Florida football: 5 Gators who could key a defensive turnaround in 2020
Florida’s troubled defense cost the Gators a football game this past weekend at Texas A&M. Todd Grantham’s unit surrendered 543 yards and 7.3 yards per play in Florida’s 41-38 loss, numbers that wasted another marvelous performance from Kyle Trask and the Florida offense.
Like Texas A&M, LSU will enter their game against Florida desperate, coming off an embarrassing 45-41 loss to Mizzou in which, for the second time this season, its defense couldn’t stop anyone.
Saturday’s defeat in College Station leaves the Gators with zero margin for error over the season’s final 7 games. Another loss and any hope of a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game or an invitation to the College Football Playoff is all but extinguished.
Blame Grantham all you want for Florida’s issues on defense. The criticism is certainly warranted. Grantham’s schemes have especially failed Florida on 3rd downs, where in the past 2 Florida losses (Georgia last season and Texas A&M Saturday), Florida’s opponents are an incredible 24-for-30 on 3rd down. If you can’t get off the field, you can’t get your electric offense the ball and the chance to create separation in the football game. Florida ranks 75th of 76 teams playing football in 2020 in 3rd-down defense in 2020. That’s atrocious and must get better.
But for all the heat on Grantham, Florida’s players need to perform better, too.
There’s no consistent pass rush. Grantham didn’t make Marco Wilson bypass a simple pass deflection on the game-tying touchdown in the 4th quarter. Grantham didn’t force the bad angles taken on Isaiah Spiller’s 19-yard touchdown run earlier in the 4th quarter, which Florida schematically snuffed out but failed to defend, briefly giving the Aggies the lead. Grantham wasn’t the reason Florida’s safeties lined up wrong, forcing the Gators to waste a timeout early in the 3rd quarter. Florida fans won’t want to admit it, but there have been plenty of errors by players put in positions to succeed.
Coaches from the peerless Nick Saban to Ed Orgeron have lamented the loss of spring practice and its impact on defenses. That’s a key time when fundamentals and techniques are emphasized and schemes are learned via critical repetition. Defenses are behind in 2020, especially when they face programs with veteran quarterbacks and/or established schemes. Even when they don’t — see Ole Miss vs. Florida and Alabama — defenses with plenty of high-end talent are getting roasted.
Among 76 FBS teams that have played so far, there are 4 SEC programs ranked 65th (Alabama), 71st (LSU), 72nd (Florida) and 76th (Ole Miss) in total defense. I don’t think that’s all about the evolution of modern offenses. COVID-19 and the loss of key practice time has damaged defenses and there’s no guarantee when they’ll catch up. What’s certain is that at Florida, Grantham must be better in the weeks to come and to do that, Florida must execute better.
Here are 5 Gators who will be needed to key a defensive resurgence in Gainesville this season.
Brenton Cox Jr., DE/LB
Cox will be perhaps the most controversial inclusion on this list. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s rated as the highest Gators defender in each game. He leads the team in pressures with 10 and has made some huge plays, especially in Florida’s season-opening win at Ole Miss, where he was a force and collected 2 sacks and 4 pressures.
But Cox hasn’t been consistent enough, failing to register a sack since the opener and struggling mightily when asked to hold the edge in the run game. On Spiller’s critical 4th-and-2 run, Cox crashed too far inside, spoiling a great scheme on the play and allowing Spiller to bounce outside, where he beat Ventrell Miller and Mohamoud Diabate to take it to the house.
ISAIAH SPILLER COULD NOT BE TACKLED 😤 pic.twitter.com/sVyN0hAq1q
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 10, 2020
In Cece Jefferson and Jon Greenard, Florida had brilliant edge setters in Grantham’s first 2 seasons in Gainesville. Cox is still learning that role, and he’s doing it without the help of powerful nose tackle Kyree Campbell, who occupies defenders and allows linebackers to bust gaps and other linemen to make plays. Campbell may return vs. LSU, but Cox has to be more than a pass-rush specialist for Florida’s defense to ever thrive in 2020.
Jaydon Hill, CB
Hill has quietly been one of Florida’s few bright spots on defense in 2020. He surrendered his first receptions against Texas A&M, giving up 24 yards on 2-of-5 targets. But Hill has now played 77 coverage snaps and allowed only 2 receptions and he’s registered 4 pass deflections/defended in that process. That’s terrific stuff, and hopefully it is noticed by Florida’s staff, who must ask hard questions about whether it’s safe to play Marco Wilson consistently after the senior corner’s dismal performance Saturday.
Mohamoud Diabate, LB
Diabate was very active Saturday, collecting 5 tackles and breaking up a 3rd-down pass to help Florida gain 1 of its only 3rd-down stops of the game.
He’s matched the 14 tackles he had in a promising freshman campaign in only 3 games and added a sack in the process. Diabate still has a tendency to over pursue and get caught too far up the field in containment schemes. But he’s fast, runs to the ball and doesn’t appear to be overthinking things like some of his teammates.
He should play more, and given the opportunity, SDS believes he’ll be productive.
Kyree Campbell, NT
Will he play? Won’t he play? Why isn’t he playing? The status of Florida’s senior nose tackle has remained a mystery all season. Dan Mullen said he “should be available” Saturday against LSU, but we’ve heard that from Mullen with injured players before. It’s possible he will dress out but be unable to go, much like Jabari Zuniga did on a few occasions last season.
If he can play, it’s a boon to the defense. Campbell was quietly one of Florida’s best players and most pleasant surprises on defense a season ago, a key cog to a unit that finished in the top 10 nationally defending the run. The Gators’ ability to make most teams 1-dimensional was a huge reason Florida finished with 11 wins for the first time in 8 years.
This season, Florida’s run defense ranks 50th of 76 teams in yards allowed per game and 40th in yards allowed per rush, both in the bottom half of the country. With power run games like Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee looming, the Gators must be better against the run if they hope to compete for a championship in 2020. The truth is they’ll probably need Campbell to do that.
Literally any safety
Shawn Davis’ sure-fire tackling and Donovan Stiner’s ability to consistently make plays in run support are the only positives about Florida’s safety play in 2020.
Everything else to this point has been shambolic.
How bad? Florida’s secondary has defended 116 passes this season without an interception. The corners have registered 11 passes defended. Florida’s safeties? Just 1, from Shawn Davis on Saturday. That’s a woeful level of production in the back end.
I wrote before the season that Florida’s safeties were a huge question mark, a group that could define the kind of season the Gators had. Florida’s freshmen were talented blue-chippers, but the group is apparently not practicing well enough to replace established starters like Stiner and Davis, despite their issues in coverage.
Maybe Brad Stewart, who continues to struggle to be eligible to play, is the answer. He played his first football of the season Saturday and forced a big fumble. Unfortunately, he was injured on the play and went to the locker room thereafter.
If Stewart isn’t the answer, someone needs to be. This unit simply hasn’t been good enough.