Shannon’s approach with Gators defense: Fast and free

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Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon works with his players during a practice earlier this month at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. Shannon has a plan to use speed to burn opponents. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

The load on Florida’s defense has been lightened a little bit. Those big, fat playbooks the players have been lugging around the past two seasons have been trimmed.

With a new coordinator and a lot of young and inexperienced players and new starters, the Gators are taking a different approach on defense this season.

Keep it simple.

Keeping it simple usually equates to an easier and better understanding of the schemes, which usually leads to players playing faster.

Coordinator Randy Shannon and his guys seem to be making that plan work.

It’s been noticeable since the Gators’ first fall scrimmage.

“When that first unit came out I saw the aggressive nature and their ability to play free and rally to the ball,” UF coach Jim McElwain said. “That really stood out to me.

“Overall, man, the speed at which they played, that was pretty cool.”

Play fast — fast and free. It’s been the defense’s mantra throughout preseason camp. And they’re not just talking about it, they’re actually doing it.

“Everybody is coming along great so far,” sophomore linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “The young guys have really picked up on it. Everybody is playing fast. Coach Skip (linebacker coach Tim Skipper) and coach Randy Shannon are making it really easy for us. We are coming together as one. We’re just playing fast.

“Coach Shannon keeps it simple. He breaks it down for everyone to learn. He makes sure each and every player knows what they’re doing. He knows how to teach them.”

Shannon’s defensive scheme is similar to the one Geoff Collins coordinated the past two seasons, but it’s a simpler, scaled down version.

To Shannon, that seemed the sensible route when he looked at the overall youth and inexperience on the defense. The Gators had seven defensive starters taken in the NFL draft in the spring, which has left some big gaps to fill in, especially at linebacker and in the secondary.

By simplifying things, the players are reacting quicker and playing faster instead of having to think too much.

“You have to always have the guys playing fast,” Shannon said. “If guys can play fast without thinking a lot, then you’re going to be very successful. The whole thing we’re doing as a defensive staff is trying to find what can we call so the guys will not have to think, that they can just fly around and have fun and play fast.

“So when you have maybe a guy that’s running a 4.8, but if he’s playing fast, he’s going to look like he’s running a 4.6. Those are the kind of things that we want our defense to do, just really to fly around but play fast at all times.”

Young and inexperienced players have a tendency to play tentatively at times, especially if they have too much information to compute. And Florida is going to have a lot of young and inexperienced players on defense this season in certain spots.

In the secondary, where UF must replace three draft picks (Quincy Wilson, Jalen Tabor and Marcus Maye) and an injured starter (Marcell Harris), true freshmen are going to have to contribute.

Freshmen also are being counted on to provide depth on the defensive line and at linebacker, where UF is extremely thin.

One thing the young guys have going for them is that slimmed down playbook and simpler approach.

The players have bought in.

“Coach Shannon has really simplified the defense for a lot of guys, and it has allowed us to play really, really fast,” sophomore defensive end Antonneous Clayton said. “Everybody talks about how our defense has been fast, fast, fast, and he’s one of the reasons why.

“Our defense, we line up in our gaps, we play our schemes according to what the offense is doing. We just line up and play, and I just really thank him for making it simple for us, because I’m a simple guy. You tell me to do one job and I’m going to do it, and he’s doing that.”