Dooley: Can Gators’ defense become elite?

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Florida linebacker Jonathan Greenard (58) and linebacker Jeremiah Moon (7) during the game againstTennessee at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Sept. 21. [Matt Pendleton/Correspondent]

Last week, the big fear heading to The Swamp was a Tennessee offense that had put up big numbers and had big receivers.

Three points later, even the smart guys who thought the Vols could play with the Gators were silenced (Yes, I’m talking to you, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard).

This week, another offense with gaudy numbers comes to town. OK, so the most people Towson has played in front of this season would be a nice crowd for a UF gymnastics meet (8,811 if you’re wondering).

But quarterback Tom Flacco is legit, and the mighty Tigers are averaging 6.6 yards a play this season.

So it is another test for a defense that is putting up numbers that are elite. Kind of.

It has been a strange season so far. If I told you Florida would be 4-0 right now, you’d be pretty happy. But it turns out Miami and Kentucky have faltered since losing to Florida, and Tennessee-Martin can’t beat anybody (except, perhaps, Tennessee).

So you are still trying to figure out this team with its shiny new toy at quarterback and a lofty national ranking that nobody outside the Gator Nation seems to be happy with.

Now, a fan might argue this — because Florida’s team is built on defense, it doesn’t always look sexy in this video game world of college football.

And that fan might punctuate his argument with the statistic that Florida ranks 14th in the nation in defensive efficiency and 10th in the nation in scoring defense, which is the most important stat for defense on any league at any level.

A wise man with initials for a title once said, “Statistics are for losers and assistant coaches.”

But not that one.

That one matters. And it’s a big reason why Florida is 4-0. Two last-possession stops. Two smotherings. That adds up to four wins.

Which gets to the theme of this (well, it’s the theme now) about the 2019 defense.

1. Is it an elite defense despite so many injuries?

2. If it isn’t, can it become one?

“If we work,” said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. “It’s really up to us to continue to work and develop. It’s up to us to see what we can do.

“We’ve just got to continue to play. It really doesn’t matter. Whoever is available is going to play. The bottom line is we’ve just got to find ways to win games.”

Yep, that’s the bottom line. There are no style points anymore in college football. Win and advance to the next game.

Let’s get back to the questions.

I don’t think Florida is playing defense at an elite level right now. Grantham’s defense has given up too many third-and-a-ton plays and has played against:

A freshman starting his first game. A back-up starting his first SEC game. And whatever that was the two Tennessees put out there under center.

Seriously, I think Flacco may be the best quarterback Florida has faced all season. But I digress.

I could give you a couple of negative stats like opponent’s long plays from scrimmage (43), but you’ve seen these guys play, right? What do you think? Is this an elite defense?

Right about now is when you say, “We’ll see.” Because we will. After today’s game with Towson, Florida faces an Auburn team that will force the Gators to play at an elite level because it won’t allow much on the other side of the scoreboard. And then an LSU team that found the turbo button for its offense.

And of course, there is Georgia, was off in the distance, scoring whatever it needs to win.

Yes, we will see.

I know this, Florida can’t be an elite defense without CJ Henderson. The cornerback is Florida’s best player. If he gets healthy, he not only is the man, his absence and other injuries have helped a depleted secondary fatten up on experience.

“The theory is injury creates depth, meaning that sometimes you play guys more than you would because you’re forced to,” Grantham said. “When other guys come back all of a sudden you’ve got a little more depth.”

So is Florida elite on defense? Not quite. But the Gators are really good, and they have been elite when it has mattered most.

Can it happen?

“We’ve done a good job,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “If we can get healthy, we could quite possibly be an elite defense. Hopefully, by the end of the year we will be an elite defense. I see guys getting better.

“So much is based on health in college football. Hopefully, we’ve seen the worst of our injuries and we just get healthier as the year goes on.”

Then, we will find out.

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

14 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sure Kyle Trask will be pleased to learn that he is a shiny new toy, and CDM happy to learn that his team is over-ranked and delusional. Considering your distaste for the Gators, despite your excellent writing skills, wouldn’t you be happier writing for some other team? We’re talking to you, Dooley.

  2. 6 – I think Trask will laugh about the “shiny new toy” analogy. Gator nation is enamored with the guy right now like a kid with a shiny new toy or a grown up with a shiny new car.
    I think Dooley is very happy writing about the Gators and I think he is a true Gator. Sports writers walk around with a bullseye on their backs and they take some shots whether deserved or not. But hey 6, you have your opinions and have the right to to take shots when you see fit.
    I like your comments though. They are great. I just happen to disagree with this one.

