For young Gators defense, Aggies pose tremendous test
GAINESVILLE — While much of the focus this season remains centered on Florida’s inability to improve on offense, for the first time in nearly a decade, there are questions on defense for the Gators.
After losing 12 defensive players to the NFL in the past two seasons, including seven selected in the first three rounds, some growing pains were expected.
But, perhaps buoyed by young players receiving plenty of repetitions in 2016 thanks to key injuries, as well as an outstanding 30-3 Outback Bowl performance featuring most of this year’s starters defensively, most analysts figured Florida would continue to do what the program has basically done for the better part of two decades: play fast, physical, tenacious defense.
The personnel seemed to support that analysis. The Gators were thin at linebacker entering the season, but with a deep, talented defensive front, as well as the return of All-SEC and preseason All-America safety Marcell Harris on the back end, Randy Shannon’s unit figured to suffer only a small drop-off from the dominant units that anchored SEC East titles in 2015 and 2016.
Unfortunately for Florida fans, the regression has been worse than anticipated.
Hardly any program can weather the type of NFL personnel losses Florida has suffered over the past two seasons and avoid any drop off, especially depth-wise. That’s why when Harris suffered a season-ending injury in July and key pieces of linebacker depth were suspended in August, Florida’s defense, however talented, suddenly faced significant questions.
Far from the elite units that have roamed the SEC the last two seasons (ranking 7th and 4th in S&P+ defensive efficiency, respectively), the 2017 Gators rank 55th in total defense and 24th in S&P+ defense through five games. And while the unit has been good in the red zone (25th nationally) and on third down (23rd nationally), it is giving up far too many chunk plays and missing too many tackles (12th in SEC in tackling percentage).
As a result, the unit ranks only 53rd nationally in scoring defense, allowing 24.2 points a contest. Certainly, losing a date against an FCS cupcake due to a hurricane has hurt Florida’s numbers, but the end result — average defense against Power 5 opponents — is cause for concern. Most concerning, the Gators have been only average without truly facing an electric offense in five games (the best statistical unit Florida has played is LSU, which ranks only 44th in S&P+ efficiency and a pedestrian 77th in total offense).
Also disturbing is the fact that after securing three pick-sixes in its first two contests, Florida’s defense has failed to produce a single turnover in 13 quarters of football, beginning with the fourth quarter against Tennessee.
In many ways, this young Gators defense — full of raw talent in the secondary and starting only two seniors (Nick Washington and Duke Dawson) — is reminiscent of Florida’s very young 2007 defense. Better days were ahead, of course, but that defense simply couldn’t get off the field (52nd in S&P+ defense and 47th in total defense). The core of that defense would go on to win a national championship and contend for another, but they were very mediocre in 2007, surrendering 30+ points in five games and 40+ twice. The Gators still won nine games that campaign, thanks to an offense that ranked first nationally behind Heisman Trophy winning Tim Tebow and sensational freshman wide receiver Percy Harvin. But it could have been a special campaign if the Gators could have gotten more stops.
This defense doesn’t have an explosive offense to cover its growing pains.
Thanks to an offense that still can’t figure it out, at a minimum, Florida needs to be opportunistic defensively and occasionally provide their anemic offense with short fields. Thus far, Florida has mostly been a defense that bends but doesn’t break and can’t produce turnovers, even against anemic opposition. This simply won’t cut it if Florida hopes to return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game this December.
Florida’s young defense will receive its biggest test, both from a schematic and personnel standpoint, to date Saturday night when Kevin Sumlin’s Texas A&M offense visits The Swamp.
Randy Shannon’s strength is simplifying things and allowing his athletes to play fast and downhill. Kevin Sumlin’s ability to spread you out limits that strength to some extent, as Florida will have to be cognizant of mismatches and motions throughout the game.
The Aggies’ strengths offensively also match up well against Florida’s weaknesses.
While the Aggies rank only 55th nationally in total offense (42nd in S&P+ efficiency), they do rank 23rd in rushing offense, a favorable matchup against a Florida team giving up 4.3 yards a carry that was just gashed for 216 yards against LSU’s perimeter run schemes. Further, the Gators have struggled with gap control in the run game, and Sumlin is a master of spreading the field and forcing defenses out of their traditional gap assignments.
Florida’s coaches say they have emphasized being consistent and disciplined in run gaps this week in practice, but that’s easier said than done against the Aggies, and even more difficult against an elusive quarterback like A&M’s Kellen Mond, who can extend plays and draw even disciplined defenses out of their comfort zones.
Florida’s secondary, which starts multiple freshmen, will also receive a fairly significant challenge. Mond’s legs can limit the effectiveness of Florida’s quality pass rush, extending plays and allowing a talented group of A&M receivers, led by physical freshman Jhamon Ausbon and All-American Christian Kirk (who may be the best player in the conference), to get open. The Gators’ safeties, potentially playing without senior Nick Washington, will need to play assignment football and effectively help.
It’s a heady challenge, even for a defense juiced-up with adrenaline from the first night game crowd in The Swamp in two seasons.
But if Florida is to win and preserve any chance of playing for an SEC East title when it arrives in Jacksonville in two weeks for the Cocktail Party against Georgia, it’ll need to grow up fast against Texas A&M Saturday night.