With spring practice in the rearview mirror, SEC coaching staffs are now taking inventory of what they learned in their first full spring in two seasons and readying for the long grind of summer conditioning programs and “talking season.” 

In Gainesville, most of the chatter surrounds Todd Grantham’s much-maligned defense. The Gators were woeful in 2020, finishing 83rd in total defense, 82nd in yards allowed per play, and 74th in scoring defense. Each of those marks was the worst for a Florida defense this century. Florida’s poor defense spoiled the presence of one of the better Florida offenses in the last 30 years, and one that featured a Heisman finalist (Kyle Trask), a Mackey Award-winning tight end (Kyle Pitts) and one of college football’s best playmakers (Kadarius Toney). As a result, a team with a championship ceiling lost 4 games, an outcome that had many in Gator Nation calling for a coordinator change in the offseason.

Florida is one of two SEC programs (Alabama) to finish in the top 20 in total defense more than 15 times this century. Can Todd Grantham return the defense to its lofty program standard? With so much turnover on offense, he better, or the Gators will have a difficult time repeating as SEC East winners and playing for the SEC Championship in Atlanta. 

Last week, SDS looked at 5 things that will define Florida offensively in 2021. Here are 5 things that will define the Gators defensively.

The line should be vastly improved

In the first 2 seasons of the Dan Mullen era, Grantham’s defensive lines were tenacious groups that were especially good at creating havoc in the backfield. The Gators finished 15th (2018) and 5th (2019) in sack percentage and 9th and 1st in defensive havoc (measured here as plays where pressure contributed to either a sack, lost yardage or an unsuccessful play).

Last season, Florida was decent at getting to the passer (28th in sack percentage) but only average at creating havoc (41st) and relatively poor at everything else, especially setting the edge against opposing run games. 

On film study, the reasons for these problems were multiple. 

First, Florida’s defensive tackles, beyond the departed and consistent Kyree Campbell, did not play well and generate much push, either against the pass or run. Tedarrell Slaton, who was more highly recruited than Campbell, was very average, playing well in the Georgia game but often struggling massively with double teams that came from offenses that knew he was Florida’s most explosive interior linemen.

Florida’s 5-star freshman, Gervon Dexter, showed flashes of his immense talent, but the Gators’ other tackles, undersized or simply not talented enough to play a 12-game schedule that featured 11 SEC foes and a perennial Playoff program in Oklahoma, offered very little in 2020.

To solve that issue, Mullen hit the transfer portal —  hard. Mullen and Grantham brought in 3 transfers, including a pair of Power 5 graduate transfers, to help man the tackle position. The best of that group, Antonio Shelton of Penn State, played in 40 games in the B1G, was productive, and should start immediately. Daquan Newkirk of Auburn is less accomplished than Shelton, but he has played in 30 college football games and adds bulk and experience. 

Dexter, with his first spring practice under his belt and a full season of strength and conditioning with guru Nick Savage ahead of him, should blossom in 2021, and he’s athletic enough to play either the classic 3-technique or nose. Florida coaches love the competitiveness of Jalen Lee as well, and fans seem obsessed with the potential of 430-pound freshman Desmond Watson, who was a bulldozer all spring but would like to play at about 390-400, a staffer told me.

That’s a deeper group inside, which should ease the pressure — and double teams — faced by Florida on the outside, where the Gators are deep and uber-talented. Brenton Cox still needs to improve in run support, but he focused and made strides on that this spring. He’ll start, along with senior Zachary Carter, a team captain and the best edge-setter on the roster. Jeremiah Moon also returns, giving Florida experience and versatility at the all-important Buck. Depth pieces like Khris Bogle and Princely Umanmielen are prize recruits who should give the Gators one of their deepest defensive line rotations in years.

That’s great news because …

The key to better linebacker play is better defensive line play

Chalk this up to a simplistic “rising tide lifts all boats” theory if you want, but it never felt like criticism of coach Christian Robinson and the Florida linebacker corps was fair in 2020. Playing behind undersized defensive tackles that rarely established any push or leverage, Florida’s middle linebackers were often sitting ducks, allowing running backs to have blockers as they entered the second level. On the outside, the lack of a quality edge-setter frequently meant Florida’s young but talented outside linebackers faced more blocking help than usual.

