Todd Grantham doesn't care what you think: Florida's defense is about to be nasty
There’s a saying my grandfather brought home from his military days I keep coming back to lately: “It’s always darkest right before Reveille.”
While the saying could be viewed as applicable to any number of issues, sports or no, at this particular moment, it seems a particularly apt way of viewing Todd Grantham’s Florida defense entering 2021. A punchline in 2020, Florida’s defense entered the offseason in a dark fog — one that descended, quite literally, in the second half of the LSU game, when Marco Wilson elected to play fetch with an LSU player’s shoe, giving the Tigers a key first down and eventually, a 37-34 victory — and continued through Florida’s final 2 games, which saw the Gators surrender 52 points apiece to eventual national champion Alabama and perennial Playoff contender Oklahoma.
Great defense in Gainesville has been a program constant for decades and this century; only Alabama has fielded as many top 20 units (15). That historic standard made 2020’s failures sting even more. The Gators couldn’t stop air: finishing 83rd in total defense, 82nd in yards allowed per play, and 74th in scoring defense. Each of those marks was the worst for a Florida defense this century.
Dan Mullen deflected when asked earlier this spring whether he blamed the defense for the disappointing close to the 2020 season, but was there really a need for him to say out loud what was obvious on paper?
Florida’s poor defense spoiled the presence of one of the best Florida offenses in the last 30 years, and one that featured a Heisman finalist (Kyle Trask), a generational talent in Mackey Award-winning tight end (Kyle Pitts) and one of college football’s best playmakers (Kadarius Toney). As a result, a team with a championship ceiling lost 4 games, an outcome that had many in Gator Nation calling for a coordinator change in the offseason.
A classic rock devotee, Mullen’s a surprising spiritual partner for Tammy Wynette, but Mullen stood by his man this offseason. At Florida, a place where coaches can go from big man on campus to buyout and off campus in a blink, Mullen’s faith was a bold move. If it works, he’s the confident, patient CEO who trusted Grantham’s staff and believed in Florida’s recruiting and development. If it fails, he’s either overconfident in his own offensive mind or worse, the guy forever snakebit by his loyal-to-a-fault approach to staff and program building. Either scenario is unfavorable. The stakes are high, and while insiders whisper 2021 shapes up to be a transitional year for the Gators, especially with a loaded Georgia looming, don’t tell that to Mullen.
“Our margin for error is very small,” Mullen conceded to the media this spring, only to pause, and offer a wry smile. “But we have great depth, better than it has been since I’ve been here. That gives us a chance to be not just really good, but great.”
One guy who thinks Florida will be great is Todd Grantham.
The much-maligned defensive coordinator has quietly gone about his business this winter and spring, coaching up a defense that was terrific in spring football, dominating multiple scrimmages and looking well ahead of Mullen’s offense. Mullen praised the defense after every scrimmage this spring, noting how pleased he was about Florida “playing fast and getting to the ball again,” and while Grantham was quiet and cautious in limited media contact, he was adamant about one thing: This defense will be a Gators-worthy unit.
“We’re going to be good,” Grantham told the media in February. “We’ve got really good players and we are deeper. We’re going to be hard to run on, which is the first step. And we’re going to continue to develop and grow.”
The one thing he was tired of talking about? Last year.
“Honestly, I just want to talk about this year and moving forward,” Grantham said. “The issues and reasons it was bad last year are irrelevant now. It is what it is and was what it was. We’re going to play really good this year, and that’s the focus.”
Grantham’s demeanor changed a bit when he made those last remarks. Make no mistake, this is a coordinator with a chip on his shoulder, a coach who has heard the rumblings and noise and knows the general view that he “has an expiration date.”
His staff — what’s left of it after a secondary coaching overhaul in the offseason — has heard enough, too.
