Now that Todd Grantham is back, here's what to expect from Florida's defense in 2019
The pieces in Florida’s defensive puzzle are now in place.
We know that Vosean Joseph, Jachai Polite and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson are off to the NFL while the likes of David Reese, Jabari Zuniga and Adam Shuler are all back for 1 more season. We know that cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren left for Georgia while Torrian Gray came from the NFL ranks to take his position. We also know that David Turner reunited with Dan Mullen to coach the Florida defensive line after Sal Sunseri’s departure to Alabama.
Oh, and most important, we know that Todd Grantham is back to coach the defense.
That last nugget made for the splashiest headline when it was reported last week that Grantham turned down the Cincinnati Bengals to return to the Gators with a significant raise.
Some — mostly Georgia fans — scoffed at the idea that Grantham could make nearly $1.8 million annually. After all, his defense allowed 30 points per game to divisional foes. But that defense also finished 2019 ranked No. 20 in scoring because it surrendered an average of just 13.5 points in the other 4 games that Florida played against Power 5 opponents. That’s not bad for a team that ranked No. 69 in scoring defense in 2017.
The year-to-year jump in Grantham’s first season in Gainesville was massive. With him back as the final piece of the puzzle in place, a new question is worth asking.
What should we expect from this defense in 2019?
That question is much easier to tackle with Grantham back. We know that Florida is going to be aggressive and unapologetic. Just because Joseph and Polite are gone doesn’t mean Grantham is suddenly going to stop bringing pressure. As we saw in 2018, some teams handled Grantham’s scheme well (Georgia and Mizzou) while others were overwhelmed (LSU and Michigan). As long as Grantham is on Florida’s sideline, it’ll have to be a “take the good with the bad” approach.
Fortunately for Gators fans, there should be a lot more good than bad in 2019.
A unit that returns 71 percent of its defensive production — that’s good for No. 42 among FBS teams — shouldn’t face a steep learning curve in Year 2 of Grantham’s system.
He has a next-level edge-rusher in Zuniga, who will warrant double teams and allow for the likes of Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield to emerge. Then again, the Gators did add Louisville grad transfer Jonathan Greenard, who had 15.5 tackles for loss when he was last healthy in 2017. Grantham could just have a couple of proven seniors applying pressure all season without necessarily needing a breakout year from someone else.
That, above all else, should be the strength on that side of the ball, though the Florida cornerbacks could easily make a bid for that.
The Gators are coming off a season in which they finished No. 12 against the pass. That unit has been the constant. Even when Florida was a train wreck in 2017, it still had the No. 28 pass defense.
Without Gardner-Johnson, there’s still plenty of reason to believe the secondary will be one of the nation’s best. C.J. Henderson is the star of that group, and with Marco Wilson expected to return from a torn ACL, there’s hope that the Gators will again have two of the conference’s top cornerbacks. As long as Grantham is able to dial up pressure, there will be opportunities for experienced, ball-hawking cornerbacks to make plays.
The area of weakness could be the middle of the field. There are questions about who steps up alongside Reese at the other inside linebacker spot. James Houston flashed some playmaking ability as a redshirt freshman and Kylan Johnson has been a rotation player when healthy for the past 3 years, though neither are locked in as clear starters. The good news is that Reese is as sure of a tackler as there is returning in the SEC, and he can cover up holes.
That’s kind of the theme for this Florida defense. Every level of the defense that might have some questions (defensive tackle, Money linebacker, safeties) have experienced, all-conference caliber players returning next to them. It’s not like Florida is replacing 4 defensive backs or 3 defensive linemen. As a result, optimism should be evident throughout spring camp.
And let’s be honest. More times than not, the defense did the heavy lifting in the first year of the Mullen era. Florida only won 1 game in which it allowed 30 points (that actually never happened in the Jim McElwain era).
I tend to think Mullen’s group will be improved in his second season. The run game, with Lamical Perine back, has potential to be one of the nation’s best. Even if Feleipe Franks doesn’t take a significant step up in his second season with Mullen, the Gators should still do a better job of controlling the clock with the ground game and giving the defense a chance to play with the energy that Grantham’s system demands. There will be more room for error if the offense improves, which means Grantham will be even more, well, Grantham.
Is Florida’s defense suddenly going to start looking like Alabama? Probably not, though it’s worth mentioning that even the Crimson Tide had as many games of allowing 30 points as Florida did in 2018 (the difference of course being that one had its best offense in program history).
The Gators are going probably going to have at least a couple dud defensive performances against teams with veteran quarterbacks who know how to read pressure and deliver the ball quickly and accurately. The hope obviously being that one of them isn’t Jake Fromm this time and that maybe the offense stands a better chance of winning a shootout than last year.
But can Florida again finish with a Top 20 defense? Absolutely. In fact, I’d expect that to happen. Dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the defense improved in Year 2 with Grantham despite those early NFL departures.
There’s a reason that Florida broke the bank a little more for Grantham to stick around. The expectations are now higher than ever.
Grantham has 1.8 million reasons to exceed them. Again.