Todd Grantham retools Gators' defense after a season of breakdowns
There’s no one more disappointed in the play of Florida's defense last year than coordinator Todd Grantham.
He’s also the last person who wants to talk about the 2020 season, and made that clear during his first media availability this spring.
“I want to talk about this year and moving forward. We have spring practice now,” Grantham said. “My focus is on the young team that we have right now and getting better. That’s what I’ll talk about.”
His unit will have twice as many underclassmen on the roster (28) as returning upperclassmen (14). All current freshmen and sophomores are going through their first spring at UF, along with juniors Khris Bogle, Brenton Cox Jr., Mohamoud Diabate and Kaiir Elam.
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Their development was undoubtedly set back by missing practices this time last year.
“For roughly four and a half months we had no contact with the players physically to be able to develop guys,” Grantham said. “Really, spring is about developing your players. We always talk about cross-training guys … so you’re going to kind of identify those roles.
“When you look from the front to the back, we have a lot of young players at key positions. For example, Jason Marshall is coming in this year. Well, he’s getting a lot of reps right now. Whereas the guys that came in last year at this time really got nothing until we started in August.”
Hurry-up offenses confused 2020 team
Communication issues plagued the 2020 defense, according to starter Zachary Carter and head coach Dan Mullen, who said the Gators “struggled” to get lined up against hurry-up offenses. Grantham added that his unit wasn’t hard enough to run on, which is one of the defensive goals every year.
The others are affecting the quarterback and keeping offenses from scoring. UF led the league in sacks last season, but finished 74th nationally in scoring defense after ranking No. 7 in 2019.
The return of Carter and Jeremiah Moon with Florida’s other edge rushers should keep the sack numbers up, and Grantham is counting on defensive tackles Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk to improve the rushing defense this fall.
“That was probably the biggest help for us,” Grantham said of the grad transfers. “I think adding those guys is a big step in the right direction. … The biggest thing I've been impressed with is not only their play and their performance but their work ethic, their mentality.
“I think it’s always about creating positive energy and leadership in the room, and those guys are a lot like Jon Greenard was in Year 2 from a leadership standpoint, from an attitude standpoint. And I think that's something that'll be good for that unit, and I look forward to watching them play.”
The Gators bring back starting linebackers Diabate, Amari Burney and Ventrell Miller, who led the team with 88 tackles, along with fourth-year assistant coach Christian Robinson. He landed a job offer from Michigan in January but received a raise from Mullen to stay, providing the players with continuity at the position.
“It would have been a big blow for me,” said Diabate, who moved to inside linebacker last year. “Team-wise, football is football. But personally, I feel like I have a connection with my coach. I love him to death, so it would have hurt me to see him leave.
“I feel like I get better and better every day because I have a great linebacker coach, great defensive coordinator, great head coach, so we’re gonna get it done. I feel like if Ventrell’s the leader, I’ll be his lieutenant. I have more experience now.”
Gators lose several starting DBs
Experience is lacking in the secondary, where UF lost four starters (Shawn Davis, Brad Stewart, Donovan Stiner and Marco Wilson) from a passing defense that finished 100th nationally. The defensive backs also have new position coaches in Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar, who have 13 underclassmen to work with.
“High energy coaches,” Mullen said of McGriff and Montinar. “It’s a unique deal because I think we are very, very young, there's a lot of young faces in the secondary. There's not one guy in the secondary that had a spring practice before this year with the exception of Trey Dean (and Jaydon Hill).
“So, they've got a young group, but I think they bring a lot of energy and the experience, I think they're doing a really good job getting those guys reps, getting them to buy in. I’m pleased with the attitude I've seen from those guys in the secondary.”
After playing a different position in each of his first three seasons at UF, Dean is now settling in as the starting safety alongside sophomore Rashad Torrence II. Elam and Hill are expected to start at cornerback, while sophomore Tre’Vez Johnson replaces Stewart in the nickel.
“I think 2021 we're going to be a new DB corps and bring that DBU swagger,” Dean said. “I think that we’re going to carry the DBU name. It has to mean something, not just come here and say you went to Florida and you’re part of DBU. You have to go out there and show why.
“We have a lot of athleticism, a lot of speed and power. A lot of people are going to look back on the season and not think we have a lot. Coach Grantham is a great coach. He’s going to put us in the right position to make plays, so we just got to go out there and execute.”