Identity Crisis: UF defense looks to reassert itself

Sep 30, 2020 | 0 comments


Over the last 15 seasons, the Gators’ defense has given up an average of 306.2 total yards per game.

Against Ole Miss last Saturday, they surrendered more than double of that at 613 yards, including 443 yards through the air. The Rebels averaged 13.4 yards per pass attempt and 7.9 yards per play.

Who in the world were those guys wearing orange and blue, and what have they done to the once-vaunted UF defense?

“Plays were made, and for us, we have to have short-term memory, but, looking back on the film, I’m not going to lie; I was kind of pissed off,” sophomore cornerback Kaiir Elam said. “Not because of my own film, but I know our defense as a whole, and I know how hard we practice and how hard we work. For us to go as far as we can, that wasn’t acceptable, and it’s just something we have to improve on, and it starts in practice.”


As the No. 3 Gators (1-0) prepare to take on South Carolina (0-1) in their home opener on Saturday, how the defense bounces back from a game that saw them yield the third-most total yards given up in a game in program history figures to be a dominate storyline. Are the Gators really that bad, or was that game an aberration caused by a combination of good offense by Ole Miss and typical first-game sloppiness?

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham believes that they’re not too far away from being a good defense. They got themselves into position to make stops multiple times, but didn’t make the crucial plays needed to finish the job. They also gave up way too many explosive plays through the air.

“We didn’t play to the standard we played the last couple of years and just made too many mistakes,” Grantham said. “When you look at it, it really got down to we didn’t finish. Whether it was we didn’t finish a play that created an explosive play or we didn’t finish a series, meaning you got them to 2nd-and-16, you should get off the field there. You have them in 3rd-and-19, you should win that one.”

To more clearly define the standard that he expects from them, Grantham showed players some of their good plays on film followed by the bad ones as a contrast.

“The big question is why?” Grantham said. “‘Why can’t I finish this play? Why can’t I secure my gap? Why can’t I secure my leverage? Why can’t I stay in the deep part of the field?’ You know, all of those things. At the end of the day, we just got to get better, and that’s been the focus this week. I think you’ve always got to own it. You’ve got to understand where you are to get where you want to go.”

Head coach Dan Mullen provided a theory that could answer some of Grantham’s questions. While not using the elimination of spring ball or the limitations put on them in fall camp as an excuse, he thinks the unique circumstances of this offseason give offenses an advantage early on, as evidenced by nine SEC teams throwing for 250 or more yards on opening weekend. Seven teams scored more than 30 points.

“I expect us to make a really big jump from week one to week two defensively with tackling, the effort, with running to the football, with communication and making sure we are fitting everything properly,” Mullen said.

Grantham, however, has no interest in viewing things that way. He views each down as a standalone event to be won or lost by the defense. It might sound overly simple, but the only way to improve defensively is to win more plays moving forward. They don’t have time to wait for the magical midseason switch to be flipped on once they get more comfortable with playing physically again.

“We just didn’t play well enough, whether it was a fundamental error, whether it was a lack of execution, whether it was leverage on the ball, just finishing,” he said. “We just didn’t do it. It is what it is. You’ve got to own it. The biggest thing to me is how do we respond and get better?”

Toward that end, UF’s defense has increased the intensity in practice this week, linebacker Ventrell Miller said. They were embarrassed by the way they played last week and know that the only way to change things this Saturday is to make corrections in practice.

“Just coming out to practice, making sure we get in the right head positions, everybody talking, communicating way more and louder than how we was, running to the ball,” Miller said. “We missed tackles. When people run to the ball, missed tackles don't really show up like that. Everybody ran to the ball, pursued to the ball, stuff like that. That's some of the things that we changed."

On paper, South Carolina should be a better matchup for Florida’s defense. They run more of a pro-style system at a much slower pace than the Rebels operate at. Gamecocks quarterback Collin Hill is more of a prototypical pocket passer. He doesn’t have the escapability that Matt Corral does. However, the SEC is a bit of a copycat league, and Ole Miss provided the blueprint on how to pick apart Florida’s defense. So, Grantham expects South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to blend together stuff that hurt the Gators last week with the normal staples of their offense in his game plan.

This game, however, isn’t about what the Gamecocks do or don’t do on offense. This is about the Gators’ defense playing with pride and redeeming themselves for that putrid performance last week.

“To be a good player, you have to always critique yourself and look at the things you did well and the things you have to improve upon,” Grantham said. “We do that every week. Whether we win or lose, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to own it. The biggest thing to me is moving forward, playing to our standard and understanding that we must play better. That’s been the focus this week is to play better this week coming up.”

Though the Gators won last week, the defense left Oxford with nothing to celebrate. They’re looking to reclaim their identity against the Gamecocks.

“We won the game, but, defensively, it felt like a loss to us,” Elam said. “That’s not the Gator Standard. We had some above-the-line plays, and then we had a lot that were below the line. Defensively, this game means a lot to us.”

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