If the Florida defense were a song, it would be “Starting Over” by Chris Stapleton. It’s Year 1 AG (After Grantham), and that dull roar you hear is Gators fans rejoicing.

A Florida defense that spent 18 of the first 20 seasons of the decade ranked in at least the top 25 nationally in total defense closed the Grantham era with 2 years outside the top 50. The Gators ranked 51st nationally in total defense a season ago, per CFB Stats, and hit rock bottom in allowing 52 points to a middling FCS Samford team in The Swamp last November.

“Calling a win disappointing is disrespectful to the game and our players,” Dan Mullen said after that performance. Mullen was fired a week later, but I have one parting thought: Calling what Florida put on the field defensively the past 2 seasons a “Gator defense” is disrespectful to the program’s history on that side of the football.

Ferocious defenses defined the Urban Meyer era, guiding the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008. And of course it wasn’t until Steve Spurrier hired Bob Stoops to run his defense that Florida finally broke through and won the national title under the HBC in 1996. The defenses in the 1980s were plenty dominant too, led by stalwarts like Wilbur Marshall and Brad Culpepper. In fact, since 1980, no program in college football has finished in the top 25 nationally in total defense more than the Gators, per Stats Solutions.

Grantham failed spectacularly at sustaining Florida’s tradition and that failure eroded the solid foundation built by Mullen in his first 2 seasons all too quickly. The Gators squandered a generationally good (yes, generational, per: yards per play, scoring offense, and passing offense numbers) offense in 2020, finishing 8-4 instead because they couldn’t stop anyone, and not much changed a season ago.

Enter Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer, the co-defensivce coordinators hired by Billy Napier to fix the mess. Spencer, with his NFL background and a reputation as a tremendous defensive line coach and solid recruiter, gives a veteran presence to the young star Toney, who became a highly sought-after commodity after using his modern scheme to help Napier’s Louisiana defenses to top 20 finishes over the past 2 seasons. 

The pair liked what they saw from their personnel in the spring, and with a few key returnees, this could be one of the SEC’s most improved units in 2022.

Here are 7 way-too-early predictions for the 2022 Gators defense.

Florida posts its best yards-per-play against number since 2016

Florida surrendered 5.4 yards per snap a season ago, per CFB Stats, and the Gators were even worse (5.8) in 2020. The Gators’ best mark under Grantham was 4.8, in 2019, but even that was almost a half-yard worse than the best Florida defenses of the previous 10 seasons. The 2016 defense, which helped Florida to the SEC Championship Game, surrendered just 4.5 per snap, good for a 4th-place finish nationally. The 2022 defense won’t be that elite, but they will be better than the 2019 number and finish around 4.7 or so, which should make them a top 20 defense in yards per play against, a dramatic improvement.

Gervon Dexter is an All-American

Spencer, known as Coach Chaos in his time with Penn State and the New York Football Giants, earned the nickname for both his fiery demeanor on the sideline and his innovative ways of getting his players to use proper technique on the practice field. Dexter, a 5-star recruit with outstanding athleticism, is a guy who was making progress under universally respected d-line coach David Turner last season but will thrive as a junior under Spencer’s tutelage and in Toney’s scheme.

Dexter accounted for 51 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 7 quarterback hits and a pass breakup last season — and did it playing in Grantham’s bizarre 3-4. Toney’s scheme, which relies less on boundary blitzes and instead rewards technique up front and helps talented tackles gain favorable matchups with simulated blitzes and stunts that often prevent double teams, is tailor-made for Dexter.

A new father on track to graduate early, Dexter is playing for an NFL contract. He’ll have a massive season and become Florida’s first All-American defensive tackle since Sharrif Floyd in 2012.

Ventrell Miller steadies the run defense

Florida’s largest problem the past 2 seasons? The Gators were bullied consistently at the point of attack in the run game. How much of this was due to the defensive line lacking much push is up for debate, but what isn’t up for debate is that the linebackers struggled mightily to maintain gap control and clean plays up before backs could get into the open field. Twice last season, Florida surrendered program-high rushing yardage totals (losses to South Carolina and LSU). A season before, Florida scored 38 points at Texas A&M and managed to lose anyway because it couldn’t slow the Aggies’ run game).

Last season, UF’s run defense started strong but collapsed shortly after the loss of senior All-SEC middle linebacker Ventrell Miller for the season after just 2 games. Miller is a 3-down linebacker who thrives against the run, and he’ll be Florida’s leading tackler and a huge reason this is a vastly improved run defense in 2022.

Jason Marshall Jr. collects 5 interceptions

It’s been a long time since the Gators had a pure menace of a ball hawk in their secondary. Marshall Jr. lived up to his 5-star billing in 2022, stepping into a starting role early in October and never letting it go. Marshall broke up 2 passes and interecepted another in November alone, and on the season, opponents completed under 50% of their throws targeting the freshman.

Florida should be solid at the other corner spot, meaning offensive coordinators won’t simply be able to throw away from Marshall. The result will be a 5 interception campaign for Marshall and a whole lot of All-SEC chatter in the postseason.

Safety remains a struggle

For most the past 40 years, Florida has produced outstanding safety after outstanding safety. Louis Oliver, Adrian White, Will White, Jarvis Williams, Marcus Maye and Matt Elam are just a few of the safeties to earn either first-team All-SEC and consensus All-American honors since 1980. “Safety U” might be a stretch, but if you want a strong reason that Florida was a legitimate part of the “DBU” debate as long as they were (they are not now, at least in Year 1 AG),  excellence at safety would be as good a reason as any.

This season, Rashad Torrence II is the guy with a knack for the big hit and a high NFL ceiling. Beyond the junior from Marietta, Ga., there are mostly just question marks at the position. Trey Dean has had his moments, but consistency hasn’t exactly been a hallmark. Five-star recruit Kamari Wilson is an exciting talent, but can a freshman safety ever truly be ready in the rough and tumble SEC? Corey Collier Jr. and Donovan McMillon, who had an interception in the spring game, add depth but haven’t contributed at a high level yet.

Unless Dean finds consistency, this will be another up and down year for Florida at the postion, and a lack of top-end speed and coverage ability on the roster will shortchange the ceiling of Toney’s first defense a bit.

Scoring defense is back in the top 25, anyway

The Gators ranked in the bottom third in the country in scoring defense in both of the past 2 seasons, with last year’s 26.6 points allowed per game ranking a grotesque 12th in the SEC. There’s not much room to go but up, but how far up?

To be a top-25 scoring defense in 2021, a team had to allow 21.6 points or fewer.

Will Toney and Spencer’s leadership be worth 5 points over Todd Grantham? In a word? Yes.

Princely Umanmielen becomes the breakout star on defense in 2022

SEC fans know about Dexter and Marshall, two of the most highly-recruited players in the conference.

A less known commodity is defensive end Princely Umanmielen. The sophomore turned heads all spring with his strength and physicality. At 6-4, 260, he’s able to stay low to the ground and makes life difficult on linemen to establish leverage.

He finished the 2021 campaign with 18 tackles and 2 sacks, but he really didn’t play much until Grantham was dismissed after the South Carolina loss. The Texan will be first man up to replace NFL-bound Zachary Carter (Bengals, Round 3), and he will deliver the goods after a positive spring camp and summer.