Concerns over inexperience real for Florida defense but not for Randy Shannon

By Adam Silverstein
August 5, 2017
Concerns over inexperience real for Florida defense but not for Randy Shannon
Football

Image Credit: ESPNI

One of the nation’s best defenses over the last few seasons enters 2017 with more questions than answers. That’s to be expected when you lose seven of 11 starters to the NFL and another to injury before fall practice even begins.

Just don’t tell that to new Florida Gators defensive coordinator Randy Shannon.

“This upcoming season we’re looking for big things for us on defense. We’re young — we’re very young — but sometimes it’s best when people say you’re young, but we have a lot of guys that played a lot of football,” he said at the team’s preseason media day this week. “… You have to have an opportunity for some guys to step up. I always told the coaching staff, ‘We’re not the NFL, we can’t go find nobody off the waiver wire. We can’t go trade for somebody or pick somebody up; we have to coach whoever we have.’

“And we’ve got a bunch of guys that we feel like have an opportunity to come in and help us out and play. I can’t tell you who those guys will be. We’ll have a great competition all across the board.”

That sounds nice, but as Shannon alluded, identifying those players are key. Right now the Gators are opening the season down two starters along the defensive line, both of their starting linebackers and four of their five primary defensive backs from a year ago.

If this sound familiar, that’s because it is similar to what happened at Florida following its national championship season a decade ago. It entered the 2007 campaign with an incredibly young but talented defense and coughed up 25.5 points per game, putting the unit 47th nationally.

Shannon will point out that the Gators do have more experience taking the field this time around, just not in terms of starts.

“Most of the time in football, a lot of times you look at return[ing starters] and stuff like that. People keep forgetting about how many games they’ve actually played in or have started before, and the difference is — when you have a true freshman playing in his first college game prime time — that tends to wear on you. But if you have guys who have been in like major games and that have really played some football, it really don’t affect them that much,” he explained.

“Experience-wise, probably age, like being seniors and fifth-year seniors, we’re very young. But like anything else, those guys accepted that we’re not going to have an excuse just because we’re young age-wise, but we still play football at the University of Florida.”

The freshman that took the field for Florida a year ago, like sophomore linebacker David Reese, will most certainly be better off after having to play so much in relief of injured players late in the season. Reese appeared in 12 games and started the final four regular season contests a year ago, truly coming into his own late in the campaign with a tremendous performance at LSU. A pair of wrist injuries knocked him out of action ahead of the bowl game, but he is poised to be UF’s latest diamond in the rough at the position.

“Playing as a true freshman at the University of Florida at linebacker in those types of games was tremendous for him. Now he’s got to take that next step of learning what you did last year, now take the next step of increasing your knowledge, increasing what you can do,” Shannon said. “Every time a linebacker can increase what he built on learning-wise, he will be a very successful player. And he in turn has to be the quarterback for [the defense].”

Reese will be joined on the field redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson and classmate Vosean Joseph; Johnson made six starts a year ago as he continued his transition from safety to linebacker.

“Those guys have to really be leaders, and you know what, it’s only their second year. I think them getting their feet wet and actually not really just walking through the puddle but jumping in the pool, those guys really made a huge impact and believers in the guys around them, and I think that’s positive,” said Shannon. “Their continued growth, but more than that, their continued play, their actions, their communication with each other and the others in front and in back are going to be huge. I expect them to do it.”

Just as the Gators lost both their starting linebackers, four of their five starting defensive backs are out with only senior Duke Dawson set to return as he moves from nickel to cornerback. Florida was poised to have redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris back as a starter until he tore his Achilles just over a week before fall practice started.

Joining Dawson out wide will be sophomore Chauncey Gardner, who filled in at safety last season but will not be moved back and will instead play where he can make the greatest possible impact.

“He’s still going to start at corner. I thought he did a great job. That kind of was his natural position, and yet, what he did obviously moving from nickel and playing nickel and then going to safety was obviously highlighted in the bowl game,” said head coach Jim McElwain. “… I know this: We feel comfortable with Chauncey being able to move nickel, safety, corner, but we still want him early in camp to really focus on the corner because he didn’t get a bunch of it last year.”

Shannon shared that sentiment. “He’s a really special guy that has played a lot of corner,” he said. “… He reminds me a little bit of like what Antrel Rolle [did] when I had him at Miami that he can do multiple things, and that’s with Chauncey, he can do multiple things, but you’ve got to have him tuned in to what he needs to get done. Don’t try to make him do too much where he’s not successful.”

Redshirt senior Nick Washington will regain his starting safety job — he made six starts there in 10 games before suffering a season-ending injury — but the spot next to him remains completely open.

“We’re excited about Nick Washington. … He’s a very smart football player, played a lot of football for us,” Shannon explained. “He’s a guy that can get them lined up, play different positions for us, so he knows that he don’t have to do anything above and beyond, but that do Nick.”

Shannon has spent a large part of the offseason simplifying the defense in order to help some of his younger players succeed on the field. Sophomore Jeawon Taylor and redshirt freshmen Quincy Lenton will compete for the job opposite Washington despite not having practiced yet this offseason. Lenton missed the entire season, while Taylor played 10 games on special teams but got sidelined late with an injury against Florida State. McElwain and Shannon have high expectations for both players.

Things are a bit more calm along the defensive line. Junior defensive end Cece Jefferson is back and focused on playing at a high level and mastering his technique. Redshirt sophomore Jabari Zuniga should start opposite Jefferson, while sophomore Antonneous Clayton will see extended playing time, particularly when UF rushes the quarterback. Redshirt junior Taven Bryan is possibly the key member of the defensive line, while classmate Khairi Clark has the opportunity to be a breakout player after a “tremendous” spring.

Overall, Shannon is focused on Florida’s defense playing faster, which is the primary reason he simplified the plays and coverages. “The whole thing we’re doing as a defensive staff is trying to find what can we call so the guys will not have to think, that they can just fly around and have fun but play fast,” he said.

Even more importantly, Shannon hopes to see the Gators learn to overcome complacency once adverse situations arise. Instead, he wants his players to “accept the challenge and knock them down,” ensuring that one bad play does not expand into a scoring drive. Too often last season — such as the Tennessee game — Shannon believes Florida got into its own head on defense and let poor play snowball.

“That’s one of the biggest things that we’re going to emphasize this camp. When somebody gets a big play, OK, let’s line up and play, calm down and play the game because the next snap it could be a turnover. Next snap could be a bad snap. It could be anything that can happen negative for offense, but we have to get our minds right and make sure that we’re playing what we need to get done,” he explained.

That mindset is much easier to accomplish with veteran starters and experienced players than it is with the guys UF will have stepping on the field at the onset of the season. And considering the Gators will be tested right off the bat against a Power Five opponent, it may be some time until this newly formed defense gels.

Though if anyone knows how to accomplish that, it may just be Shannon, who is coordinating a defense for the first time in a decade but has built a career on leading top-tier defensive units. After all, his defenses at Miami were ranked top 15 nationally in all but one of his six seasons as a coordinator.

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