Departing players noticing a culture change within program

Pro Day could’ve been an awkward and somewhat uncomfortable occasion for the 16 former Gators players that worked out on Monday.

Since they wrapped up their collegiate careers, the football staff has undergone a complete overhaul. There are only a few people who were retained from former coach Dan Mullen’s staff, all of them support staffers.

So, while the former players might be forever linked to the school, it could almost feel like an entirely different program to them, one that feels less like home.

But that wasn’t the case at all. Every player that was asked about Billy Napier’s regime after Pro Day gave glowing reviews.

“I’ve heard nothing but great things so far,” defensive lineman Zachary Carter said. “I came to see it for myself. I came to practice, was walking around the facility a couple of days before Pro Day. All the coaches greeted me like I was still a player. I really don’t know anybody on this new staff. They kept a few faces around, but just the feeling I had when I met these guys, they made me feel like I was still part of the family.”

Offensive lineman Jean Delance said that the biggest thing he’s heard from his former teammates is that their daily routine is much more structured. The players know exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it. There is no confusion about what will be expected from them.

The current Gators have embraced this culture shift in a major way.

“There’s organization, first and foremost,” Delance said. “Guys are coming in and buying into the process. They’re looking better. They’re running better, and, in practice, it’s set. It’s like, ‘This is the tempo, this is the tone and this is how we’re going to practice.’ So, those guys are looking really solid.

“[It’s] a big change. It’s expected that we’re going to practice this way, we’re going to be this way every day, day in and out. It’s a high tempo. There are no lackadaisical moments in practice. Every guy is giving his all, whether it be running from doing a drill or just picking some guys up. ‘OK, this is how we’re going to block this. This is how we’re going to move through this rep.’”

Just how good is the program’s culture right now? Well, cornerback Kaiir Elam, a projected early-round draft pick, nearly turned down millions of dollars to come back and play for Napier for his final year of college.

“I sat down with my parents after the season, and we discussed it, my pros and cons of staying and going,” Elam said. “Obviously, there were more pros and less cons going, but Coach Napier made it hard for me. I felt like I had a lot more to prove and more I didn’t get to accomplish with my team goals, as well. We went to the SEC Championship and lost [in 2020]so that was something holding me back from leaving as well.

“He just made it hard for me. He’s just telling me I can prove everything I want to if I came back, another year to improve, just taking that next step.”

Elam plans to observe practice this week to get a firsthand feel for the new coaching staff. He has high hopes for the program over the new few years.

“I want the Gators to win a national championship,” he said. “I hope that’s the goal. Not the goal, but I hope that’s what we do. That’s what I want. That’s what they deserve.”

While most of the names and faces have changed and the facilities will look drastically different once construction on the Heavener Football Training Center is complete, these 16 departing players will always be part of the Gator family.

“I had tweeted the other day, I was like, ‘Florida is family,’” Carter said. “Even with a new staff, it still feels like home. I think they have something good going on.”

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