There are a ton of alarming and unfathomable statistics that can be used to describe the Gators’ defense through the first three games of this season, such as 495 total yards per game, 331 passing yards per game, 6.3 yards per play, and a 61-percent opponent conversion rate on third and fourth downs.
However, perhaps the most concerning thing about the defense is the lack of impact plays. With more innovative offensive schemes, more polished quarterbacks, and a greater abundance of skill-position talent than the college game has ever seen before, you’re going to give up 500 yards or 30 points in a game every now and then. Gone are the days of being able to ride a dominant defense to a championship.
So, it’s important for a defense to create game-changing plays: sacks, tackles-for-loss, and turnovers. The Gators haven’t done that. They’ve made eight sacks this season, which is a good number, but they came in quick spurts against Ole Miss and South Carolina. When they went against potentially the league’s best offensive line at Texas A&M, they rarely rattled quarterback Kellen Mond. They’ve recovered just two fumbles, and one of them can be chalked up to poor execution on a toss play by South Carolina. Freshman defensive tackle Gervon Dexter has the only interception, and there haven’t exactly been a bunch of close calls outside of that play.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said the keys to creating more negative plays are to play more physical and for each player to focus on just executing his assignment on a given play. They can’t try to be superheroes and force something big to happen.
“We have to improve our physicality, and I don’t just mean in the front,” Grantham said. “I’m talking about across the board in everything we do. That means tighter coverage, contested, physical at the point, just really improve our physicality as a defense in general. And then the next thing is as opportunities present themselves, we’ve got to make plays. You can say play zone, play man. At the end of the day, as routes distribute, everything becomes basically a one-on-one deal. So, we have to be able to make plays in our one-on-one matchups. When opportunities present themselves, we’ve got to make plays.”
Linebacker James Houston said confidence and talent is not an issue. They know they have the talent to be a much better defense. It’s a matter of having better execution and leadership.
“We have dudes,” Houston said. “We’ve got dudes that can go get the passer. We’ve got dudes that can create turnovers. We’ve got dudes that’s going to go back there and lay the wood. We have the players. That’s not an issue. It’s just the execution factor of getting to it and playing the way we know each individual player can.
“We’re going to get those one-on-one matchups. We’re the Florida Gators, we’ve got to win. We’ve got that talent. Some of the guys integrating that every day in practice are Ventrell Miller, Kaiir Elam, Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis, those type of players, every day. You talk about getting to the ball, running to the ball, being fast and aggressive.”
Head coach Dan Mullen has said multiple times over the past two weeks that they will evaluate what they’re doing defensively to ensure that their players are in the best possible situations. Grantham said that having two weeks off thanks to the team’s COVID-19 outbreak helped in that regard.
“It allowed us to go through kind of a self-scout deal, look at things we’ve done, the players that we have available, which we always try to do to say, ‘What are the best matchups for us to be successful?’” he said. “And really try to implement the players we’ve got relative to that. It’s really about a matchup, trying to get our best 11 relevant to the situation on the field to be successful.”
How that period of self-evaluation might affect the starting lineup is anyone’s best guess. Mullen and Grantham have been very vague when discussing potential changes.
Whatever those changes are, the Gators are only a few days away from finding out if they work. As could be expected, the defense looked a little rusty in their first practice in two weeks on Monday, Grantham said, but they looked more comfortable on Tuesday.
“I think the biggest thing is, as a coach, as a player, you have a routine, and Monday means this, Tuesday means this,” Grantham said. “You kind of get into ‘Here's a call we're going to have relative to the situation.’ Well, when you get that layoff, you may have something that you may only call twice in a week because it doesn't show up. If you called it for the last eight weeks, you kind of have some continuity or some carryover. Well, when you have that 14-day lag, some of those things can be new again. You kind of got to refresh it. So really, it's just trying to get back into routine to allow us to be ready on Saturday."
More playing time for young defenders?
With the defense struggling mightily and this season not counting against anyone’s eligibility, some fans have wondered if the Gators might give some more playing time to a highly regarded group of young players. Through three games, Dexter and safety Rashad Torrence have been the only freshmen on defense to consistently play significant snaps.
What do they have to lose by throwing players like Derek Wingo, Ty’Ron Hopper, and Tre’Vez Johnson out there? It’s not like they can get any more historically awful than they already are.
Well, according to Grantham, they do have something to lose by rushing young players into action too early – their confidence. Once a player’s confidence goes, it’s often a long, uphill battle to get it back.
“It's just based upon who's available and the style of offense we're going to see, whether guys play or not,” he said. “We're developing guys every day, and we'll continue to develop guys, and as guys earn those reps, we'll put them in the game.
“The worst thing to do is to put someone in there, and they're not ready, and they don't have success. Then you have a confidence issue. So, I've always been a guy that I'd rather play him a week late than a week early from a developmental standpoint to make sure they're ready. So, we'll continue to do that based on what we see in practice."
Missouri’s offense a formidable challenge
Missouri’s offense has turned some heads this season. Despite having a first-year head coach who didn’t get a lot of practices to install his system and starting a redshirt freshman quarterback the past two games, the Tigers rank near the middle-of-the-pack in the SEC in most statistical categories, which represents a decent improvement from last season.
What stands out the most to Grantham is the variety of ways that they’ve gotten the job done. They bombarded LSU through the air to the tune of 406 passing yards and four touchdowns in a 45-41 win. In their most recent game, a win over Kentucky, they ran 92 plays, converted 14 of 25 third and fourth downs and held the ball for more than 43 minutes. The Tigers can kill you with either dynamite or a million paper cuts.
“I'm sure that gives them confidence,” Grantham said. “So, you understand that they’ll have confidence. They’ll be a challenge. Their running backs are excellent. They're obviously the strength of their team and what they can do. So, we've got to understand that, and we've got to play our style, our brand and play with the physicality needed to be successful."
Gators found unusual ways to stay sharp
Due to the virus outbreak, UF decided to quarantine the entire team over the past two weeks as a precaution. However, it wasn’t just a free two weeks off from football. They remained engaged with each other and focused on getting better during their time apart, similar to what they did over the spring and summer.
The coaches conducted regular Zoom meetings with the players to get a jump start on the Missouri game plan, and Director of Strength and Conditioning Nick Savage gave them some drills to do on their own. Quarterback Kyle Trask said it’s very apparent that the players were dialed in based on how they’ve practiced so far this week.
“I think our team did a great job of just staying locked-in and continuing to take that next step in our game mentally,” Trask said. “That’s the most you can do with the situation that was handed to us, and it really showed coming back out to practice this week how locked-in and focused we were during those Zoom meetings and things like that because everybody knew what they were doing. We didn’t miss a beat once we got back to practice.”
Some of the players got a little creative with how they did their position-specific drills without being able to work with teammates. Trask threw at his house, including some with his girlfriend, UF softball player Jade Caraway.
“She's got a nice little arm,” he said
Running back Malik Davis went through the playbook during quarantine.
“For running backs, for anyone on offense, when you run plays, you can run them on air,” he said. “Just putting the bed to the side and running plays in the house just so you get mental reps. That’s one big thing that I think that stood out.
“It was pretty much just me walking through it. Grabbing a chair, using that as my quarterback and just reading off plays and running them from each side."
Houston set up household items to replicate the drills he normally does at practice.
“I set up pads, I put chairs in the way, I had little balls on top of garbage cans to try to help work my hands,” he said. “You have to be creative. If you’re really interested in your craft and want to get better, you’re going to find a way.”