UF’s defense working to return to elite unit

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UF defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson runs a drill during Friday's practice at the Sanders Practice Field on campus. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

At a lot of places, being the 31st-ranked team in the country in total defense would be a reason to celebrate. Heck, at the very least the defensive coordinator would get a raise.

Shoot, in the Big 12, being No. 31 would probably lead to a head coaching job at another school. It might lead to a small parade.

But this is Florida, a school once known for offense but not anymore. Instead, this is DBU and smother and cover and the money downs. This is where offenses go to die.

Well, except for last year. It’s not that Florida’s defense was bad. It certainly wasn’t offense-bad.

But the Gators were 31st in the country in total defense. The average finish for the previous nine seasons was seventh in the country. Only once in those nine years, when UF was 15th in Jim McElwain’s first year, have the Gators not finished in the top 10 nationally.

Florida was also 69th in scoring defense (some of which can be blamed on the inept offense), 79th in sacks (we’ll get to that) and 81st in turnovers gained (nobody EVER fumbled).

So you look at those stats and maybe it WAS a bad defense. I don’t think so. I just think it was too predictable. Florida’s defensive scheme gave vanilla a bad name.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson agrees.

“Last year was too simple for us,” he said. “We’re good, but we don’t know football. Now, we talk football so much we are almost sick of it.”

There was a bit of a double take when the Florida nickelback said that at Florida’s Media Day on Thursday. So I asked him what he meant by the team not knowing football.

“The ins and outs,” he said. “We knew what to do right, but we didn’t know what we were doing wrong exactly. Since these coaches have been here, we’ve dived in more.

“This new coaching staff, they have a whole different mindset, different mentality.”

Look, the knock on Randy Shannon before he took over the Florida defense was that he didn’t like to blitz and it showed up in the fact that Florida ranked 12th in the SEC in sacks. Chicks dig the long ball and corner blitzes, right?

There seems little doubt Florida will be more aggressive this year. That may result in mistakes that lead to big plays for the opponent, but that’s the risk you take. The no-risk, no-reward option is out the window.

“Coach Shannon’s defense was simple, but it wasn’t fit for everybody on the defense and what they did well,” Gardner-Johnson said. “With Coach Grantham, it fits everybody and you learn what everybody is doing. It’s going to be a change this year. You have to put your head into it and focus every day.”

It certainly was a different look in the spring in that it’s easier to disguise coverages and blitzes in a 3-4 defense and we haven’t even seen what Grantham will throw at offenses with the game on the line.

“Oh yeah, there is definitely a  lot of movement on defense,” UF receiver Freddie Swain said after going against this defense in the spring. “It’s kind of hard to pick up on what they’re doing and what coverage they’re in.”

I’m one of those people who believes Florida can return to being an elite defense after an off year. Despite some depth issues, the talent is there.

But the key is for this defense to play on its toes instead of its heels.

The biggest thing we always talk about on defense is playing to our identity, which we say is fast, physical and aggressive,” Grantham said. “And really, coaching is a part of developing that identity, because really it gets down to habits. If you do play to that identity, you have a good chance to win the game. If you can develop that mindset of having to play to that identity with competitive toughness, I mean, you have a chance to be a good defense and be hard to score on and create turnovers, and if you do that, you’ve got a chance to be in every game.”

Turnovers.

I remember those.

Florida may have hired a head coach known for his offense, but he knows the same thing we all do — if Florida is going to get back in the national picture, the Gators need to take all of this new knowledge and new aggressiveness and new shoes and start slobber-knocking people again.

“I think that the confidence that they’re going to get from being put in the position to be successful by the staff as well as the experience that they’ve been out there and played before, I think that’s going to give us the opportunity to get the defense back to where we expect it to be,” Dan Mullen said Thursday.

“You have to play great defense, and that’s something that we’re going to do.”

Hear, hear.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

 

33 COMMENTS

  1. I have four primary reasons to be optimistic about Dan Mullen’s initial Gator team, Pat: 1) for the first time in nine years, an offense that will score points and profiently move the ball; 2) a defense that will return to a Top Ten level with an aggressive, tough, attacking style; 3) a schedule that includes several SEC middle to lower-end teams; and 4) at last a head coach who fits and embraces our Florida Gators culture. Mullen has so much better talent than he inherited at Mississippi State and that he usually could put on the field in his nine seasons there. The guy’s a heck of a good coach, maybe even a great coach if he puts all the talent in place at UF. If the offense can improve to the top six in the conference this year and the return of the defense to elite stature, watch out.

    Thanks for your wise perspective.

  2. Some of the problem had to be th “Fat is the New Strong” workout program from last year, and we know that is better now. But the high-school defense we ran won’t work against any competent team. If you line up in a base 4-3 and show your coverage before the snap you will get burned because they will check off to a play designed to exploit the weaknesses in your scheme. “There’s a play to beat every defense” as Spurrier used to say. And Geogia and other teams proved it. You have to disguise things, force the offense to think, think, thick, slow them down, tire them out mentally, and they will make mistakes.

    As with Pussmeiser, even when it became clear that what he was doing wasn’t working, nothing changed on defense There was that same why bother attitude, or an assumption that since the Pop Warner scheme wasn’t working it must be the player’s fault, or else the spoiled fans’ expectations were too high. In fact, all it was was lousy coaching from peopl who seemed disinterested in results and took no pride in their work.

    • Randy Shannon was a good man — no, a great guy — and he had a compelling background story to boot. Because we liked him so much, we wanted him to be a great football coach too, most of us even when he was at Miami. But the latter is just not true, and as our DC he set us back. Thankfully, CDM had the sense to bring Grantham in right away, as well as Savage.

