Will Gators' defense improve in 2021? With more time to prepare, Dan Mullen says yes.

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida coach Dan Mullen sees the Gators' defense improving for the 2021 season.

Despite considerate turnover, expectations are undoubtedly high when it comes to Florida’s defense in 2021, and naturally UF coach Dan Mullen has been pressed about Todd Grantham’s unit repeatedly throughout spring practice. 

Mullen hasn’t budged on his stance either: he trusts Grantham, and expects a spring and summer spent preparing will bring a return to form for Florida. 

With three weeks of spring practice in the books, Mullen remains keen on Grantham and Co. getting the Gators back on track after a disappointing 2020 on that side of the ball. 

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“I've always had a lot of confidence in Todd. Todd's a great football coach. I think part of that, I don't know that it's a new edge or different, I think he's as competitive now as he was last year, the year before that, and the year before that. That's who he is,” Mullen said. “I think obviously having the opportunity to have spring to identify where our players are at and putting them in the best position with the right guys on the field to be successful against all the different things that we're going to see and that we're going to have to adjust to during the course of the season. I think there's a benefit to that, of having that time and that opportunity to see those things."

Mullen has also gone to bat for Grantham’s defensive system, saying it’s proven to work in the SEC — that is, when the personnel is used correctly. 

Last season the Gators relied heavily on returning personnel, as underclassmen were limited in their ability to usurp and move up the depth chart, with the virus shutdown being a significant factor in the limited progression in the eyes of coaches across Division I football. 

The onus for improvement fell on the players, resulting in an understandable drop-off. 

COVID hampered Gators' routines

With the 2020 offseason spent away from the players and program as the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly upended the usual routine, both Mullen and Grantham are banking on normalcy bringing about a correction for a roster loaded with potential yet in need of development. 

“I think last year, especially, offenses being ahead possibly, but especially experienced groups being ahead. And we had some experience on that side of the ball last year. But the fact that we’re young this year, it will be interesting to see for us. I think a lot of it is going to be, from that end of spring ball to the start of training camp is always such a critical time in every team’s growth and development,” Mullen said. “When we are limited as coaches in the things we can do and the contact we have with the players, when you start limiting all of their stuff and their growth and their development, what they do on their own to continue to improve is so critical. So, I think that has a lot to do with it.”

The summer typically is spent fine-tuning the spring’s install, but that didn’t happen, meaning the months before returning for preseason camp were bare-bones as well. 

There were no lessons to review, and very little tape to sift through and pinpoint areas on which to focus. 

Even if a defensive player wanted to get better on their own, they didn’t know where to start. 

“Last year you didn’t have a spring practice, so they didn’t have all the video. They didn’t have the ability to watch themselves on film. They didn’t have the ability to go learn and try to physically go do it. And then, you’re trying to figure out how to do all the Zoom stuff and learn through Zoom and not in person,” Mullen continued. “I think there’s a lot more opportunity to develop at a much, much better rate this year, obviously, than last year. And I think development is critical, especially for young players, and we have a lot of young players. That end of spring to the start of training camp though is such a critical time in that growth and development.”

But the Gators still felt as if they could make improvements on the staff, resulting in the replacement of secondary coaches Torrian Gray and Ron English with Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar. 

Those decisions were made in the same way UF evaluates players; once there was film to be reviewed, the Gators could get back to what they missed out on in the preceding months: identifying areas in need of construction, and proceeding to fix them. 

After all, personnel changes aren’t exclusive to those under the helmet and shoulder pads, yet only time will tell if they lead to advancements from the Gators’ defense in 2021. 

“I think there’s some things as a whole that we needed, that we need to fix and adjust and as the year went on, I think at times last year we played really well, (and) there are times we didn’t in situations. And then it’s ID-ing what those situations were, why we didn’t play well in those situations, and then what are the adjustments we make for when we see these situations in the future,” Mullen said. “I don’t want to pin it on one area. There were probably multiple, a bunch of things that we needed to kind of tweak and change and improve on. I think obviously certainly having a spring practice and hopefully a little bit more of a normal year will help us do that.”