Florida and LSU appear to be heading in two completely different directions. The Gators have clinched the SEC East and have a shot at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, the defending national champion Tigers are 3-5 this season, are coming off a 38-point shellacking at the hands of Alabama, and have had a number of star players opt-out.
Still, UF cannot afford to get caught peeking ahead to Alabama. LSU still has elite talent spread across its depth chart on both sides of the ball. On offense, they have a pair of talented running backs in Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery and an electric five-star receiver in Kayshon Boutte.
“When you look at the guys that are playing, they're young, and you can see the talent,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “It's just they're young and continuing to grow and develop, kind of like our young guys. From that standpoint, we understand that they have skill, they have speed, they have talent, and really, it's more about us executing to our ability and playing our game and playing to our standard. If we do that, I think we should be fine.”
On defense, the Tigers have a massive defensive line that still ranks in the top half of the league in sacks and tackles-for-loss and a pair of future millionaires at cornerback in Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks.
The Tigers have the parts to be an excellent team. They just haven’t put the pieces together for any length of time. They have the Gators’ complete attention.
“They have a couple dominating wins where they came in and blew people out,” head coach Dan Mullen said. “A couple of games went right down to the wire for them. They’ve had a couple of games where, I'm sure, kind of went the wrong way for them with a young team, how they didn't expect it to go, and ended up on the short end of those games. So, you see a lot of different things from them as a team. As a young team, they're growing, learning but a dangerous team because they have weapons all over the field.”
The Gators are highly motivated following their loss to LSU in Baton Rouge last year. Florida led 28-21 early in the third quarter before fading away late. Some of LSU’s fans weren’t exactly friendly in letting the Gators know about their triumph after the game. This has the feeling of a revenge game.
“That definitely left a bad taste in our mouth last year, and we’re coming out ready to dominate this week,” defensive end Zachary Carter said.
Defense harassing quarterbacks
After an up-and-down start to the season for the Gators’ pass-rush, they’ve turned it on of late. They sacked Tennessee’s two quarterbacks a season-high six times last week.
However, while sacks are great, Grantham cares more about affecting the quarterback. Sometimes, affecting the quarterback comes in the form of sacks. Other times, it means forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball before he wants to or hold onto it too long because he’s not confident in what he sees. Sacks are a symptom of affecting the quarterback, not a defining characteristic. It takes all 11 players on the field to successfully affect the quarterback.
“You affect the quarterback a lot of ways,” Grantham said. “One, you can affect him obviously with blitzes and rush and that kind of thing. The other way you can affect him is with looks and kind of make him see something but yet go to something else. We try to make him get what we call a post-snap read. When you face an experienced quarterback, they have a little more knowledge and understanding, so that has to be maybe a next-level-type look as opposed to a younger guy. It can be maybe a little bit simpler from that standpoint because they haven’t played as many games; they haven’t seen as many snaps and that kind of thing.”
Veteran quarterbacks have generally seen more coverages and pressures throughout their careers than younger players and are more prepared and poised to handle them. So, the defensive staff has to get a little more creative to throw them off of their game.
“Older guys or more experienced guys have a clock in them that they can kind of maybe have a little bit quicker recognition based upon the experience they have,” Grantham said. “So, you’re always trying to work that.”
With LSU set to rotate a pair of true freshmen at quarterback, the Gators are expecting another monster day from the pass-rush.
“We know going against a young quarterback, a lot of times they get rattled in the pocket and things like that,” Carter said. “They get uncomfortable in the pocket. So, we know if we do our job and get a lot of pressure on him, we can affect the game.”
Johnson on the move?
One thing that comes with having a highly successful program is other programs courting your assistant coaches to be their head coach, and that’s a scenario that UF is facing with offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. Johnson had his first-ever head coaching interview with South Carolina last week.
While the Gamecocks later hired Shane Beamer, Johnson said the interview was still a positive experience for him.
“I think at the end of the day, when you get in this profession and you do a good job, people notice and you get opportunities,” Johnson said. “It was good to get those reps, but I’m really looking forward to what we have going on here.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity and really grateful for everything I’ve learned from [Mullen]. I’m really appreciative of how he’s really put people in a position to advance their careers and become a better football coach and develop as a football coach. I can’t say enough about how I appreciate that from him.”
While Johnson didn’t get the South Carolina job, it seems like only a matter of when he gets a head coaching job, not if. Few other assistant coaches around the country can compete with a resume that includes developing a high school backup into a Heisman Trophy contender.
The Gators are confident that he’ll make a great head coach when he finally gets his opportunity.
“He’s a dynamic person,” Grantham said. “He’s a great staff guy. He’s very knowledgeable about the offense and football in general. The other thing is he has a great relationship with his players and has the ability to communicate. Anytime you can communicate with players and get them to believe – belief is a powerful tool, and it allows you to get the most out of guys.”
Added Johnson’s star pupil, Kyle Trask: “I think he'll definitely be a great head coach when his time comes. He's a natural leader and knows how to score points, and he's played in big games. He's played against, I think, Alabama when he was at Utah. He's played in big games in college and has proved that he can be a great coach at the highest level in college, so I think he would make a great head coach.”
Johnson isn’t Mullen’s first assistant coach to draw interest from other schools. After last season, tight ends coach Larry Scott left to run the Howard program. Grantham has drawn some interest from college and NFL teams for head coaching and coordinator positions. One of Mullen’s defensive coordinators at Mississippi State, Manny Diaz, eventually got the head coaching job at Miami. Grantham said the number of assistant coaches who get head coaching opportunities is a testament to the culture and player development plan that Mullen has put in place.
“There’s an understanding of how to develop players and really get the most out of the players you have,” Grantham said. “That’s really what coaching is about is taking the players you have, and how do I get players to play to their ability? I think that’s what we do a really good job of.”
UF still sixth in CFP rankings
For the third consecutive week, the Gators checked in at No. 6 in the College Football Playoff committee’s rankings that were released on Tuesday night. The top-6 has yet to change since the committee released its first rankings in late November.
The Gators likely control their own destiny. Wins over LSU and No. 1 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game would all but guarantee UF a spot in the playoff.
- Zachary Carter says the improved run defense starts in practice. They've made sure they're stout in their fits, and that's shown on Saturdays.
- Donovan Stiner says it's no question that Trask should win the Heisman. He thinks it should be an easy decision if you look at the numbers even if you're not a Gator.
- Read everything that was said during today’s press conference on the We Chomp Chat.