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Gators defense looking to improve on strongest performance of season

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida linebacker Khris Bogle (8) and defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) come in on Missouri running back Larry Rountree III in the first half Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The expectation is Florida’s offense will stay in sync against Georgia come Saturday –– no surprise, especially when considering Gators quarterback Kyle Trask has thrown four touchdown passes in each contest this season while UF ranks No. 2 in the SEC in points per game. 

A similar performance from the defense, despite coming off its most impressive performance of the season, may be less of a given, however.

Florida may have held Missouri to just 248 yards on offense –– 75 of those yards came on the final two drives as UF’s reserves gained experience – yet it was just one performance, and the Tigers’ recruiting, program stability and overall success on the field lags behind that of the ’Dawgs as of late. 

“I think they're a well-put-together team. They're a run-first team, but they can also throw it down the field. Great offensive line,” Florida’s defensive back Kaiir Elam said. “You gotta play your keys (watch), never get lulled to sleep. Always be focused and sharp and on point. So yeah, that's something that we're going to have to do."

With a renewed intensity in practice as of late, Florida’s defense is looking to continue improving when it takes the field at 3:30 p.m. Saturday for the program’s most anticipated match-up of the 2020 season. 

"You can watch our practice. You see that it's harder, we try to make it harder than the game. So if we come out and we attack them like we do practice, I think you can expect big things,” Elam said. “We made a conscious effort since we lost to Texas A&M to take every play very seriously and critically and run to the ball and communicate on every single play, even if you think your teammate got it. We played with a lot of confidence, a lot of excitement for each other when we made a play. I feel like we lacked that (the) first three games, actually."

The 6-foot-2 Elam has stepped up for the Gators this season in the defensive back spot previously held by CJ Henderson, a first-round draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s registered 13 tackles and defended eight passes, yet the sophomore thinks he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. 

After all, the program has consistently staked its claim as “Defensive Back University”, meaning Elam and his teammates are well aware of their lack of takeaways – Florida’s lone interception nearing the midpoint is Gervon Dexter’s from the first quarter of the season-opener –– this season. Another chance awaits in Jacksonville. 

"I think I'm doing OK. I think I haven't shown what I know I can do. I'm still waiting to make some more plays on the ball, create some more turnovers, become more of that leader on defense,” Elam said. “And that's what I'm trying to do each and every day in practice so in a game it can be easy."

Elam, who opted to sign with Florida instead of Georgia on National Signing Day, played several snaps as a freshman in last season’s showdown, although he didn’t record any statistics. He expects his role will be far more similar to this season’s. 

“Last year, I got in on third down, and it was a great experience. But now, I feel like I can make a bigger impact, and I'm really looking forward to this game,” Elam said. “Like really, really looking forward to this game."

While he’s far from the only Gators defender salivating at the prospect of picking off Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, others made sure to emphasize the need to remain even-keeled. 

Emotions, such as those leading to the halftime scuffle against the Tigers, can certainly help a team, but they can also hinder. 

For Florida to overcome the Bulldogs, asserting control over the SEC Eastern division in the process, it sounds as if it’ll take a similar yet more-refined performance Saturday from the defense. 

“As my coach preaches, you never want to be too high or too low. Just stay even, stay on the same level. Never too high, too low, just keep playing what you know, so like the little things, like you said, you might get too rowdy and you might miss a call or miss a certain read or something,” defensive back Jaydon Hill said. “You’ve got to keep your head every play and go out and execute and keep your head in the game and never just let emotion get in the way.”

Saturday

Who: No. 8 Florida (3-1) vs. No. 5 Georgia (4-1)

When: 3:30 p.m.

Where: TIAA Bank Field, Jacksonville

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Florida defensive back Jaydon Hill (23) breaks up a pass intended for South Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith (13) during their game last month in Gainesville.