Florida football: Quietly, Gators' defense is making big strides
Heading into the 2021 season, there was only one consensus about the Florida defense.
It couldn’t get any worse.
Last season, Florida fielded its worst defense in more than 4 decades, finishing 83rd in total defense, 82nd in yards allowed per play and 96th in pass efficiency defense (a ranking that earns the program a mandatory 3-year ban from claiming the mantle of “DBU”). The Gators 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 more than a century ago, the scale of Florida’s defensive misery in 2020 was self-evident.
Some improvement was inevitable. The question was always a matter of degree. If the defense improved dramatically, the Gators would have a chance for a special season, or so the thinking went.
The bad news is that it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Florida is 3-2 after stumbling, 20-13, at Kentucky last Saturday, all but ending its hopes of a return trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
The good news?
Lost in the heartache of that mystifying defeat has been the improvement of Florida’s defense, which has started to blossom after a ragged start to the season.
The Gators held the Wildcats to their season low in yards (224) and limited a powerful Kentucky run game to just 137 yards and 4.6 yards per rush (its 2nd-worst output this year). Florida gave up an explosive touchdown to the electric Wan’Dale Robinson, but it surrendered only 1 other touchdown, which came on a short field after an Emory Jones interception.
“We did a really good job of containing explosive plays during the course of the game,” coach Dan Mullen told the media Wednesday. “They hit one big screen pass where we missed a lot of tackles, which was disappointing. But they didn’t gain many yards. Defensively, we held them to 14 points, so there’s a lot we can build off there.”
The strong performance was just the latest sign that the defense is coming together. Florida gave up only 14 points in its season opener against Group of 5 foe Florida Atlantic, but the Owls gained 353 yards and torched Florida’s young secondary for 261 yards on just 33 pass attempts. A week later, the Gators surrendered 20 points and far too much yardage to an anemic South Florida team. Then, in the biggest game of Florida’s season to date, the Gators were torched for 21 points in the 1st quarter against Alabama.
Since that quarter, however, the Gators’ defense has stiffened. Alabama managed only 10 points in the final 3 quarters. Then, playing without All-American Kaiir Elam, the Gators limited Tennessee to 14 points and held Kentucky to 14 offensively.
Florida’s improvements aren’t just about scoring defense, though, of course, that’s the stat that matters the most.
Buoyed by a rebuilt defensive line that features a pair of run stuffers in Antonio Valentino and Daquan Newkirk at defensive tackle, Florida’s run defense ranks a respectable 33rd nationally and 25th in opponent yards per attempt (3.25). That includes holding Alabama to fewer than 100 yards rushing, plus games against a potent Kentucky rushing attack and an improving Tennessee run game, so the success in rushing defense isn’t just a matter of favorable scheduling.
Meanwhile, while the young secondary is still a work in progress, the Gators have performed admirably without Elam the past 2 weeks. Young corners Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr. have gotten valuable experience, and senior transfer Eli Blades has brought a steadying presence as he increasingly understands defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme.
Florida is improving despite a host of significant injuries that have shuffled the depth chart.
“Part of (the improvement) is younger guys are coming along,” Mullen told the media Wednesday. “We are down both our starting corners, our captain middle linebacker is out. But you are starting to see some of the younger guys mature and get more comfortable on the field.”
The biggest reason those guys are getting comfortable might not be game reps and practice experience. It might be Florida’s splendid defensive front. Valentino and Newkirk have stabilized the Gators’ run defense, occupying blockers Florida couldn’t hold last year and allowing linebackers to clean things up before they get deep into the second level. But it’s the penetration and pass rush capabilities of Gervon Dexter, coupled with a duo of dominant edge players in Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox Jr., that remains the heart and soul of this defense.
Carter is making good on the decision to return for his senior year, with his 6 sacks tied for the SEC lead and ranking 5th nationally. Cox has improved dramatically as a 3-down option, fighting to hold the edge in the run game and ranking 2nd on the team in pressures behind Carter and collecting 5.5 sacks of his own. Florida’s tenacious defensive line ranks 14th nationally in sack percentage and 17th in havoc rate, and it is pacing a defense that now ranks 16th in S&P+ defensive efficiency a year after finishing outside the top 50.
Florida’s path to Atlanta is grim and narrow, but the path to a 4th consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowl remains open. The Gators are talented enough to win every game left on their schedule, especially if the defense continues to play at a high level.
For embattled coordinator Grantham, that is welcome news.
“There are still things we have to clean up,” Grantham told the media this week. “But I think we’re improving, both with our understanding of the scheme and with technique.”
That improving defense will only get better when Elam returns against either LSU or Georgia. As it turns out, those are the games that will define what is left of Florida’s season. Then again, so will this defense.