Better or worse? Previewing Florida's defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 1st in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: Georgia.
When Dan Mullen arrived in Gainesville, he immediately set his sights on reviving a moribund offense that had helped drag the program to its nadir, a 4-win campaign in 2017.
The good news? There wasn’t much to do defensively.
Stout defense was the program’s lone constant in a decade mired in mediocrity, and it has remained a program hallmark under the leadership of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who came with Mullen to Florida from Mississippi State. Grantham’s first defense finished in the top 25 nationally in a number of categories, and the top 10 nationally in turnovers produced. Florida’s defense keyed the team’s 3 biggest wins of Mullen’s inaugural season — a 13-6 victory at No. 22 Miss State, a 27-19 win over No. 5 LSU capped by Brad Stewart’s pick-6 of Joe Burrow, and the 41-15 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl rout of No. 7 Michigan, which featured 2 Chauncey Gardner-Johnson interceptions of Shea Patterson.
A year later, the Gators were even better. Florida finished in the top 10 in total defense (9th), S&P+ Defense (7th), rushing defense (8th) and sack percentage (5th) to go along with top 25 marks in yards allowed per play, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense. Once again, the defense was at the heart of the team’s biggest win — dominating then-No. 5 Auburn in a 24-13 win in The Swamp.
Still, as is always the case in Gainesville, there are fans who want more. Better safety play may have helped the Gators win a tight game with Georgia, the program the Gators must shake if they are to reclaim a spot among the national elite. And the defense struggled with the injury bug up front last season, looking very ordinary at times without the All-SEC, now departed to the NFL bookends Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard.
Can Florida improve in the secondary, replace those key pieces up front and continue to improve under Grantham? Or will this year’s unit take a step back?
Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
This doesn’t mean Florida won’t get to the quarterback in 2020. It just means it won’t at a rate that was among the best in the country. Florida finished 5th in sack percentage in 2019, led by Greenard’s SEC-leading 10 sacks.
Further, depending on what you think of the statistic “havoc,” which simply measures the percentage of downs a player disrupts a play in the backfield, the Gators can’t improve. They were No. 1 in the nation in creating havoc last season, per Stats Solutions. A drop-off is inevitable.
How much of a drop-off?
That’s the million-dollar question. Grantham is a master at generating pressure from a variety of places, and he’ll dial up exotic blitzes to replicate the production of Greenard, even if it happens by committee. The question is who emerges as the go-to guy?
Zachary Carter was massively improved in 2019 and a force by the end of the season. Will they consistently line him up on the edge or will he play inside some, as he has the past 2 seasons? Georgia 5-star transfer Brenton Cox Jr. should step nicely into Greenard’s edge spot, a place where Grantham has consistently produced All-SEC players and All-Americans since his UGA days. Will Cox find the consistency and production that he couldn’t in Athens? When healthy, Jeremiah Moon looked fantastic in a hybrid role in 2019. Does he take a jump?
The biggest wildcard? Probably former blue-chip end Khris Bogle. The Fort Lauderdale product was recruited by everyone and Grantham himself sold the young man on staying home instead of attending Alabama, where he had committed. Bogle has length, speed and is said to have added muscle. Is he a year away or is he a force right now? Time will tell.
Run Defense: Better
The big issue under Grantham in his first campaign at Florida was the play on the interior against elite offensive lines. 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 of SEC-caliber edge setters, the Gators’ rushing defense issues made them vulnerable on 3rd down and medium-to-short.
That changed last year, with the Gators finishing a stout 8th nationally against the run.
Grantham coaxed outstanding and consistent production out of Kyree Campbell and Adam Shuler, neither of whom were really elite talents. Now, the Gators have upgraded the talent, with massive tackle Tedarrell Slaton (6-5, 350) and 5-star freshman Gervon Dexter (6-6, 290) both big-time recruits with bulk and athleticism.
There are questions at linebacker, but with Campbell returning and Dexter, Carter, Slaton and Lamar Goods all in the mix inside, Florida should be excellent up front. The run defense will be the strength of the unit.
Pass Defense: Same
This is the toughest one to figure out, because as talented as Florida was at corner in 2019, they were susceptible over the top, ranking 83rd nationally in defending passing plays of 30 yards or more. As a result, the Gators finished 31st in pass efficiency defense, their lowest number since 2007, when a very young secondary suffered growing pains before blossoming into a unit that would win a national championship.
Will it be better in 2020?
Our guess is yes and no. CJ Henderson, the one player on Florida’s defense offensive coordinators schemed around, according to Joe Burrow, is gone to the NFL. In his stead, the steady senior Marco Wilson picks up the leadership mantle and Florida hopes to see All-SEC freshman and Orange Bowl hero Kaiir Elam take a jump and give the Gators two lockdown corners again. There is depth behind them, with a host of blue-chips from Chester Kimbrough, who played well as a freshman, to incoming blue-chip freshman Jahari Rogers and a healthy Jaydon Hill.
The issues at safety, however, remain.
Florida has not recruited well enough at the position, especially for a school that prides itself as “DBU.” The highest-rated recruits are Trey Dean III and Brad Stewart. Dean flopped at nickel in 2019 and is really a man without a position. Stewart is enigmatic. He was on pace to be an All-American in the middle of 2018, but couldn’t stay in line off the field and has battled consistency issues since. Shawn Davis, a 3-star from Miami is a guy most coaches and scouts SDS talked to love — “a gamer with underappreciated speed and big upside,” one Jacksonville Jaguars staffer told SDS, but “he takes rough angles to the football and is a work in progress in coverage.” How much better can he truly play?
Donovan Stiner is all you want in the classroom and at practice, but he’s mostly just a run-stopping safety. The bottom line? This unit will define Florida’s ceiling, and it’s on position coach Ron English and the Florida staff to coax their ceiling out of them.
Special Teams: Worse
Tommy Townsend averaged 44 yards per boot in 2019 and was very good at pinning teams deep on short kicks, ranking in the top 10 in “inside the 20” punts nationally.
The Gators are high on freshman Aussie Jeremy Crenshaw, whom they expect to win the job. But Townsend was a veteran who helped Florida lead the SEC in limiting yards off punt returns in 2019 (9.0) and it’s hard to imagine Crenshaw replicating that production as a freshman.
Florida will be a force against the run in 2020 and with ball-hawking corners, they should continue to produce turnovers at a high rate.
Even with issues at safety, Grantham’s staff coached and schemed its way to an Orange Bowl win and a top 10 finish nationally on defense in 2019. Replicating that will be tough with the losses on the defensive line, questions at linebacker (not explored in detail in this piece) and continued lack of high-end talent at safety.
Nevertheless, this will be a top 25 type defense, which ought to be enough to compete for a championship given what is back on the other side of the football.