Dan Mullen can make excuses for his defense's 2020 performance, but that can't fly in 2021
HOOVER, Ala. — Dan Mullen didn’t want to admit something that should’ve been painfully obvious to anyone who consumed Florida football in 2021 — the Gators’ defense never figured it out.
Florida ranked No. 74 in scoring defense, it allowed 171 rushing yards per game and it surrendered 35-plus points in half of its games. In the final 3 games, the Gators allowed 43 points per game (that’s taking away the 2 defensive scores).
So, with that in mind, what was the biggest reason that the defense never figured it out?
“I don’t know about that because I think, if you look in different games, we’re a very maybe erratic defensively at different times, but there’s a lot of different things that go into that,” Mullen said at SEC Media Days on Monday. “There’s some games we played really, really well defensively. There’s games where I thought we played well, but statistically maybe weren’t great.
“And if you look in a lot of those games, if you were going to play us on the other side of the ball, you had to play a different style game maybe than you wanted to or expected to and take a lot of chances because we were going to try to score points and keep up with us, or we jumped out to a big lead and you were just kind of — you know, just throw caution to the wind to try to put up yards and points as fast as possible.”
By the way, the 3-game stretch in which Florida looked like it figured things out came against a trio of teams who finished outside the top 100 in scoring (Vandy, Kentucky and Tennessee).
Mullen can call Todd Grantham’s defense erratic all he wants. Let’s instead call it what it really was — wildly disappointing.
And now, there are no excuses for the Florida defense in 2021. Mullen, whether he admits it or not, knows that. At least one would think. Perhaps that’s why he was the only SEC coach to bring 2 defensive players to Hoover instead of splitting up each side of the ball. If this year is a season on the brink for the Florida defense, one would also think that means Grantham’s job is on the line.
Last year, there were excuses before the season even started. Remember when Mullen had this quote about predicting “sloppy football” in early September?
“That would have been in about a 10-month period you’ve tackled somebody twice in 10 months, I mean, that’s … you know, I don’t know,” Mullen said (via Orlando Sentinel). “You probably wouldn’t want to go rush into the hospital and have surgery with somebody who has a surgery twice in 10 months. … ‘You sure you know what you’re doing?’
Right, he was.
Right Mullen was to know that his defense was going to struggle without doing that whole “tackling” thing, which was evident in a season-opener against Ole Miss that included 613 yards allowed.
Wrong he was to say that was partially the product of having an extremely prolific offense.
Now it’s worth mentioning that private Mullen vs. public Mullen are different beasts. Sideline Mullen is perhaps more of the former than the latter.
Wow. Dan Mullen finally just lost his sanity on Todd Grantham. pic.twitter.com/jug8Zc4MAR
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) November 28, 2020
Again, that was a game in which the final numbers suggested that Florida’s defense figured things out. And even that wasn’t a full 60-minute performance.
This is all worth noting because in 11 of the previous 12 seasons, Florida posted a top-30 defense. That dates back to when Mullen was in Gainesville as an offensive coordinator. If there’s anyone who understands the high standard of the Florida defense, it’s Mullen.
The good news is that in 2021, Florida won’t have a team that enters September having tackled twice in the previous 10 months. Mullen didn’t say “my team didn’t tackle very well,” though it was true. As much as Grantham’s defense is associated with a relentless ability to rush the passer, 2020 actually yielded a top-25 finish in sacks per game. That’s why Mullen didn’t answer the “biggest reason the defense didn’t figure it out” question by saying his team struggled to get to the quarterback. It didn’t, though Florida never really had that pass-rusher who could take over a game.
Those communication issues that manifested throughout last year, as Florida defensive end Zach Carter said, are believed to be in the past. Forget Alabama and LSU. Ole Miss, Texas A&M and even Arkansas, which had 2 touchdowns of 80-plus yards in The Swamp, all gashed Florida’s defense.
“I feel like we’ve made adjustments on the defensive end and I’m just looking forward to the year we’re gonna have,” Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller said.
What kind of year is Florida going to have? On the defensive side, it simply has to be better.
The hard-hitting Miller, along with Carter and Brenton Cox, all return for a defensive front that doesn’t lack experience, especially with defensive line transfers Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) and Antonio Shelton (Penn State) joining Grantham’s unit. All-SEC cornerback Kaiir Elam leads a secondary that finished No. 100 in FBS last year.
Will Florida’s 2021 identity be a bit more balanced? One would think. Three of those 4 losses came in games that the Gators offense hit 34 points.
One of those games was the 2020 SEC Championship. After that shootout loss to Alabama, Carter said he stayed and watched the confetti fall.
“It hurt in the moment,” Carter said, “but in my head, I’m like, ‘We’ll be back.’”
Time will tell. One thing seems obvious.
The Gators’ defense has plenty to figure out in 2021.