Every season, Gator fans adopt a player to blame for all of the defense’s problems. In 2017, it was Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. In 2018, C.J. McWilliams became the brunt of their frustration. Last year, it was Trey Dean.
Junior linebacker Amari Burney has assumed the role of scapegoat this year. The criticism is largely warranted. He’s had a difficult time getting off blocks against the run, and he’s been lost in coverage far too often. He completely whiffed on South Carolina running back Kevin Harris on an angle route on Saturday, and Gamecocks quarterback Collin Hill connected with Harris for an easy 4-yard touchdown that cut UF’s lead to 14 points.
While some players might resent fans for being passionately critical of him, Burney has taken the opposite approach. He knows he needs to play better for this defense to turn around from its early-season slump.
“I've got to step it up,” Burney said. “These past two weeks have been unacceptable for me personally. Just talking with the coaches, my parents, watching film, it's been unacceptable on my part just being a starter and not doing my job.”
Burney played safety and STAR as a freshman in 2018 before moving to linebacker in 2019. He was mainly used as a third-down blitz or coverage specialist, however. This is his first season playing significant snaps on early downs. Still, that’s no excuse.
“Just the plays I'm leaving on the field, not making the plays that I want to make,” he said of his struggles so far. “Doing the wrong things on the field, not being physical, not getting off blocks, things like that."
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is pleased to see Burney taking ownership of his mistakes. He believes being self-critical and looking for ways to improve are necessary steps in becoming a great player. He wasn’t surprised by Burney’s comments.
“If we all take ownership in that and continue to work and become better players from watching the tape, then our team is better,” Grantham said “And that's the ultimate goal is we want to develop players, and we want to make our team better. So, the character of Burney doesn't surprise me, him being able to do that because he's a guy that is very critical of himself and wants to be a good player.”
Wilson back at STAR
After starting the season opener at Ole Miss at cornerback, redshirt junior Marco Wilson moved back to STAR against South Carolina, replacing C.J. McWilliams. McWilliams was unavailable for the game for an undisclosed reason. Wilson is listed atop the depth chart at STAR this week.
Wilson played corner exclusively during his first two seasons but moved to STAR, the Gators’ version of the nickelback, for the final four games of 2019 after Dean was ineffective at the position. He played well but moved back outside this fall following the departure of CJ Henderson.
As it turned out, that move lasted all of one game. Wilson had a decent game against the Gamecocks and will be counted on at STAR moving forward.
“We did that because the confidence we have in Jaydon [Hill] and Chester [Kimbrough] and Kaiir [Elam] outside to be able to go make plays, and as a defensive player or a defensive coach, you’re always looking to say, ‘How can I get our best 11 guys on the field relative to the situation?’” Grantham said. “That move allowed us to do that. We’ll always have that in the back of our mind as we move forward with the game plan.”
Grantham said Hill and Kimbrough made progress between the first and second games. Hill made his first career start against South Carolina, broke up a team-best three passes and nearly intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final drive.
“I thought they did a better job of understanding and respecting the deep part of the field because in the last game, I think they had a 20-yard play and a 22-yard play,” Grantham said. “Out of 83 plays, if you only have two plays over 20 yards, that gives you a chance to hold somebody to a low number [of points]. Those guys have done a good job of taking coaching, making corrections and then preparing themselves to play.”
The Gators became well acquainted with Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher during his eight seasons at Florida State. Most of the memories are not good, as the Seminoles went 7-1 against UF during that time with only one of the wins coming by fewer than 14 points.
Saturday will be the first time the Gators have faced off against Fisher since he bolted for Texas A&M following the 2017 season. Fisher is known as one of the brightest offensive minds in the college game, so the Gators know they’ll face a stiff test this weekend.
“They're always going to have concepts to try to attack you in the middle of the field,” Grantham said. “They're always going to attack you underneath with some of the drive routes and things like that. And quite honestly, they're going to try to find ways to run the ball and be physical that way. Those are really the biggest things that I see with Jimbo is utilizing the personnel.
“When he's got a guy that's an elite back, he's going to have plays that will go to him. If he's got a receiver, he's going to go to him.”
Burney said that while the Aggies have a talented offense, this game will come down to execution. If they do their jobs on defense, they’ll be OK.
“This is the best offense we’re going to face all season,” he said. “Right now during the season, this is the best offense we’re going to see. We have to go out there and execute. Everybody really on the defense, it ain’t just one person, two people, we’re looking out for everybody. So, if we go out there and execute, I feel like we’re going to be pretty good.”
Texas A&M’s offense revolves around senior quarterback Kellen Mond, for better or for worse. Mond is only 125 passing yards away from breaking the school record for career passing yards. He’s also a dynamic athlete who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in his career. However, he’s only completed 58 percent of his career passes and has faltered in the biggest games. Aggies fans have a love-hate relationship with him.
“When he gets out of the pocket, he really makes things happen, so our best thing right now is to try and keep him in the pocket,” UF defensive end Andrew Chatfield said.
Carter’s versatility helping defense
The Gators have been without senior nose tackle Kyree Campbell for the first two games of this season for an unknown reason. It is unknown when or if he’ll return.
While Campbell’s career statistics show just 7.5 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks, his absence was noticeable in the first two games. He had started 24 consecutive games entering this season. He did a good job of filling his gap and allowing the linebackers to roam free and make plays. That hasn’t always been the case without him this season.
While the Gators would certainly benefit from having Campbell back in the lineup this weekend, redshirt junior Zachary Carter has helped fill the void by sliding inside and bumping Tedarrell Slaton to the nose tackle position. Carter tied for the team lead against South Carolina with eight tackles, and he also made 1.5 sacks. He was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week on Monday.
Grantham said Carter’s versatility is a testament to the work he’s put in during the offseason the last couple of years. He probably didn’t have the size or strength to play inside the past two seasons.
Head coach Dan Mullen said Carter has done everything asked of him and is good at playing to his strengths instead of trying to be somebody he’s not.
“That’s a guy that has bought into our program more than or at least as much as any of the D-linemen that we’ve had since we’ve been here in what we expect from him, with the effort from him we expect to play and how we expect him to do it,” Mullen said. He’s done an amazing job of buying into all of that.
“You’ve seen him look at what his strengths are and then play to his strengths and buy into his strengths, and you see the success he’s having now. He’s not going to be a big 340 [pound] inside guy, but he’s really quick. He’s big enough to be quick inside, and he’s not this twitch edge guy, but he’s a big edge guy that has athletic ability. So, that helps him create those different matchups where we can move him around on the field.”