Over the past several years, the national perception of Florida football has been that the Gators are inept on offense and elite on defense.
That perception was not reality last season.
The offense was inept — but then so was the defense at times.
So, the offensive players aren’t the only ones with something to prove in 2018. The defensive guys are right there with them.
“We’re real motivated,” sophomore cornerback Marco Wilson said. “We know we did not have a good season, and that’s just not the standard here.
“We have to come out and just prove everybody wrong because there’s a lot of bad talk on our name and we’re just not going to accept that this year.”
The proud defensive tradition at UF took a real beating at times last season.
In back-to-back blowout losses to Georgia and Missouri, the Gators gave up a ton of points (87) and a ton of yards (848).
Earlier in the season, the defense failed to hold a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter in a 19-17 home loss to Texas A&M.
In the final game, the defense had a chance to get stops at critical times against FSU and failed to do so in a 38-22 loss.
The Gators’ overall defensive performance simply wasn’t up to UF’s high standard in 2017.
“We have a lot to prove,” junior defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “We feel like other people doubted us and people are still doubting us now.
“We’re very motivated, because we feel like we left a lot of stuff on the table. Blown out by Missouri and Georgia, that didn’t really sit well with us, so we’ve got that chip on our shoulder.”
Junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said last season’s overall defensive performance is unacceptable.
“It ain’t cutting it this year,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to the SEC Championship and possibly the playoff. That’s how I feel. Ask anyone else in the country, they’re not going to feel the same. But they’re not playing with us, they’re not putting on this helmet.”
For the Gators to become championship contenders again, the quarterback play is going to have to be more proficient and the overall offense much more productive. And the defense is going to have to move back toward the elite status it enjoyed in recent years (excluding last season, of course).
The defense will be taking a different approach this season — with a new defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) and a new, more aggressive style of play.
Last season, the defense seemed to sit back and react to what opposing offenses were doing. Grantham has a track record of attacking offenses with lots of stunts and blitzes.
The players seem to have embraced the new, more aggressive style.
“We’re moving a lot faster. Everyone likes it,” junior outside linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “We’ve got a lot of athletes on the team. I don’t want to just say one position, but they all can be spread out at multiple positions, so everybody likes it.
“We’re just fixing to come out and try to dominate every team we can.”
Grantham’s blitz packages involve more than just the linebackers. The safeties and corners also will have an opportunity to stuff the run or get after the quarterback on blitzes.
“Coach has a lot of blitzes in here, so we’re going to get a lot of sacks this year,” Zuniga said. “A lot of sacks.”
Zuniga was asked if the defensive players are having more fun playing in a more aggressive defense.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s real diverse. We’re just doing a lot of stuff.”
Grantham has always thrown a lot of blitzes at opposing offenses. With two potential lock-down corners in Wilson and CJ Henderson, he might be inclined to increase the number this season.
“It’s going to be difficult (for teams to pass on us),” Wilson said. “We’ve got the best corners and best safeties, and that pass rush is going to be on the quarterback all the time, so it’s going to be real tough for teams.”
One thing seems certain: if the Gators do not rebound to become a top-10 defense again, it won’t be for a lack of attacking.
“We have a lot of potential,” Zuniga said. “We’ve just got to keep working on what we’re doing.”
What: Orange & Blue Game
When: 3 p.m.
Where: Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Tickets: Free admission
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 850-AM, 98.1-FM, 103.7-FM
SPRING GAME INFO
All parking on campus Saturday will be open and available starting at 8 a.m., which is consistent with the time that lots open on a fall game day.
Public parking lots are limited around the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. All lots that are not reserved are available on a first-come, first-served basis. As always, parking on the grass and sidewalks is not permitted and any vehicles doing so are at risk of being towed.
• Public parking lots: Flavet Field, Fraternity Row, Law School, Percy Beard Track, Reitz Union garage, Commuter parking lot on Gale Lemerand Drive
• Free shuttle buses: Starting at 12:30 p.m. from the commuter parking lot on Gale Lemerand Drive. Lacrosse and softball fans fREE shuttle starts at 1 p.m. from the UF Cultural Plaza parking lot (across the street from Southwest Rec Center by the parking garage)
• Beginning at 12 p.m. Saturday, West University Avenue will be closed between Gale Lemerand Drive and NW 17th Street. West University Avenue will remain closed until up to two hours after the conclusion of the game. Fans with parking passes to enter the O’Connell Center parking lot will be able to access those areas from the west on University Avenue.
• In an effort to tighten security around the stadium, starting 2.5 hours prior to kickoff, no vehicular traffic will be allowed on Lemerand Drive between University Avenue and Stadium Road. The closure will remain in effect until the end of the game.