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Florida Football

Notebook: Defense improving, but big plays linger

November 17, 2020
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When Florida returned from their two-week hiatus caused by a COVID outbreak, objective No. 1 was to clean up a defense that was giving away points like they were running a charity.

For the most part, they’ve done that. In the three games since then, if you exclude a pair of pick-sixes, UF has given up 327.7 yards and 22 points per game. Opponents have converted just 21.6 percent of third downs.

However, they’re still giving up too many explosive plays. Georgia scored a 75-yard rushing touchdown and would’ve had several more explosive plays if not for terrible quarterback play, and Arkansas scored touchdowns of 47, 83, and 82 yards.

“Any play is a big deal,” safety Rashad Torrence said. “As a defense, you don’t want to give up any play over a yard really. Those big plays, as a defense, and especially this defense, we don’t accept those plays, and it does frustrate us. It just makes us want to go out there and play better and eliminate those plays.”

Because UF’s offense has scored points at a historic rate, it hasn’t hurt them yet. But that propensity to give up yards and points in huge chucks could loom large against a certain team that wears crimson and white next month.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said it all boils down to all 11 players doing their job on every play. All it takes is for one guy to lose contain, and the entire defense looks bad. He believes they have the potential to be an excellent defense. Not counting an end-of-half scenario when the Gators played a prevent-style defense, they held Arkansas to one first down or fewer on five of nine possessions. The few lapses they had were costly.

“You need all 11 guys to be on the same page or in the right gap or doing their job because, if you have 10 guys going one way and another guy going another way, you can create a seam,” Grantham said.

“The good thing is, during the course of the game, the plays that were explosive plays actually showed up in the game again because, obviously, people are going to repeat those plays and see if you fixed it, and both of the plays that were explosive plays – well, all three of them actually – ended up being either negative-yardage plays or no-gain plays. So, therefore, it's something that is obviously correctable. It gets down to consistency and making sure you do it right all the time.”

Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said they work hard during the week to correct the mistakes that led to big plays, but they try to not think about negative plays much during the game.

“It's frustration, but just like Coach Grantham says, you have to let it go and go on to the next play because, if you're focusing on what happened last drive, guess what? Next drive, something similar might happen because you're thinking about the past,” he said. “So, what he really tells us to do and what we really focus on is just have a short-term memory when we're in the game and get the corrections from him, and then move forward.”

Pass-rush kicking into gear

Grantham is known for being one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in the country, maybe even the most aggressive. He’s a mad scientist of sorts. No matter what happens defensively, what players leave after a season, or how good the opposing offense is, you can always count on Grantham’s defense to rank among the nation’s leaders in sacks.

At least, that’s what the perception was of Grantham entering this season. Then the Texas A&M game happened. Florida failed to record a sack against the Aggies, and they rarely even laid a hand on quarterback Kellen Mond.

Like several other aspects of the defense, the pass-rush has rebounded nicely since then. They’ve made 10 sacks in the last three games and narrowly missed out on a few more. Their consistent pressure has helped contribute to six turnovers during that span. They’re now back in their familiar spot – leading the SEC in sacks per game.

While the sacks and tackles-for-loss are nice, Grantham said those aren’t the most important things he looks for in a pass-rush.

“You obviously have to have pressure to get after the quarterback,” he said. “You also want to find ways that you can make the pre-snap look like one thing, yet when the ball’s snapped, it goes to something else to make him have a choice. Either I hold the ball [and] take a hit or throw the ball where I shouldn’t. When you get that, that’s when you start getting sacks and turnovers and things like that. For example, in the Georgia game at the end, when you had those turnovers, that was a little bit of a product of that kind of thing. So, I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s not always about the sacks; it’s about ‘How can I affect this guy’s mentality? How can I affect this guy’s decision-making skills throughout the entire game?’”

Grantham credits the uptick in production upfront to the time his players have dedicated to improving their technique and studying their opponents.

“We always talk to our guys, ‘What’s your plan in the rush? How’s the guy rushing you? Well, if he’s doing these things, then these are the things I need to do,’” he said. “So, we kind of work on that and just continue to develop ourselves and always working to improve. I think the one thing that it does show is when you’re high in sacks like that … it does show your effort because a lot of times sacks can be an effort play.”

Henderson coming along

Wide receiver Xzavier Henderson was one of the biggest and most surprising members of UF’s 2020 recruiting class. Though his brother, CJ, Henderson was a standout cornerback for the Gators and was drafted in the first round, Xzavier was long thought to a Clemson lean. Instead, he committed to UF last January at the All-American Bowl.

“That was a hard decision to make,” Henderson said on Tuesday. “In the end, I guess it came down to where I felt most at home. Like I was saying throughout my recruitment, if I take football and sports out of the picture, like, where would I be at home? Plus, I don’t like the cold.”

The Gators are certainly glad he made that decision. He’s been a regular member of the receiving rotation throughout the season, which was something Henderson expected to be the case no matter where he ended up deciding to go to college.

However, he didn’t get off to the greatest start. The 6-foot-4, 191-pounder who combines state track champion speed with physicality caught just two passes for 32 yards in the first five games. He dropped a couple of passes that should’ve been easy catches for him and ran a wrong route that led to a pick-six against Georgia. He looked lost and somewhat confused, like he wasn’t ready to play at the SEC level just yet.

He turned it around against Arkansas. He caught three passes for 62 yards and his first career touchdown. He was on the receiving end of one of the biggest highlights of the game when he caught a 43-yard flea-flicker pass from Kyle Trask while backpedaling and stumbling.

Henderson said it’s been great to learn from coach Billy Gonzales and his older teammates.

“They have so much knowledge that they pass it on to me,” he said. “Like, after every rep, you see them come talking to me and coaching me through reps. Coach Gonzales, he’s going to help hold you accountable, no matter who it is. You could be from Trevon Grimes to an incoming freshman; he’s going to hold you accountable, hold you to that Gator Standard.”

Quick Hitters

  • Grantham said Marco Wilson's best play of the year was his tackle on third-and-short on the tight end against Arkansas to keep him short. He fronted him up and played physical. That's a testament to the way he's worked. You've got to have thick skin to play corner because you're on an island a lot where people notice all of your mistakes.
  •  Mohamoud Diabate says playing a traditional linebacker role has been a good opportunity to expand his skillset. The biggest adjustment is having to deal with faster players in open space
  • Everything that was said during today’s press-conferences is posted in the We Chomp Chat

Notebook: Defense improving, but big plays linger

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