Better or worse? Previewing Florida's defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of SEC East defenses begins today with Florida. Coming Tuesday: Georgia.
Being tasked with writing a column about whether Florida’s defense will be better or worse than it was in 2021 is a bit like being asked whether the sun is orange, there has ever been a better movie than Gigli or if a college football Saturday is better than a Monday in February. The answer is so abundantly obvious the article could just be a gif of a deadpan stare or one sentence:
It can’t get any worse.
Florida fielded its worst defense in over four decades from a total defense standpoint, finishing the season 83rd in total defense, 82nd in yards allowed per play and 96th in pass efficiency defense (a ranking which earns the program a mandatory 3 year-ban from claiming the mantle of “DBU”). Florida also allowed more points per game (31) than any Florida defense since 1917, which, coincidentally, was the last time the world slowed due to a global pandemic. Considering that was also over a century ago, the scale of Florida’s defensive misery in 2020 is self-evident.
You know the rest of the story. Behind one of the most prolific offenses in Florida history, the Gators raced to an 8-1 start, one that very easily could have been 9-0 if they hadn’t managed to lose a road game at Texas A&M where they scored 38 points and averaged 8 yards per play. They then dropped their final 3 games, surrendering a cool 107 points in the final 2 games, against Alabama in the SEC Championship and Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. As a result, instead of celebrating Dan Mullen’s first SEC East division winner, the season felt like a missed opportunity — one where the Gators likely would have played much more meaningful football in January if they fielded only a competent defense.
Put differently, a competent defense likely secures a win in College Station and avoids a shoe-toss against LSU. Does a 10-0 Florida team that loses a close SEC Championship to Alabama get in the College Football Playoff? It’s certainly possible. But Florida wasn’t competent on defense, putting defensive coordinator Todd Grantham under fire and causing Florida to squander an offense that featured a Heisman finalist and two first-round draft picks, including perhaps the best tight end in college football history in Kyle Pitts.
So, no, it can’t get any worse.
But let’s play “better or worse” and break down “why” 2021 will be better.
Pressuring the QB: Better
In the first 2 seasons of the Mullen era, Florida’s defensive lines were among the best in the country. The Gators finished 15th (2018) and 5th (2019) in sack percentage and ranked 9th and 1st in defensive havoc (measured as plays where pressure causes a sack, lost yardage or an unsuccessful play). Last season, the Gators ranked 41st in havoc, and they finished outside the top 25 nationally in sacks for the first time since 2010.
A big reason the Gators were inconsistent getting to the passer? They were limited at defensive tackle. That won’t be the case in 2020. Mullen hit the portal for a pair of Power 5 grad transfers, including Antonio Shelton, a bruiser with a huge first burst who should give Florida the interior piece they were missing in the pass rush a season ago. A big jump is also expected from 5-star Gervon Dexter, who spent the spring shoring up his technique, something he wasn’t able to do last year due to the pandemic.
The presence of these two forces inside should free Florida’s plethora of playmakers on the edge to do their thing without the frequency of double teams they faced a season ago. Zachary Carter returned for his senior season, and Brenton Cox, the 5-star transfer from Georgia, has spent the spring and summer getting stronger and working on his physicality. Khris Bogle, a high 4-star offered by every SEC program, has shown flashes of a breakout too. He should only be better in 2021.
Run defense: (Much) Better
Florida’s defense fell from a top 10 unit in 2019 to 71st nationally in 2020, capped by a humiliating performance in the Cotton Bowl, where they surrendered 435 yards to Oklahoma.
Florida’s lack of size and talent at defensive tackle, mentioned above, made life difficult on a young linebacker corps, who often found themselves facing blockers very quickly as they rushed to fit run gaps. Compounding the problem was Florida’s inability to consistently set the edge.
Carter was steady in this regard, but Jeremiah Moon, another solid edge setter, battled injuries all season. Beyond them, Florida has significant issues. Brenton Cox was almost unplayable in run situations and talented recruits like Princely Umanmielen weren’t quite ready.
Combine Florida’s issues on the interior of the line with the lack of consistent edge setters and you have moments like this one, against Texas A&M:
Or this one, where run support is gobbled up by second-level blocking, against Georgia:
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 7, 2020
This should get better in the fall. Florida spent a great deal of time on getting back to fundamentals in stopping the run in the spring, and they liked the progress of both the linebackers and the new crop of defensive tackles, which in addition to Shelton includes run-stopping specialist Daquan Newkirk, who transfers in from Auburn.
This group collectively has a chance to be one of the better run defenses in the country.
Pass defense: Better
Last summer, we used this space to suggest — contrary to much of the other preseason speculation in magazines and on the internet — that Florida’s safety play could derail an otherwise immensely talented football team.
Other things contributed, but Florida’s secondary, more than anything else, was how the shoe dropped on Florida’s 8-1 start. (Sorry, but at least one shoe joke was necessary when discussing Florida’s 2020 secondary.)
The Gators finished the year with their worst pass defense marks since 2007. A big reason?
The Gators were miserable over the top. The Gators finished 13th among SEC teams in success rate defending passes over 20 yards or more — with safeties Donovan Stiner, Shawn Davis, Amari Burney and Brad Stewart too often a step behind to help. This veteran group — only Burney returns among them — was 83rd in pass defense against passes of 20 yards or more in 2019 –– so this problem wasn’t new.
The struggles at safety are a big reason Florida shook up its staff in the secondary in the offseason.
The new staff seems more willing to rely on the few Gators who did perform on the back end in 2020, led by Trey Dean, whom Pro Football Focus ranked as one of the top 30 safeties in the sport in 2020. That begs the question as to why Dean was 4th in snaps at safety.
Dean will be joined by highly-touted Rashad Torrence, who had a promising freshman campaign, along with highly-coveted blue-chip Corey Collier Jr., Kamar Wilcoxson, who had a quality spring after moving to safety, and Fenley Graham. It’s a deeper and more talented group than the Gators fielded in the past 2 seasons.
At corner, the Gators are poised to be among the best in the SEC. Kaiir Elam is appearing on almost every preseason All-American list, and teams should stay away from the All-SEC selection as they did a season ago. Elam will be joined by 5-star Jason Marshall, who the Gators coaches think could start immediately, if not for the encouraging development of former 4-star Jaydon Hill. Elijah Blades and Tre’Vez Johnson add depth and should give the Gators the opportunity to play better fits at the nickel spot as well.
Just how much this Florida secondary improves will help define the program’s 2021 season — but it will be a better group than it was in 2020.
Overall: Much Better
When people ask me why Todd Grantham wasn’t replaced by Dan Mullen this winter, I usually offer two words: past results.
In 4 years coordinating Mullen’s defenses, Grantham’s units have finished in the top 25 3 times and the top 10 nationally twice (Miss State, 2017, Florida 2019).
Mullen is known for being loyal, to the point where more cynical fans (they call themselves “more honest”) call him stubborn to a fault. There is a kernel of truth to that criticism — but in electing to shake up the staff but ultimately stick with Grantham, Mullen is rewarding past results and offering Grantham a reprieve from a disastrous 2020 campaign.
The Gators have actually recruited slightly better on defense than offense in the Mullen era, and only Alabama and Georgia have more blue chips on defense than the Gators entering 2021. The talent — and a desperate staff — will improve the product on the field dramatically.