Through the first four games last season, the Florida Gators were in decent shape, and actually in a position to challenge in the SEC East race.
They’d recovered from the opening loss to Michigan and won three games in a row, including a dramatic home win against Tennessee and a come-from-behind victory at Kentucky.
With back-to-back home games coming up against LSU and Texas A&M, the Gators (and their fans) were feeling pretty good about themselves.
But those next two games tipped the season in the wrong direction and ultimately led to the big mess: Jim McElwain’s departure and a 4-7 record.
The Gators were in a position to win both those games but ran out of energy in the fourth quarter.
Down by just a point heading into the fourth quarter against LSU, UF was shut out the rest of the way and left to stomach a tough 17-16 loss.
A week later, the Gators took a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M, but could not hold it. The Aggies dominated the rest of the game, outscoring the Gators 9-0 to pull out a 19-17 win.
Many look back on those fourth-quarter failures and blame it on UF’s lack of strength and conditioning, which has since been well chronicled.
That certainly had to be a big factor. Also contributing was the fact the Gators had too many players — especially on defense — playing too many plays. UF big guys up front, in particular, seemed to be gassed coming down the stretch.
New Florida defensive line coach Sal Sunseri said that’s not going to happen to his guys this season. The defensive linemen are going to be fresh throughout games, he has vowed.
“I want it to be four deep (on the defensive line,” Sunseri said. “ If we can get into four-deep and get some guys really going, the rotation will be pretty good. You don’t have to play guys for more than eight or nine plays on a long drive if you have that kind of depth.
“You keep them fresh. So if that guy runs a 4.7 normal, well if he’s doing 60 plays he’s not going to run 4.7. So, we’re trying to make sure that everybody that’s on the defensive line is going to have a role. We’re going to be in there. Hopefully people are playing 30-35 plays, whether there’s three groups doing it or two groups.”
Sunseri seemed pleased with the potential depth up front, and the overall performance of the defensive line this spring.
“They’ve worked extremely hard,” he said. “What they’re doing is trying to get better on their techniques and understand the system that we’re trying to put in. They’ve giving very, very good effort. They’re learning more about football and what it takes to be a champion and they’re executing what they need to do.”
Sunseri said with a new defensive system (and philosophy) there has been a pretty significant learning curve.
“Of course, there’s always a learning curve when you’re coming in here with Coach (Todd) Grantham’s system,” Sunseri said. “He’s had success everywhere he’s been. Now what they’re doing is they’re learning different spots and different calls and different alignments.
“They’re definitely learning different techniques from what they did in the past. We’re in the process of getting better with our hands and our feet and being quicker, faster, stronger and more gap integrity.”
In 2018, the plan for the defensive line is to play faster — and fresher.