Under 3 weeks ago, Florida’s defense couldn’t stop the breeze.

Florida trailed Texas A&M 24-21 at halftime in College Station, and the Gators appeared well on their way to allowing 38 or more points for a 4th time this season in SEC play. Worse, the post-Georgia game decision to dismiss 5-star talent Brenton Cox, the team’s best pass rusher and leader in pressures and tackles for loss on the season, appeared to be backfiring. The Gators were unable to pressure Aggies quarterback Haynes King and unable to create tackles for loss against the run.

And then, all of the sudden, Florida’s defense started to figure things out.

The Gators pitched a shutout against Texas A&M in the second half, bottling up the Aggies ground game thanks to the sterling play of defensive end Princely Umanmielen holding the edge and eventually, they managed to get pressure on Haynes King too, with a solid push up the middle from 5-star tackle Gervon Dexter and terrific end play from Umanmielen and Cox’s replacement, Antwan Ryland-Powell. Florida rallied to win, 41-24, and the defense, much maligned all season, had bucked up to help win an important game for the first time since the goalline stands against No. 7 Utah on opening night.

A week later, back at home in The Swamp, the Gators showed the 2nd half against Texas A&M was no fluke.

Florida pitched a defensive shutout against the Gamecocks, winning 38-6 and allowing only a special teams touchdown off a fake South Carolina punt. The Gators played 4 full quarters of dominant defense, allowing only 237 total yards and 11 Gamecocks first downs in the victory.

What’s gone right, and what’s been different?

It is absolutely easy, as outstanding Florida writer Will Miles wrote this week at Read and Reaction, to suggest Florida’s dismissal of Cox was “addition by subtraction.” Cox was an enigma, a massively talented young man who made big plays for years at Florida but also had a penchant for big miscues and a reluctance to play assignment football. For a staff that preaches “do your job” as a program mantra, the refusal to continue to tolerate Cox’s brand of big risk football makes sense.

But there’s a bigger — literally and figuratively — piece to the Gators defensive improvement.

That’s been the emergence of mountain of a man defensive tackle Desmond Watson.

Watson, a 6-5, 380–440-pound human being (it truly depends on who you ask and what the young man had for breakfast), has been marvelous for the Gators over the past 2 games. With Cox gone, Florida defensive coordinator Patrick Toney has shuffled some rotations, and 1 net outcome is that Watson has played more snaps in the past 6 quarters than in the previous 12 combined.

Watson, a former 4-star recruit out of Florida prep powerhouse Armwood High, likely would have rated higher had scouts and analysts not been concerned he was too heavy and would struggle to get in or stay in shape at the SEC level. For much of 2 seasons, that concern seemed fair, as Watson contributed, but failed to stay on the field for more than a play or two at a time.

Slowly, that’s started to change. Watson shed an immense amount of weight — nearly 60 pounds — from his arrival on campus to the beginning of the 2022 season. And he’s remained relentless with his physical conditioning.

“He’s a kid that works harder than anyone outside our building realizes. He wants to play every snap. He wants his body to cooperate with him to do that. And that’s hard because he’s so naturally huge. He has to do everything right: nutrition, running, cardio, strength that focuses on making him lean — and he embraces that work,” a Florida assistant texted SDS this week.

With Watson in the middle for the Gators, teams are now having to make tough choices, and they are freeing other Gators up to make plays. Take this big play against South Carolina, which came just after the Gamecocks converted a huge 3rd down early in the first half.

The play demonstrates everything Watson offers, and the other improvements Florida has made as a result. South Carolina is in a bootleg concept, trying to isolate a running back on Florida’s Ventrell Miller, whose sole weakness is covering fast backs. It’s a great play, except Watson commands an early double team. This allows Antwan Powell-Ryland to switch with Miller and occupy the running back, and Miller immediately attacks Rattler and forces an errant throw. Watson, almost a full hashmark away from where the play ends up, has made a winning football play simply by getting an initial burst off the snap.

Watson was on the field for all 3 turnovers the Gators forced Saturday against South Carolina, a number that helped Florida increase its 2022 turnover margin to plus-18, a number that is good enough for 11th in the country and 2nd-best in the SEC. A good chunk of those turnovers have come since the Georgia game, with Florida forcing 8 turnovers against Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina combined.

Watson’s biggest contributions, though, have come as a run defender, and it’s no coincidence Florida has played its best run defense of the season in the last six quarters, with Watson’s snap counts increasing. Florida limited A&M and South Carolina to a stingy 38% success rate on the ground in the past 2 games, and Watson grades out as the country’s best run defending linemen during that span.

Florida fans have loved Mount Watson since he arrived on campus, but their love affair has deepened as the sophomore plays great football and makes plays like this Swamp-shaking strip of a forced fumble and rumble, young man, rumble against the Gamecocks on Saturday.

The play by Watson, which featured a stiff arm of Rattler on the ensuing run back, set off a riot of a celebration on the Florida sideline, as The Swamp rocked in unison.

It also induced a hall-of-fame sequence of memes, including this gem, which deserves a spot in the Louvre.

It was the loudest moment in The Swamp this season, and that includes an emotional, wild game against LSU on Tom Petty night and the season-opening win over a top-10 Utah team. Look beyond the fun and joy, however, and you see something even more important. Desmond Watson is emerging as a force for the Gators, and his best days in orange and blue are in front of him, per Billy Napier.

“Man, the guy just ripped it out of his hands and that’s a 440-pound man trying to run with that ball,” Napier said of Watson’s play and the jubilant team and fanbase reaction. “Six-foot-five and a half. I’m proud of Des. He’s come a long way and he’s only going to get better.”

Desmond Watson is only going to get better.

Kind of like the Florida defense.