Take linebackers coach Christian Robinson. Considered one of the best young assistants in the country in industry circles, Robinson came under fire from the fan base for underperforming linebacker play in 2020. Little consideration was given to Florida’s problems really starting elsewhere, with either very young or undersized defensive tackles too often leaving Robinson’s linebackers exposed to free blockers in run gaps. That kind of stuff is going to stop in 2021.
“They’ll be so much better up front,” an SEC East defensive assistant told me this week. “It was so strange to see people blame (Robinson) because his guys played fast and to the ball. They just got walloped in gaps so much. They brought in all those tackles and the young guy (Gervon Dexter) is a problem. They’ll be tough to run on this time and watch how much better the linebackers are. Is that coaching?”
That’s just one case study. Others line the roster.
The truth is Grantham and his defensive staff don’t care what you think. They know what they have built via recruiting and they believe this will be the best unit they’ve fielded at Florida — heady stuff when you consider 2 of Grantham’s first 3 defenses were top-20 units and one ranked 1st nationally in havoc rate and 2nd in sack percentage.
The biggest reason for their quiet confidence is the depth Mullen mentioned late this spring.
Florida’s defensive tackle situation, best summarized last season as “Kyrie Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton and hope” is now a formidable group, both at the 3-technique and nose. Zachary Carter, a jack of all trades, returned for his senior year and can play inside or outside. He gives the Gators their best edge setter since Cece Jefferson. Meanwhile, Antonio Valentino brings 40 games of B1G experience and double-digit starts south from Penn State. He’s a talent upgrade from Campbell and has the same knack for getting to the ball. Daquan Newkirk, limited by injuries at Auburn, is healthy and offers more depth. Gervon Dexter was a problem all spring, a 5-star who played like someone ready to take a big second-year leap. Those names are all fixtures inside that should make life easier on monster talent Brenton Cox, the 5-star Georgia transfer who spent the spring working to firm up what he offers against the run and young super talents like Khris Bogle, Princely Umanmielen and Andrew Chatfield, all of whom should benefit from a full spring practice and full strength and conditioning program.
It always starts up front in the SEC, and Grantham and the staff have recruited inside out and front to back since they arrived in Gainesville. It’s just taken a bit longer for the talent bump to reach a mature age where they can truly start to influence the culture and defense.
Behind that group, Grantham has multiple NFL prospects at linebacker, including junior Ventrell Miller and a pair of underclassmen in Mohamoud Diabate and Tyron Hopper who appear poised to break out in 2021.
Just how much talent is Grantham working with? According to one NFL scout, Florida could have as many as 6 defensive players drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft: corners Kaiir Elam and Jaydon Hill, safety Trey Dean III, linebacker Ventrell Miller, “Bucks” Brenton Cox and defensive end/tackle Zachary Carter. That list excludes surefire future draft picks like Hopper, Dexter and 5-star freshman corner Jason Marshall, and it includes 4 players (everyone listed above except Dean and Hill) who profile as Round 1, 2 or 3 prospects. Walter Football, the most accurate Mock in 2019 and 2020, has listed 3 Gators defenders (Elam, Cox and Miller) as first-round draft picks next spring. That would be the most talent on a Grantham defense since 2012, when he coached a host of NFL draft picks to a top-10 total defense and top 15 S & P+ defense finish at Georgia, winning the SEC East over preseason darling Florida in the process.
A cynic might argue that “only Grantham can mess that up.” Maybe there’s something to that, and in truth, it would take a massive turnaround — and likely a defensively led Florida win over the likes of Alabama or Georgia in the regular season — to change the minds of a Gators fan base that would love to see Grantham gone.
But Todd Grantham doesn’t care what the fans think. Grantham and the Gators’ defense are done talking about 2020. For them, opening night can’t get here soon enough. Grantham has built a foundation for a nasty defense in Gainesville, and it’s a group that should play with an alligator-sized chip on its shoulder this autumn. If that sounds like a recipe and proverbial warning to not poke a wounded animal, well, to quote Grantham, “it is what it is.”