The Gators hit the field for their first practice on Wednesday afternoon and are back at it on Thursday and Friday. They practice in shorts and helmets the first two days, add pads on Friday, before donning full gear for the first time on Tuesday.
The first thing you notice at practice is the additional people. Before he agreed to accept the job, head coach Billy Napier was promised the resources to beef up the program’s support staff. There are more players, too. Based on the latest updated roster, the Gators have 121 players including walk-ons, though only 110 can participate in practice according to NCAA rules until classes officially start. Typically, that number fluctuates during camp if a walk-on or two decides hanging out at the beach is more fun than trying to block Gervon Dexter.
Napier and Co. took a workmanlike approach to the start of camp, knowing they face a big test right away in Utah. They also must restore a winning mindset for a program coming off a 6-7 season, only the third losing season in the last 41 seasons.
In his first eight months on the job, Napier spent the bulk of his time establishing discipline and accountability.
“I think we grew,” he said this week. “Our culture grew. In training camp, it’s almost as I you’ve got to stay present, you’ve got to treat each opportunity throughout training camp as a competitive event.”
The start of practice Wednesday was business as usual, but a few notable items of interest surfaced:
— Redshirt defensive tackle Chris Thomas Jr., a promising signee in the 2021 class, has returned to the roster. Thomas appeared in only one game as a true freshman, getting on the field in the Gasparilla Bowl against UCF. Thomas and teammates Mordecai McDaniel and Fenley Graham Jr. were removed from the roster in June. Graham has since transferred to Florida A&M. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound Thomas suffered through freshman growing pains and appears to have a second chance to make an impact at a position that could use help.
— Newcomer Ricky Pearsall, a slot receiver who transferred from Arizona State, made the Twitter rounds when he went down with a cramp during the media’s viewing session. Pearsall didn’t stay down. He returned to practice, his first in the Florida humidity that featured a heat index of near 100 when the Gators took the field.
— Co-defensive coordinator Sean Spencer praised outside linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. for his offseason conditioning, which was built around a plan to get leaner and more agile. Cox does appear in better shape and quicker than he did a season ago.
— What would the first day of practice be without an update on quarterback Anthony Richardson? From this view, Richardson looked in charge and ready to be the guy. The best outcome for the Gators is that nothing changes in that respect and Richardson stays healthy.
— Finally, I spent as much time walking around the new football facility as I did watching practice. The last time I stepped foot over there the place didn’t even have a roof. All I can say is ‘wow.’ The facility has plenty of bling and functionality. Everything from the weight room to the meeting room is top notch and high-tech. Workers buzzed around trying to put the final touches on the facility, which the Gators expect to move into later this month. Once it opens, check out FloridaGators.com and our social channels for a digital tour.
— For more practice observations, check out these from a trio of UF beat writers:
— Zach Abolverdi of On3.com.
— G. Allan Taylor of The Athletic.
— Jacob Rudner of 247Sports.com.