No play exemplifies the lack of quality edge setting and interior line play impacting linebacker play more than this touchdown run by Isaiah Spiller to key Texas A&M’s upset of Florida last season. Florida’s interior went backward at the snap, the first run support fits the gap only to be blown up by a free blocker, and Ventrell Miller, who had to navigate the traffic on the second level, is late to try to tackle Spiller and misses the tackle. Touchdown.

Beyond these issues, the Gators linebackers were also pressed too often into pass coverage help, largely thanks to anemic safety play that required all hands on deck.

Given the circumstances, then, perhaps Robinson’s linebackers did the best they could with the hand they were dealt. With a functional interior line, they should be vastly improved in 2021. Also worth noting is the value of spring practice for what was a young group in 2020: big-time recruits like Derek Wingo, Ty’Ron Hopper and Mohamoud Diabate all could have benefitted from spring football a season ago — and they were influential this spring, per various reports. 

Diabate and Hopper appear ready to break out

Diabate showed signs of future stardom throughout his first 2 seasons. With terrific speed and professional instincts, Diabate carved out a role on special teams early in his freshman season and became an influential part of the linebacker rotation by the end of the campaign.

He added 15 pounds and was excited about the chance to move around and play inside at times in 2021, where his burst will be a problem in Grantham’s exotic blitzing schemes. 

It took a little longer for classmate Ty’Ron Hopper to find his footing, but after a full spring and time in Savage’s strength program, he bulked up to 220 pounds and had a marvelous spring. 

Hopper was the No. 4 outside linebacker recruit in the class of 2019, and he’s already a very good linebacker in pass coverage. If he can adjust to the demands of playing on the edge in the run game, he could give Florida a real weapon outside in 2021.

The Trey Dean story should be your favorite Florida football story in 2021

If Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney embodied the time-honored but increasingly rare college football story of rewarding patience and resilience in 2020, then safety Trey Dean is the guy who will steal those honors in 2021.

A frequent target of fan base ire for 2 seasons — for reasons that in some respects weren’t his fault — Dean very quietly turned in one of the best seasons of any Florida defender in 2020. Last year, after moving back to the safety spot he played as a blue-chip recruit, Dean was Florida’s best safety, playing instinctually in run support and proving most of his undergraduate coverage woes were a result of playing out of position.

His SEC Championship Game interception and fumble after a borderline targeting hit from behind is the moment people will remember, but PFF rated Dean as 1 of the best 30 safeties in college football in 2020, which makes you wonder how he ended up stuck behind the likes of Donovan Stiner and others on the depth chart.

As a senior, his time is now — and he’s waited and worked for it. For that, and the fact he’ll offer a real chance to improve a safety unit that otherwise had a miserable 2020, Florida fans should really appreciate Dean in 2021.

The unforgiving schedule means fans will learn about the defense quickly

The word in spring football was that the defense was well ahead of the offense. That’s a positive sign, but also one that is hard to gauge for two reasons. First, with spring ball closed to the media and fans, and no spring game, there wasn’t any real observational mechanism to corroborate the messaging coming out of camp from coaches and insiders.

Even when spring football has portions of practice and scrimmages open to the media, it’s often difficult to measure progress in the world of spring football, where limited tackling and schematic experimentation are a given. Second, and this dovetails with the first reason, it is painfully difficult to filter out and separate coach commentary from insider noise when spring practice is closed. So it is hard to say how much of the narrative of “defense ahead of offense” is legitimate and how much is coaching staff messaging. None of the above means that the pieces aren’t largely in place for a big defensive turnaround — it just means we can’t say anything with too much confidence beyond “it can’t really get any worse.”

The good, or maybe for Florida fans, nerve-racking news? 

Florida’s schedule sets up to where the Gators will have answers about the defense very quickly in 2021. There won’t be answers in Game 1, as Florida plays FAU in the opener. But after a road trip to an improved USF, the Gators get Alabama in The Swamp in Week 3. There’s no better test of where you are at than the Crimson Tide, who at last look were scoring half-a-hundred on Florida in the SEC Championship Game.