This week, Billy Napier experiences what Mark Stoops of Kentucky, Josh Heupel of Tennessee and Eliah Drinkwitz of Missouri faced in Florida’s first three conference games of the 2022 season: preparing to face an intraconference team with a new head coach at the helm.
On Saturday, the Gators will host the LSU Tigers, a program handed over to new head coach Brian Kelly this past offseason. In his first retired campaign of 12 years at Notre Dame, Kelly’s Tigers compiled a 4-2 record with a pair of SEC wins.
Napier and his Gators have benefited from the relative unknown on their side for six games this season, as opponents have had little to no material to study with Florida staff at Napier and defensive coordinator Patrick Toney’s plans.
But what kind of challenge will that present Florida, now on the other side of the coin?
“It’s all evidence work,” Napier explained on Monday. “You look at the callers of the game on both sides of the ball versus Cincinnati, versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Kentucky, Notre Dame. We’re spending a lot of time on this Independent this week.”
Kelly brought Mike Denbrock, the Cincinnati Bearcats’ newest, to Baton Rouge, La., as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator after the two coached with the Fighting Irish from 2010 to 2016. Matt House, the new coordinator defensive coordinator at LSU, had been Kentucky’s defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach from 2017-18 before spending the 2019-21 seasons as professional linebackers coach at Kansas City.
Their units rank 8th and 4th respectively in the SEC in yardage per game this season.
Second-year defensive end Prince Umanmielen provided an example of UF similarly preparing for a new player, as Napier suggested, thinking back to one of Florida’s three contests against a freshly hired offensive coordinator this year. While Umanmielen didn’t specify the lead team, Kentucky, USF and Eastern Washington each hired a new OC in the offseason.
“When we watch a film of teams, they dig very deep,” Umanmielen said. “A team had a new offensive coordinator, and they were coming back like when he was at three schools ago and things like that. Yeah, I know [Toney is] go dig a little bit, come up with a game plan.”
The process began with watching LSU’s 2022 season film Sunday, Umanmielen noted, and will continue Tuesday when the team digs deeper into the habits of the coordinator from previous stops.
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The band seen on Sunday, however, was limited in sample size, Napier said and as one might have expected. And if just six games weren’t sparse enough to challenge the Gators in their prep for the Tigers, their clashes with Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense and two non-conference foes led to different looks from LSU than what he usually puts on film.
“I think you have a little bit smaller sample, especially when you look at Mississippi State, their offense, the differences there. When you talk about New Mexico, their offense and the differences there- low, the number of games they play against Southern,” Napier described. “There are a lot of variables that contribute to the sample size you have.
“But I think that’s where your off-season research and summer scouting comes into play.”
There is always importance in studying the personnel of a team with a new head coach and new schemes, offensive lineman Ethan White recognized.
However, this requires a balance, given the need to spend time evaluating the strategies of the coaches’ previous gigs and pairing them with the strengths of their new team’s personnel.
“I feel like the coach is in this team or in a previous team, most coaches do similar things, like game planning, with the staff they have,” White said.
“You just have to manage your time differently as opposed to a different week.”
Of course, LSU is in exactly the same position this week, preparing to face a new team from Florida as the Dan Mullen-led one that Ed Orgeron’s Tigers faced in 2021.
The only SEC programs with first-year head coaches this season, the outcome of this game will serve — in fairness or not — as a yardstick for determining which personnel are the most elaborate in the build-up to less predictable contests.
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