ATLANTA — Over the years, when times have gotten tough, when things have gone wrong, the Florida Gators have always had their reliable rock to lean on and win games with.
Strong, sturdy, reliable. Always there, propping up a staggering offense
But things were different in the Gators’ strange and sometimes surreal 4-7 season in 2017.
When things got tough, when the cracks started leading to crumble, the rock rolled over, too.
Or, rather, got rolled over.
In a 35-point loss to Georgia, the defense was gutted, giving up touchdown runs of 74, 45 and 39 yards.
A week later, in a 45-16 embarrassment at Missouri, the Gators were torched by quarterback Drew Lock.
This kind of stuff is not what the defense is accustomed to. Neither is this: the Gators, traditionally a top-10 defense in the nation, finished 31st in total defense and 69th in scoring defense.
“That’s not the Gator standard,” senior defensive end Cece Jefferson said at SEC Media Days. “As a unit, we knew that we had more talent than most of those teams
and we could have put on a better display than we did.
“It was just a disappointing feeling within ourselves. To be that team, to drop the ball and not to be a top-10 defense since like 2007.
“When people think about the University of Florida they think about defense. It was an embarrassing feeling and one that myself and this team doesn’t want to feel again.”
At times last season, the defense did play up to Florida’s high standard. But at other times, in some crucial moments, the defense faltered.
It could not hold a fourth-quarter lead in the 19-17 loss to Texas A&M. It could not make some key stops against Michigan, South Carolina and Florida State.
And then there was surrendering 87 points over that two-week span against Georgia and Missouri.
The low point was the effort (or lack of it) against the Tigers. Jefferson said the defense probably gave up a little bit in that one. It was a performance that brought him to tears.
“I feel like I had a lot to do with losing that game,” Jefferson said. “I take that one personally. That wasn’t my best performance. After that game I cried for so long. My mom was just trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I feel like I was the reason we lost that game.
“Those are the type of people we have on our defense. We have those guys that will jump on the grenade, take the blame and just a bunch of unselfish guys.”
The Florida defensive players have been carrying around those bad memories from last season over the last seven months and throughout the offseason strength and conditioning program.
Those memories are motivational.
“We’re definitely motivated,” junior middle linebacker David Reese said. “It was difficult last season. But we’re putting that behind us. We’re ready to come back and give it everything we’ve got.”
The defensive players are vowing to atone this season for what happened last fall and restore the high standard that has been in place at UF for so long.
The Gators will be trying to do it with a new head coach (Dan Mullen), a new defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) and with a big assist from a new strength and conditioning coordinator (Nick Savage).
“This defense, we’re hungry,” Jefferson said. “I see it every day. I see it in their eyes, the way they work, the way they attack it. We do some pretty hard stuff with Coach Savage. Sometimes he’s amazed with the way we’re attacking it.
“The next day you can tell he and his staff sat down and
thought of ways to amp it up, to make us more tired because of the way we attack it. This defense is going to be special.
“Let’s just say we’ll be back in the top 10 this year.”
Reese said the Gators have all the tools to get back there: coaching, scheme, players, attitude.
The defensive players have embraced Grantham’s more aggressive, attacking style of defense.
“We’re going to make quarterbacks make mistakes,” Reese said. “We’re going to blitz, we’re going to disguise blitzes, we’re going to cover guys. We’re going to do what we’ve got to do to win.
“Our linebacker unit is definitely ready to go. Our defensive line, you already know what they can do — Cece back, Jachai (Polite), Jabari Zuniga, probably the most athletic guy in college football, T.J. Slaton … the list goes on and on.
“We’re ready on defense. We’re motivated.”
It sounds like a plan for UF’s defense to be the rock again in 2018.