New Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said the elements are in place for the Gators to get opponents off the field on third down this season.
“You’re good on third down when you have guys that can rush and guys that can cover,” Grantham said. “And I think that with the guys that we have here, I fully expect us to continue to be good.”
The phrase “third and Grantham” originated early in Grantham’s tenure as defensive coordinator at Georgia, due to his propensity to bring pressure on third down and give up big plays. But in three of his last four seasons as defensive coordinator at Louisville and Mississippi State, Grantham’s defense has finished 10th in the nation in third-down defense. Last season as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, opponents converted on only 30.41 percent of third-down plays against the Bulldogs.
Grantham said the keys to third-down defense are making players aware of what’s coming relative to distance, having the ability to rush the passer and playing tight coverage.
“We’re more of a pattern match zone defense, so even though sometimes it looks like it’s man-to-man, it’s actually zone,” Grantham said. “I think that allows you to play tighter coverage, which forces the quarterbacks to make more accurate throws, and that can help you rush and also your turnovers.”
Grantham’s recent success on third down is a far cry from his first season as defensive coordinator at Georgia in 2010, when his defense finished 79th in the nation in third down at 41.86 percent conversions allowed.
“You’re always evolving to become a better coach,” Grantham said. “I would say the answer to that is hopefully we’re better — I’m a better coach this year than I was last year or three years ago because you’re always working to — you have to stay on track with things that are happening. You know, the offenses evolve, things change, people may attack you a different way relative to what they see.”
Third down was labeled the “money down” at Florida under former defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who left before the start of the 2017 season to take the head coaching job at Temple. Under former Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon last season, the Gators took less chances blitzing on third down, but still finished 22nd in the nation in third-down defense at 33.09 percent.
On the rare occasions when Florida brought extra pressure last season, it often backfired. Shannon called for a rare blitz during last season’s Florida-Georgia game, but Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm saw it coming and completed a 45-yard screen pass play to running back Sony Michel for a TD.
Grantham said he intends to disguise blitzes in different formations.
“Just because you have the illusion that a guy is coming doesn’t mean it’s always man-to-man because at the end of the day, you can bring four, you can bring five or you can bring six,” Grantham said. “That part of it is really game-by-game relative to the match-ups and how you feel about how you can affect the quarterback.”
Florida players are excited about playing in Grantham’s attacking style of defense, which will mix 3-4 and 4-3 front-seven formations. Under Grantham, Mississippi State finished fifth in the SEC in sacks with 36. Florida, meanwhile, finished 12th in the SEC in sacks last season with 23, ahead of just Tennessee (22) and Arkansas (19).
“We’re a lot less conservative than we were last season,” said Florida redshirt sophomore linebacker Jeremiah Moon, who got a first taste of Grantham’s defense during spring practice. “We’re going to be playing a lot more aggressive and we’ll see a lot more plays being made on the defensive side of the ball.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen saw first-hand the impact that Grantham has on a defense. Two years ago, before Grantham arrived from Louisville, Mississippi State ranked 110th in the nation in total defense. Last season, with Mullen at the helm and Grantham as defensive coordinator, Mississippi State’s defense ranked 10th in the nation. It’s why Mullen lured Grantham with a $1.39 million offer to become UF’s new defensive coordinator.
“He’s a guy that can talk football at an extremely high level and know every detail of the game from front all the way to back,” Mullen said. “I think that’s what really makes him a special football coach is his knowledge front to back of the whole defense and the system.”
A look at Todd Grantham’s third-down defenses since 2010:
2010: 79th (41.86%) Georgia