Amid uncertain future, Grantham focused on preparing Gators for Sooners

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's unit has struggled in keeping opponents out of the end zone this season.

After inconsistent performances defined the unit’s 10-game SEC schedule and the conference championship, there's no telling what Florida’s defense will look like against the Sooners. 

Or if Wednesday’s 85th Cotton Bowl Classic will mark the end of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s time in Gainesville. 

While its offense has been setting passing records left and right this season, UF enters the contest against No. 6 Oklahoma ranked No. 63 out of 127 programs in NCAA Division I football when it comes to total defense.

The Sooners, meanwhile, have a top-25 defense statistically and allow on average just 333.6 yards per game to 404.7 by the Gators. 

For a program that prides itself annually on stellar defensive play, 2020 has been a disappointment given the high standards, which had led to much discussion regarding the source of the issues; is the personnel to blame, is it the lack of preparation afforded by the circumstances of this chaotic year, or is it Grantham himself who’s at fault?

UF coach Dan Mullen said it’s a nuanced situation rather than a problem with a clear solution — as someone who oversees the program, Mullen sees the bigger picture quite differently. 

“I think it’s very easy to just jump to a conclusion. ‘Oh we gave up this many points or this many yards, so this must be the problem.’ I kind of look at things very, very differently. I’m here on a daily basis dealing with every aspect,” Mullen said. “It’s very easy to point and say, defense (is) bad, we have to change everything. Or you look at what the issues are. It’s like, hey, if my wrist hurts I don’t just cut off my arm. Let’s go figure out what the problem is. if I have to cut my arm I cut my arm, but that’s not where I’m starting. We’ve got to evaluate every aspect of it after the season, see where we’re at, and go from there.” 

As for UF’s on-field personnel, they’ve owned much of the blame recently.

Starting sophomore defensive back Kaiir Elam said it’s the responsibility of the 11 men on the field when it comes to UF’s defensive output. 

“I have nothing but love and respect for Coach Grantham,” Elam said. “Part of the reason I feel like fans are probably mad at him, because it's on the defense and us not executing, which he's not on the field playing, so how can you get mad at him? I feel like it's on us to execute his play calling and just on us to step up.”

Yet they’re student-athletes rather than millionaire coaches. 

Grantham is the sixth-highest paid assistant coach in DI football this season with a $1.8 million per year contract — nearly 29 percent of UF’s budget for assistant coaches.

Sooners’ defensive coordinator Alex Grinch trails right behind Grantham in terms of pay, making just $1,500 less per season. 

Grantham has one year remaining on his contract, although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a return. 

Florida’s defense can control what happens on the field, but off-the-field decisions are above their pay grade. 

“As a player, I'm not really responsible — or, I guess, it's not really my job to determine the coach — my coach for the season,” said linebacker James Houston, adding the Gators have an opportunity to set the record straight against the Sooners. “But as a defense, I think this will be a great game for us to just put on a show and show what the SEC is all about, show that the defense was — should have been playing at a higher level throughout the whole season. And just to cap the season off, just putting on a nice showcase and just showing exactly what we should have been doing the whole year.”

His future unknown, that’s all Grantham’s focused on, too — and with Florida’s overall improvements, context aside, it’s hard to say the Gators aren’t still on an upward trajectory. 

“My concern is always the next opponent. If you look over the last four years, we’ve been able to put together some pretty good defenses. We’ve had some challenges this year with a lot of things that are going on. And you take the situations that come up and you make the best of it and you find ways to win games,” Grantham said. “From an evaluation standpoint, when you look at it, this will be our third straight New Year's Six game since coming here. We got to the SEC Championship Game and we were six points away. Last year we played Georgia and we were seven points away. The comment was, ‘what’s the difference between us and Georgia?’ and we said seven points. Right now what’s the difference between us in the SEC Championship Game, it’s six points. If you look, Alabama is a very talented defense and we gave up six more points in the game. We’ve got to find a way to eliminate that and to get the win. 

“Really it gets down to wins and losses and how you’re going to go about winning the game. That’s the process for me, how you go about winning games and what do we gotta do to win this game coming up. That’s where the focus is.”

Wednesday

What: Cotton Bowl

Who: Florida (8-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-2)

When: 8 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850