guess, around here, patience is overrated.

This season was supposed to be the start of an overhaul. A gradual start to a new era after a series of disappointing recruiting classes and a collection of seasons that also ran under three tepid coaches.

And, perhaps, it will continue to be so. Perhaps there will be obvious growing pains ahead.

But Napier, 43, only got the hopes of many fans high and likely caught the attention of a few Southeastern Conference coaches with the way the Gators played Saturday night.

“A win like this will only boost our confidence,” said Montrell Johnson, who gained 75 yards and scored a touchdown.

This, my friends, was no accident. The Gators may have caught a break here and there, but playing against the Pac-10 champions, they were the better team for much of the night.

When given the opportunity, they were more physical. When given a crack, they were more explosive. When they backed up against the wall, they were more aggressive.

They gained a handful more yards than Utah, played shutout in the turnover battle and were the better team in the red zone.

“This team has been fighting,” Napier said. “I don’t think I’ve said that publicly. One thing about our team that I respect is that they compete.”

So the defense isn’t playoff caliber yet, but it’s also not a sieve like it looked last year. And when they needed it most, the Gators stopped Utah on four straight plays for a crucial goal line drive on the opening drive of the second half.

And then, with Utah threatening to score in the final minute, St. Petersburg’s Amari Burney sealed the win with an interception in the end zone.

“To see that guy make that play, it’s a special moment for him,” Napier said.

And quarterback Anthony Richardson’s growth from freshman to sophomore makes you wonder what former coach Dan Mullen was missing last season.

Yes, Richardson is a year older, but he looked much more ready than the way he played at times last season.

Richardson looked comfortable running UF’s pro-style offense and quickly opened up receivers downfield. Had a handful of misplaced passes, but didn’t force plays that weren’t there.

And, when UF needed it, he came up with moments that few other quarterbacks can.

He followed up on the play-action call late in the first half when he waited for a beat in the pocket and then burst down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown run for Florida’s first lead of the night.

There was the two-point conversion when he faked a jump pass with a defender in his face, then spun and scrambled to his right before finding Ja’Quavion Fraziars in the back of the end zone.

It was the fourth tackle of the game when he stopped for a hit in the pocket to freeze Utah’s linebackers, then took off around the right tackle for a first down.

“Anthony was great,” Johnson said. “I don’t care what he says, he’ll probably say he messed up a lot, but he played a great game.”

Something must be said here about faith. And trust. And faith.

Napier spent the better part of the summer convincing his players to follow him, then came back on opening night and showed his faith in them.

Especially Richardson.

Backed up within inches of their own goal line, he called for a pass. Stuck on fourth down in the red zone, he went for the touchdown.

“We just knocked off a top-ranked team,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of good energy in the locker room right now.”

It’s only going to get crazier from here. The bar was raised and expectations were justified. Richardson played like a star, Napier sounded like a genius, and Florida looked like it was back.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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