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Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham along with Antonio Valentino and Avery Helm spoke to the media on Monday night to discuss Saturday’s game against Tennessee and preview this weekend’s game against Kentucky.
Here are the main takeaways:
- Grantham had a lot of praise for Kentucky and Mark Stoops as a coach. “Mark (Stoops) has done a tremendous job there from a program identity standpoint,” Grantham said. “The way they play the game is the right way. This will be a lot tougher challenge structurally. They are a lot tougher than we saw last week.” He pointed out the physicality of the offensive line.
- Kentucky brought in a lot of playmakers from the transfer portal over the offseason. Specifically, Penn State quarterback transfer Will Levis brings a great playmaking ability to the Wildcats’ offense. “He’s got a good arm. He can run it on designed quarterback runs,” he said. “He can escape pressure and extend plays that way. He understands where to throw the ball relevant to the coverages that you play.” Grantham also brought up Wan’Dale Robinson (#1 for Kentucky). He described him as “dynamic” and an “explosive threat down the field.”
- Grantham also discussed Tennessee’s explosive plays that resulted in two touchdowns. “Up until last week, we had a good job on the explosive plays,” he said. “In the last game, there was two. One was a tackle that we got to finish better. The other was eye control. You got to have better eyes.” He brought up how well the defense responded. Tennessee ran the same deep play later in the game, and Trey Dean read it and made a great play to stop it.
- He reminisced about the 2019 game against Kentucky. “We were backed into a corner. I do remember Feleipe was laying there, and Jon Greenard was pretty upset. I told him, ‘You got to keep playing for him and for everyone else,’” Grantham said. Jon did a good job of bringing the defense together.” He brought up how the defense made a big fourth-down stop that ended up resulting in a touchdown drive for the offense. He also discussed Kyle Trask and his emergence during that game. “When he went into the game and after the first couple of drives, I said, ‘We’re going to win the game,’” he said.
- Valentino has a personal experience and relationship with Kentucky quarterback Will Levis as they both played together at Penn State. “He is very good with his legs,” he said. “He can air it out when he needs to. He is playing in an offense he is comfortable in and has weapons around him.” He gave personal insight about Levis during the position meetings today. Kentucky runs a lot of play-action with Levis, but Valentino noted that play-action only works if you establish the run first. “The first rule of playing defensive line is stopping the run,” he said. Finally, Levis went viral over the offseason for eating a banana with the peel. “I did not know he was eating bananas like that,” Valentino said.
- Although from Penn State, Valentino has played Kentucky before. He noted that his first career start was against Kentucky in the 2019 Citrus Bowl. “They had Benny Snell running the ball, and they ran all over us,” Valentino said. “That’s an NFL back with an SEC offensive line. Although they have different coordinators, they still have an identity with running the ball.” He described their offensive line as “tough and physical.” To conclude, he said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” on why Kentucky continues to have an identity with running the ball.”
- This weekend will also be Valentino’s first away SEC game of his career, but he said that playing in the Big 10 has helped him prepare. “It doesn’t matter how big your stadium is,” Valentino said. “What matters is the electricity. I love going into hostile environments. I feel like the bad guy.”
- Valentino was asked about his wing eating contest with Desmond Watson that was canceled. The place ran out of chicken wings when they originally went, he said. They were going to try to reschedule for this Sunday, but he had another commitment. He still really wants to do the contest, but he added that there is no chance he can beat Watson.
- Helm discussed his growth as a defensive back over the course of the season. He has started all four games this season. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is getting more comfortable on the field,” Helm said. “It is all coming a lot easier. I am growing at a fast pace.”
- Helm arrived in Gainesville coming off a big injury in high school. He tore his ACL late into his junior year and missed the first eight games of his senior year. “I came to UF at 155 pounds,” Helm said. “I used last year to recover and get strong.” He described the recovery as still an ongoing process, but he praised strength coach Nick Savage for pushing him to keep getting stronger
- Although a young member of the Gators’ secondary, Helm has experience with hostile crowds from his high school days. “In high school, we knew we were going into hostile environments, but we knew they were going to dominate,” he said. He added that he cannot wait to be boo’d by the Kentucky crowd. “I haven’t been boo’d yet,” Helm said. “I just want to experience that.”
WCC: Updates on everything Todd Grantham, Antonio Valentino, and Avery Helm had to say can be seen HERE.