There was enough wrong with – and enough changes coming to – the Florida Gators that the last thing the program needed was to mess with the one thing that has been a bright spot over the last four years, it’s defense.
So when head coach Jim McElwain was tasked with replacing the combined defensive leadership of Will Muschamp and D.J. Durkin, he decided not to rock the boat.
Enter 2014 Broyles Award nominee and former Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, whose experience under Nick Saban (at Alabama) and veterans George O’Leary (at UCF) and John L. Smith (at Louisville) made him a no-brainer hire for McElwain.
“They’ve done a really good job. Coach Muschamp and I know each other. D.J. and I know each other. I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done on defense the last four years. The talent that has been assembled here is legitimate SEC talent,” he said on Thursday. “It’s not a wholesale change. Let’s just work on finding the things we can get better at and take us to the next level. … Finding that edge and going out and getting it done so we can improve upon where we are right now.”
Collins plans to keep it simple, employing similar principles, concepts and techniques that were taught by Muschamp. There may be some terminology tweaks and a couple schemes added to the playbook, but it will be business as usual for the most part with Florida’s defense.
“The big thing is play really hard, be relentless, create tackles for loss, create mayhem, create turnovers and sacks. I think the track record has shown that we’ve been able to do that [at my previous stops]. Just getting the kids to buy into what we’re doing, have fun, fly around, energy and juice and excitement,” explained Collins.
“We had our team meeting the other night and then we had a defensive unit meeting. The things we were talking about, the kids were getting excited, getting juiced up. The thing that was interesting for me was I was able to be out there for some of the bowl practices. It was like a kid on Christmas Day. You get all these fancy new toys to play with but then they don’t let you play with them. Now I’m just excited to be around the guys. They got a good look in their eye. And obviously they’re talented and hungry to have some success.”
Collins will keep the Buck linebacker position as an important part of the Gators’ defense, though it may have a new name. He also believes it is important to have a versatile Sam linebacker, one who can hit in the run game but drop into coverage like a nickel, a skill set Florida has not had to an elite level since Jelani Jenkins left for the NFL.
His main task for the Gators will be focusing on situational awareness. Florida has been fine in the red zone but struggled mightily on third downs – especially on those with 15 or more yards to gain – last season. That is something that must improve.
“The kids here are looking for an edge. They’re hungry for that. When we illustrated the situational defense [in our meeting] – red zone, third down, sacks – that we can get an edge and create an advantage, they were really excited about that,” Collins noted.
There is already some positive momentum mounting for the defense. A pair of junior starters – defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and middle linebacker Antonio Morrison – announced they will return for the 2015 season. Bullard was the Gators’ most improved defender in 2014, while Morrison ended up as Florida’s tackle leader for the second-straight season and the first UF player to eclipse 100 tackles in a single season since Ahmad Black in 2010. In regards to Bullard, Collins appreciates his talent but was even more enthused about his leadership.
“As I’m meeting with the defensive players, one of the first questions I asked them are who are the leaders, who are the guys by effort or by words or by actions are the ones who get everybody going,” he recalled. “Almost to a man, [Bullard’s] name comes up. Obviously he’s a great player, obviously very versatile in what he was able to do defensively, but his leadership ability, him coming back is huge.”
Collins has a lot to be excited about. He’s thrilled to have Randy Shannon aboard as a co-coordinator and enthused about being at Florida after seemingly being thrown under the bus by Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen last season. He did not respond directly to Mullen’s “lateral move” comment but said he’s “excited to be a Florida Gator” and it “doesn’t get better” than coaching that program.
There is plenty left on Collins’s plate. First up, of course, is recruiting. Defensive schemes and assignments need to be worked out as well, but he also wants to make sure the Gators are able to take ownership of his defense, just like the Bulldogs did over the last few seasons.
Mississippi State’s “psycho” defense under Collins gained plenty of national attention, and he plans to have Florida’s unnamed unit do the exact same thing.
“It’s just branding,” Collins said of the “psycho” tag. “It’s something that [the players] had fun with. There’s some things we’ve talked about with defensive players here. Won’t go into too much detail about them. I’m sure it’ll start leaking out as we go. … When we take the field, that’s a legitimate SEC defense that you’re going to have to play against,” he said.
“It’ll be re-branded to fit this place and these kids and these kids’ personalities. I’m big on not being a swag stealer. I want to create our own energy, create our own branding. It’s something the kids kind of buy in organically and naturally. Not to use too many big words, but that’s what we’re all about. It always works better when it [brands itself], I think. … Whatever their swag is naturally, build upon that and take it to an even higher level.”
Natural swag has not been a problem for Gators defenses of the past. Should Collins be able to keep the boat stable and ensure the players have bought in, Florida will likely be able to continue rolling on as a dominant machine on the defensive end in 2015.