Florida defense making strides despite missing leading tackler, starting CBs

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter, left, and defensive back Trey Dean III wrap up Kentucky running back Kavosiey Smoke during the second half Saturday in Lexington, Ky.

One bright spot for No. 18 Florida during the 1-2 skid has been the play of its defense. 

Through five games, the unit has bounced back from last year’s struggles and improved statistically in the four major categories under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. 

The Gators are currently No. 44 in total defense after ranking 83rd nationally a season ago. They’re in the top 30s in rushing defense (34th) and scoring defense (37th) after finishing 71st and 74th, respectively, in 2020. 

And their pass defense, which ranked 100th last year, is now up to No. 51 in the country. Despite cornerbacks Kaiir Elam (knee sprain) and Jaydon Hill (torn ACL) both being out, UF held Kentucky to 87 passing yards last Saturday with freshmen Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr. in the starting lineup. 

“I really do think that by playing Avery last year (in the Cotton Bowl), it allowed him to see where he needed to improve and the pace of the game for him to be the kind of player he is this year. And I think he’s done a really good job,” Grantham said of Helm. “Jason Marshall’s a guy that got here and had a spring practice. … He was able to go through a normal developmental process. He’s a talented guy and he’s worked hard every day to improve. 

“The one bubble tackle for loss he made — I think it was in the third quarter of the Vanderbilt game — was a pretty impressive play for a young player. And then in the fourth quarter, they came back and tried to take a shot on him after the turnover and he was able to match that challenge. So those two guys, I think, have stepped up and done a really good job. Coach Jules [Montinar] has done a great job with both of those guys.” 

Grantham mentioned that Texas A&M grad transfer Elijah Blades, who did not play in 2020, is also coming along at cornerback. He was sidelined against USF and Alabama with a hamstring injury, but has seen his role increase the past two games with Elam out. 

“I think with Elijah Blades, we’ve really tried to get him in the mix the last couple of weeks because you need corners. You need depth there,” Grantham said. “He was slowed up a little bit with injury early on, and we’ve kind of worked to get him in the fold. I think he’s come in and given us some quality reps. We’re going to continue developing and improve him, because we are going to need him throughout the year as our season goes on.”

In addition to missing starting cornerbacks Elam and Hill, Grantham is also without his leading tackler from last year. Florida has been able to withstand the loss of senior captain Ventrell Miller (torn biceps) with the play of middle linebackers Mohamoud Diabate and Jeremiah Moon, who moved inside during the offseason. 

Diabate leads the Gators with 37 tackles and tied his career-high with 11 tackles against Kentucky, while Moon ranks third on the team with 26 tackles. 

“There's always going to be injuries during the course of the year. So that was one of the reasons I wanted to move Jeremiah Moon to inside backer,” Grantham said. “I kind of saw his ability a year ago to play off the ball backer. And by him doing that, it gives you the flexibility within our package to play him as an outside or inside backer. Same thing with Mohamoud Diabate. 

“Those guys are all interchangeable, meaning they can play either inside backer position. So we obviously lost a good player in Ventrell Miller, but we've really been cross training those guys for quite a while, and they can play multiple positions. So I think those guys have done a good job with that and have worked to improve themselves individually.”

For the defense as a whole, there’s still improvement Grantham needs to see from his unit. Tackling is at the top of the priority list. 

“There's still some things that we gotta work to clean up,” Grantham said. “I think when you look up front, we've gotta continue to work our technique to make sure that we're playing with our hands and being stout. With the off-the-ball backers, just making sure that we're a little bit cleaner on a couple reads. 

“And then we got to continue to work tackling. I mean, the hardest thing to do in this day and age is tackle in space. There’s good athletes on the field and when guys get in space, they can make things happen.”

Saturday

Who: Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-1 SEC) vs. No. 18 Florida (3-2, 1-2)

When: 12 p.m.

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Tickets: Available at Gator Ticket Office.

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