      • Good guy, with a good philosophy about life and dealing with adversity. But should look for another profession or find some way to get excited again, learning and innovating, because that tired old glory days defense he wanted to run went out with 8 track tapes.

      • I always thought of Randy Shannon as being a good Lt. (coordinator) and not Capt. material (HC). Maybe position coach is his ceiling/wheelhouse. I thought one of his biggest failures as Miami HC was secrecy/suspicion/hostility with the local media who desperately wanted to cheer for him. Will Muschamp had the same problem at UF. The press corps can’t get you wins. But they can sure spin the losses so that seat stays cool. I don’t see Dan Mullen having those problems (on the field or off the field).

  3. Toughness from the safety spot and a lack of athleticism/depth at linebacker were the biggest weaknesses. Both are still big question marks.

    • I think after Savage got a hold of them, the toughness part should drastically change. Hopefully we won’t see Gardner getting run over anymore.

  4. Waiting for Dooley’s full throated defense of Urban Liar. I suppose that will appear in his back nine which should actually be named the back seven since eight is a regurgitation of someone’s tweet and nine is what’s playing on his phone.

  5. Pete. Pat is nationally respected as a sports journalist. And I doubt for even a fraction of a second that he would support the abuse of a women by anyone.

  6. Say what one will… but the utterly inept offense was a big reason for our defense’s failures, as well as losing DC Geoff Collins. He knew defense and how to coach it. Shannon? I respect the man and the extremely difficult situation he was put in last year. He was not only given a team that was already mentally and physically beaten when he inherited it, but let’s face it, Shannon is past his prime as a HBC. Kind of like fsu is going to find out bringing back Mickey Andrews as a “special assistant” won’t be the huge hire they think it will be. He hasn’t coached in 9 years, and it’ll show.

    The offense going three and out and constant turnovers usually gassed our defense by halftime in most games, and the other half of the time, they were totally frustrated by the lack of offense. The defense spent most of the game on the field, and that’s what runs your ratings way down.

    • Mad Mickey couldn’t figure out how to defend the spread option back then, but he does know how to players to late hit and try to injure opponents, so we can expect a return to dirty play from the semis, that’s for sure.

      • I don’t know if that’s true or not, Jaws……but what’s interesting is Taggart trying to get a connection with FSU history, ie, Bowden/Fisher. Makes me wonder.

  7. Todd your last paragraph was on it. Was at both games in Atlanta we were ok till half. Defense was gassed just before half. Don’t think they could bring enough o2 to help. Was glad we were there painful to watch. I think if offense had helped we could have been in that one.

    • It was easy to get gassed quickly when they were weak and out of shape going into the game. I thought T.J. Slaton was literally going to die on the field in most games.

      • The look of the defense when the offense went 3&out after half said it all. They were deflated. Second year worse. I’m guessing as we were getting more burgers and less exercise and players were resorting to personal trainers. Wish I could get hired somewhere and be inept and get a check. Not really might suck but I’d make a better effort than Mac. Maybe a weather career.

  8. The 3-4 defense is GREAT when you have big, speedy linebackers who can read the run and cover the backs and TEs on the pass. And they have to read the play action. Add to that some man-to-man coverage, some unseen blitzes from the LBs and you could have a Top 10 defense. Wow. That sounds like my kids Christmas wish list. If only……….
    The hope is to disguise coverage and have the players that can make BIG time plays. If only………………

    PS: My boys in “Gainesville tell me the weight room workouts for the team was like tryouts for a Navy Seal team. The most punishing off-season weight training many of the players had ever seen. The strength coaches don’t try to hurt you, they try to bury you and see if you will quit. We will see.

  9. Defenses do not operate in a vacuum. As mentioned threes and out can demoralize and wear out a defense by the fourth quarter. The answer to how good the 2017 defense was is that know one knows. What is known is that they were no WORSE than 32nd. And where did Dooley get the idea that Florida was known for its offense as though the Gators were some wuss Big 12 all-offense outfit. What happened was that the Gators stopped playing offense at all, and the defense was left in high relief to be the obvious point of focus. Florida has always played Big Boy SEC defense. The Fun and Gun was famous and innovative, but SOS never neglected his defenses. (Hell, THBC put pressure on his defenders by scoring too quickly!) Neither did Urban Meyer, or Charlie Pell, or Galen Hall, or Ray Graves, or Bob Woodruff. An easy exercise is to think of a great Gator offensive player and then a great Gator defender. It is anybody’s guess which list would run out first.

    • Eugenio, So right. The offensive and defensive squads help each other. When both are playing well, any TEAM is the best it can be.

      I have to take exception to your Spurrier assessment. His 1st teams featured GREAT left-over defensive talent and dominated. The Gators scuffled a bit on defense for a while after that. SS didn’t respect defense – not even his own (see putrid Sugar Bowl v. Notre Dame). Eventually Steve LEARNED to respect/depend on defense. That’s when the Golden Era was shiniest.

  10. I believe the program that Coach Mullen and Coach Grantham (and our other current coaches) have installed is comprehensive and will help build the Gator football team into an elite unit. As the Gator players continue to progress, they will gain confidence and the certain knowledge that what they are doing will make them better players as well as better people. The Gators are returning to a values-based program that looks beyond just football to making this young athletes into mature, hard-working, devoted men. Not only will we return to a wining season this year, but I believe we will see a bowl game as well. Rebuilding the Gator “D” is the start – building the Gator “O” and special teams (which were previously neglected) will return us to championships.

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