    • Hey Jack — thanks for the civil disagreement, that’s what this should be all about and I remember not very long ago when it wasn’t. At the proverbial end of the proverbial day, we’re all Gators — some proverbial and some not. 😁

      I’m willing to accept your word that Pat is a true Gator, but if he is one, as one he sure delights in poking his finger in Gator eyes. Now, that may honestly be a function of the “new”, post modern, “journalism”……I’m not sure but the trend has extended to sports media for sure. I won’t go into that here, other than to say that one can in fact remain objective and balanced while still allowing allegiances to show, which does indeed seem antithetical to present day media regardless of form. By the way — I really enjoy your posts too, bud. GO GATORS!

  3. Yo Pat, while you’re dumping on “smart guys” Desmond Howard and Kirk Herbstreit for thinking TN would play us tight, you might want to check out Robbie’s “Gators on Upset Alert” column before the TN game, with the accompanying 28-24 prediction. Just sayin’…

    Elite defense? I don’t think so. Hope they prove me wrong. Totally agree w/ Pat, elite defenses don’t allow so many conversions of third-and-long. I fear LSU in particular could really light us up.

  4. Agree Jack…..Pat really bleeds orange & blue and we (the readers of his articles) are blessed to have one of the better sports writers around. I recall the days when some of us called him nothing but a “homer” writing only good things about the the gators. I see honesty here and will continue to defend him. Yes 6, like Jack I also enjoy your thoughtful and witty comments, and please, cut Pat some slack.

    • I’ll sure try, SR. One thing we do agree on, however, is that the man indeed is a gifted sports writer and I’ve made comparisons to the best of ’em all in my book — the late Tom McEwen of the old Tampa Tribune. It’s really just the blind spot, IMO, certainly not his wordsmithing.

      • I remember Tom McEwen, he was part of that old guard that included Edwin Pope at the Miami Herald and of course Jack Hairston at the Sun. Renowned columnists, all of them, though certainly different styles than Pat. I like Pat. I think he’s fair, he possesses a good wit, and every now and then he turns a very nice phrase. I’m sure he won’t let that go to his head — he strikes me as a guy who takes pride in his humility. 🙂

        • You know PVB, as an observer of human behavior it still amazes me how two rational people, one of which is intelligent (that being you, since I’ve been told more than once that I must take pride in my ignorance at times), can arrive at two totally different conclusions when viewing the same subject. That certainly makes it fun tho! Actually, however, I enjoy him as well and am only taking exception to one annoying trait…..the rest being classic.

          • 6, your modesty is but one of your endearing traits (along with your candor). And I can see where you’re coming from. There are things Pat says that I definitely disagree with.

          • When you’ve had your ass chewed out by enough generals, so bad they often had to stop for a drink of water, you can’t help but be modest, PVB. My old man, a WWII era thru the 60’s CSM, always said, however, to always tell the truth no matter what as long as you get the job done. Even if your blue jeans fall down afterwards since there’s nothing left to hold them up. Nowadays I just carp a lot, and frequently cuss while throwing rocks at passing cars! 😉

          • You know 6, I think part of the problem is that Pat is a lifelong Gator fan, and as such, has experienced too many seasons where he bought into the hype and ended up disappointed. Maybe this has made him overly cautious. Or maybe, he’s like a gymnastics judge who’s hesitant to award a “10” to the first performance, because there may be something better coming later. Both he and Robbie were called out by posters here for buying into Mac’s hype of the OL prior to the 2017 season. Better to be slow with the praise than to heap it on early and later be deemed an idiot for drinking the Koolaid.

  5. Florida isn’t an elite defense. There are still issues tackling and receivers are getting open with frequency. Yes they are good against the run but none of the teams we have played except for Kentucky can run anyway. Too many third down conversions especially 3rd and long. Florida’s defense is good not great but good in the SEC only works if you have a great offense. We have improved the passing game significantly with Trask but the offense is one dimensional and the run is still a major issue. This is a good team that can be a great team and the three games after Towson will allow the Gators to become a great team. I love my Gators but the reality is that there are many young guys that are untested and we really don’t know how they will handle the huge games upcoming. I think if they play with the focus and ferocity needed similar to how Florida handled MSU and LSU last year, the Gators could win all three big games. They HAVE to develop the intensity they routinely had in the Meyer and Spurrier years. Go Gators!

    • Great point, Ocala. I can’t help but remember how our old pal Mveal cautioned about a possible step back in Year 2 — maybe this is what he was referring to. I’ve heard all my life that “great” defenses win championships, tho I’ve always added, “…not without an offense they don’t”. But when you mention “focus & ferocity”, aka, “relentless effort” in Mullenese, well….call it character, call it heart, hell, call it anything but late to dinner…….it’s what I refer to as sense of urgency and intensity, and by God, when we finally found it last year nobody could beat us. Nobody. I hope we break that code this year right soon, before next week in fact.