In times of trouble, and there have been many in recent years, the Florida Gators have always found comfort and security in their defense.
When the offense was going nowhere and the special teams were doing nothing and everything was going wrong, the defense was always there, making plays and finding ways to win games or keep the Gators in them.
Last year was different.
In a season that went south for everybody, the usually reliable defense faltered along with all other aspects of the program in a 4-7 disaster.
“I don’t know (what happened),” junior linebacker David Reese said. “Just as a whole, we weren’t dialed in and focused as we should have been. Dealing with a lot of adversity. Also, just the flow of the game, like the offense helping.”
Whatever it was, the Gators gave up 27.3 points a game, the most since 1946, and were hit for 5.7 yards per play, the most in the modern era. UF finished 31st in the nation in total defense.
The defense was, well, unrecognizable.
“Sometimes I look at game film (from last season), and this is not the Gator football team that I know, personally, that I’ve seen in the past,” linebacker Kylan Johnson said.
The bottom fell out on the defense during a two-week stretch late in the season that saw the Gators give up a combined 87 points in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri.
“It was a tough time because that’s not the Gator standard,” senior defensive end/outside linebacker Cece Jefferson said.
The goal in 2018 is to get back to that Gator standard on defense.
With every starter back on defense except cornerback Duke Dawson and tackle Taven Bryan, the defense is confident it can regain its past form under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and the new coaching staff.
“We’re definitely motivated,” Reese said.
“This defense, we’re hungry,” Jefferson said. “Let’s just say we’ll be back in the top 10.”
Last season under Randy Shannon, the Gators were more of a sit-back-and-react defense in a 4-3 scheme. Grantham’s 3-4 defense is much more aggressive and attacking, featuring numerous blitz packages and stunts.
“The biggest thing we always talk about on defense is playing to our identity, which we say is fast, physical and aggressive,” Grantham said. “And coaching is a part of developing that identity because really it gets down to habits. We’re not where we need to be yet, but our guys have embraced trying to develop the habits we need to be that kind of defense.
“If you do play to that identity, you have a good chance to win the game.”
The players have clearly embraced Grantham’s style of defense. They’ve talked throughout preseason camp about how much fun they’re having playing in it.
Linebackers aren’t the only ones coming on blitzes. So are the safeties and cornerbacks.
“Oh, we love it because everybody’s playing fast and physical,” junior linebacker Rashad Jackson said. “We just want to go out and intimidate the other team.”
The Gators should be strong up front, especially on the edge with Jefferson, Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga, sound at linebacker and potentially elite at the corner spots with Marco Wilson and CJ Henderson.
Depth at linebacker and the overall lack of experience at safety are concerns.
But the Gators have the talent to restore their high standard of defense, Reese said.
“I’ve got so much talent around me,” he said. “I just have to make sure we’re communicating and everyone is playing on the same page.
“We’ve got all the talent in the world. As long as we’re one, we’re going to be hard to beat. As long as we don’t let big plays happen, it’s going to be hard to score on us.”
Jefferson has a prediction for this defense.
“It’s going to be special,” he said.