Better or Worse? Previewing Florida's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Coming Tuesday: Georgia.
While Florida’s offense took a big leap in Year 1 under Dan Mullen, the defense also had a bounce back season following a season of growing pains in 2017.
Todd Grantham took over at defensive coordinator and quickly helped a program with a proud history reclaim its usual status as one of the more reliable, fast and dominant units in college football. The Gators finished in the top 25 nationally in several categories, including sacks (20th), pass efficiency defense (17th), total defense (23rd), S & P+ Defense (17th), QB pressure rate (8th),and success rate defense (21st), which measures the percentage of opponent plays where a “successful” number of yards is gained on a given play.
The Gators also produced 26 turnovers, good for 7th nationally, helping an improving offense immensely by providing them short fields. Florida’s defense keyed the team’s 3 biggest wins of the season — a 13-6 victory at No. 22 Miss State, the 27-19 win over No. 5 LSU capped by Brad Stewart’s pick-6 of Joe Burrow (below), and the 41-15 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl rout of No. 7 Michigan, which featured two Chauncey Gardner-Johnson interceptions of Shea Patterson.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 6, 2018
Still, there’s room for improvement in 2019.
Florida struggled to fit gaps on run defense against elite opponents, finishing a pedestrian 65th in rushing defense. Limited by recruiting misses and depth issues at the 3-technique position and with only a couple SEC-caliber edge setters, the Gators’ rushing defense issues made them vulnerable on third down and medium to short, which led to Florida finishing a very ordinary 52nd in third-down defense. Finally, Florida’s red zone defense, despite one heroic stand against Georgia, was downright abysmal in 2018, with opponents converting red zone trips to points at a 91% clip, leaving the Gators 115th nationally (and 13th in the SEC!) in red-zone defense.
These were all areas of emphasis for the Gators in the spring, and for the most part, they all trace back to inconsistency fitting run gaps against quality opponents. If Florida is to challenge in the SEC East this season, they’ll need improvement in these vital areas to complement the always elite Gators secondary unit.
Will they get it?
Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Same
Led by the talented trio of Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson, the Gators were among the nation’s best defenses at pressuring the quarterback in 2018.Grantham’s mastery at employing exotic blitz schemes also assured that Florida used its speed from the linebacker and secondary positions to affect quarterbacks as well.
Polite, Jefferson and frequent blitzing linebacker Vosean Joseph are all off to the NFL in 2019, but Jabari Zuniga returns and was virtually unblockable all spring. Also back is Adam Shuler, who helped the Gators interior play their best football late in the season., Florida has also added transfer Jonathan Greenard, an All-ACC player at Louisville, to the group and he should slot in nicely at the buck/edge spot that Grantham has used to great success with players like Montez Sweat, Jarvis Jones and Polite.
The Gators haven’t recruited well enough inside, in truth, but one blue-chip they do have is Tedarrell Slaton, who struggled with conditioning as a freshmen but has made strides in the spring and summer. If Florida can get a bigger interior push, they’ll be even more difficult to block on the edges, which should lead to another fierce pass rush in 2019.
Run defense: Better
Given Florida’s very average marks in this area last season, even a mild improvement seems likely.
The big questions remain inside, where Florida needs someone beyond Adam Shuler to be a SEC-caliber tackle.
The good news? Florida has recruited exceptionally well at linebacker, stockpiling the unit with blue-chip talents that can complement All-SEC middle linebacker David Reese, who remains the team’s best run stopper.
In particular, James Houston and Ventrell Miller are good form tacklers at linebacker who are strong and play with excellent leverage. Another David Reese, a highly touted redshirt freshman out of Vero Beach, provides speed and size for run blitzes. Finally, anyone who saw the Gators this spring has raved about blue-chip Amari Burney, who is moving to the “Star” spot from the secondary. Burney is fast, strong and a three-down type player, but he will be a better tackler than Gardner-Johnson, which should give the Gators a run defense boost.
Passing defense: Better
A top 20 finish in pass efficiency defense is good, but the Gators can be even better in 2019.
Beyond his ability to tackle, a big reason Burney upgrades the Florida linebacker corps immediately is he provides Florida a sideline to sideline coverage linebacker they haven’t had since Jarrad Davis graduated and moved to the NFL. Joseph, Jeremiah Moon and even David Reese were all limited in their ability to cover running backs and tight ends, as Florida fans found out painfully last year in Jacksonville where they were torched by Isaac Nauta. Burney should help alleviate those issues, as will talented newcomer Mohamoud Diabate, the most complete of Florida’s quartet of blue-chip linebacker signees.
As for the secondary, well … DBU going to DBU.
C.J. Henderson (cover photo, above) is arguably the nation’s best cover corner. According to Pro Football Focus. Henderson did not allow a single touchdown in 2018 and led all returning SEC corners with a 44 passer rating against throws into his coverage last year. His 12 forced incompletions also led the SEC.
Marco Wilson returns from an ACL injury and looked terrific all spring. An All-SEC corner as a freshman, Wilson gives the Gators the SEC’s top pair of starting corners. Trey Dean, an All-SEC freshmen team performer, will try to fill Gardner-Johnson’s big shoes at nickel, but has the talent to do so. The loss of Florida’s top-ranked 2019 signee, Chris Steele, hurts from a depth standpoint, but the staff is outwardly confident that another blue-chip corner, Jaydon Hill, who was on campus in the spring, can contribute this fall. Another blue-chipper, corner Kair Elam, arrived on campus this summer and should also add immediate depth.
Florida’s safeties were inconsistent last season compared to the lofty program standard set by NFL regulars Keanu Neal, Reggie Nelson and Marcus Maye, but per Pro Football Focus, Stewart forced more incompletions than any returning SEC safety other than Grant Delpit in 2018, which is a testament to his upside. Another blue-chip player, John Huggins, was a force for Florida’s special teams as a freshman, had a big spring and should make a leap and help the safety unit be a more stable group for Grantham this fall.
After finishing outside the top 50 in total defense for the first time in a decade in 2017, the Gators returned to being a consistent unit in 2018 under Grantham. More important, they brought back the explosive, game-changing turnovers that have been a staple of Florida’s defenses this century.
A top 20 defense is good, but Florida fans are used to their defense being even better, having fielded 7 units in the top 12 this decade alone. In fact, only Alabama (9!) has fielded more top 10 defenses this decade in the SEC than the Gators (6). This Florida unit has a chance to meet that lofty standard.