Todd Grantham has been a successful hire for Florida, but it feels like his future perception hinges on 1 thing
Go back to 2017. If you told any Florida fan in the first 2 years of the Dan Mullen era that Todd Grantham would lead consecutive top-20 defenses and that the Gators would win double-digit games and a New Year’s 6 Bowl in both seasons, they would’ve fist-pumped like Tiger Woods sinking a 30-foot putt to win a major.
Grantham’s overall body of work has been, by any stretch, a success. His ability to dial up pressure has been at the foundation of a pair of successful defenses. We saw the likes of Jon Greenard, Jabari Zuniga, Jachai Polite and others break out as impact players the past 2 years. The Gators had 3 defensive players drafted each of the past 2 years, and if the early outlook for the 2020 defense is any indication, that’ll continue.
There’s a reason Grantham was linked to openings like the defensive coordinator position with the Cincinnati Bengals after 2018 and the head coach vacancy at Mississippi State after 2019. Florida avoided those scares and returned one of the better coordinators in America.
But fair or not, it feels like 2020 is a potential breaking point for Grantham’s reputation among Florida fans. Grantham could enter November with the No. 1 defense in America, but if he fails to adjust and loses to Georgia for a 3rd consecutive time, well, let’s just say there won’t be any fist-pumping.
It’s no secret that Georgia has been Florida’s bugaboo during the brief Mullen era. Grantham shouldered the blame for both losses for a simple reason — Georgia turned “3rd and Grantham” into a field day.
In 2018, the Dawgs went 8-for-14 on 3rd down. Four of those conversions resulted in touchdowns, and 3 of them came on 3rd-and-5 or longer. Those sequences turned what felt like an even game into a 3-score Georgia victory.
One could argue that the 2019 Georgia loss was even more frustrating for Florida. While the overall numbers were an improvement (Georgia had fewer points and total yards), that 3rd down number was even worse. Jake Fromm and the inconsistent Georgia offense was 12-of-18 on 3rd downs.
The last 3rd-down conversion happened when Georgia was clinging to a 24-17 lead with 3rd-and-7 on its own 35-yard line with 3 minutes left. Grantham sent 7, but it didn’t matter. A flat-footed Fromm found Eli Wolf for a 22-yard gain to all but close the door on Florida’s comeback attempt.
That play gave Georgia its 6th conversion on 3rd down of 6 yards or more:
Today, Georgia converted:
3rd and 15.
3rd and 11.
3rd and 6.
3rd and 6 again.
3rd and 8.
3rd and 7.
All against the same weak zone defense. Todd Grantham just never adjusted.
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) November 2, 2019
That’s the issue right there — the lack of adjustments. A system predicated on pressure didn’t generate enough of it against an elite offensive line, and a veteran quarterback found the soft spots of Florida’s zone in the crucial moments of a make-or-break game (the Gators were in man coverage on that Wolf catch). Grantham’s refusal to blitz for most of the game — and not get home when he did send pressure — proved costly.
The formula isn’t that complicated. In fact, Georgia sort of made a habit of doing that against Grantham:
Georgia converted a season-high 12 third downs vs. Florida, its most against a ranked team since the 2014 Belk Bowl vs. Louisville.
Todd Grantham was the defensive coordinator in both games. pic.twitter.com/b4tcPCzPVY
— Jason Starrett (@starrettjason) November 2, 2019
This is the part where Georgia fans belly laugh because obviously they’ve seen their fair share of success since Grantham was fired from that role in Athens. To be fair, that 2013 Georgia defense was incredibly young and decimated by injuries. The deck was stacked against Grantham in his last year in Athens.
Entering Year 3 on the other side of the rivalry, though, one could argue that the deck is stacked more in Grantham’s favor than ever. Besides not having to face Fromm, who never lost to Florida, Grantham’s defense will take on Georgia’s new Air Raid offense, which features a new starting quarterback, a new offensive coordinator a new go-to receiver who isn’t Lawrence Cager (music to Florida fans’ ears) and an offensive line that just lost 4 starters. Oh, and a pandemic prevented that new-look group from having spring practice.
Georgia’s offense made the season-to-season adjustment. The question is if Grantham can do the same, albeit in a different way. Is it as simple as just switching to a man-heavy approach to get stops on 3rd down in Jacksonville? The personnel is there to do that.
Florida lost Round 1 pick C.J. Henderson, but there’s still plenty of experience returning in the secondary. Kaiir Elam’s true freshman season was overshadowed by LSU All-American Derek Stingley, but he has the makeup of an All-SEC corner (some of the Pro Football Focus numbers on him are absurdly good). He’ll line up with Marco Wilson, who elected to stay for his senior year instead of leaving for the NFL after he had 3 interceptions in 2019. Also helpful is the depth Florida has at safety with Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner both back, though Grantham could use some more consistency in the secondary.
Grantham did actually make some post-Georgia adjustments last year. Shifting Wilson to the nickel corner position (Star) was meant to allow Trey Dean to line up on the outside after his 2019 struggles at the position, and that yielded positive results down the stretch. It remains to be seen what that’ll look like in 2020.
It also remains to be seen just how effective Florida’s defense can be in its non-Georgia games. A group that could never seemingly get Greenard and Zuniga healthy at the same time was still No. 7 nationally in fewest points allowed. Florida is in the middle of the pack in terms of returning defensive production because of the turnover in the front 7. Maximizing the potential of guys like Jeremiah Moon and former Georgia transfer Brenton Cox could determine how badly Gators fans miss guys like Greenard, Zuniga and David Reese. It’s up to Grantham to take care of that.
It’s also up to Grantham to take care of the cloud that’s been hovering over him since he arrived in Gainesville. It’s hard to imagine a coordinator getting fired after a 3rd year with a top-20 defense, though if his defense drops the ball in key moments against Georgia yet again, there will be even louder calls for Mullen to make a change. He’d have to at least consider the possibility that Grantham’s lack of adjustments is limiting Florida’s ceiling (in case that hasn’t already crossed Mullen’s mind).
What’s Florida’s ceiling in 2020? Given the turnover among the SEC contenders, especially Georgia’s offense, it sure seems like a prime opportunity awaits the Gators following this pandemic-driven offseason (if we get a 2020 season).
It probably doesn’t make sense to call it a “make-or-break” year in Gainesville, though there’s clearly some increased urgency for Mullen to get over the Georgia hump in Year 3. There’s probably a more fitting way to describe this Florida season.
“Third and Grantham.”