Image Credit: ESPNI
Strong defense — scratch that, elite defense — has been a staple for the Florida Gators for what seems like decades. On the heels of two of the best defensive teams in program history is a unit that has lost a lot of talent over the last couple of years and is hoping a youth movement can help fill in some of the gaps created by departures.
Florida has experience throughout the entire defense, though past the defensive line the veterans are beginning to run thin.
While the Gators offense remains a question mark and very much a work in progress, the program cannot afford the defense to take a step back in 2016, particularly when you consider the gauntlet it is set to go up against in the regular season.
“There’s a standard for how defense is played here. There’s a standard for the defensive coaches coach at the University of Florida, and we uphold that every single day. The kids that we bring in, that we brought in with this signing class, will add to that,” explained defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
“Obviously we lost … six NFL players off of last year’s defense. The challenge for us is those young guys, throughout this offseason, throughout the preseason, to step up and contribute. Which ones of those [will play], we don’t know. I think throughout the spring, we found some guys that will really contribute, defense, special teams; but just finding who these new guys are for us will step up and play.”
Collins went on to explain that 2016 will be a bit more of his defense than 2015, in which the coaches took what the players did well from the last staff and carried over as much as possible to maintain that same high level of play.
“As the year went on, we learned more and more about the guys,” he said. “Through the offseason, [we] experimented with some things obviously I won’t divulge here. I think the progression of the defense has been really positive.”
So with that, let’s take a look at how Collins and head coach Jim McElwain discussed each position on the defense from front to back.
Talking about Florida’s front four in 2016 should always start with redshirt junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley, who appears poised to continue the recent dominance the Gators have seen up front from Sharrif Floyd to Dominique Easley to Jonathan Bullard. Though Brantley is not getting much national respect in preseason voting, Collins has no problem throwing a superlative his way.
“The coaching staff as a whole feels Caleb could be as dominant a defensive lineman as there is in the country,” he said. “The big thing from last year, he was a naturally gifted player. Played three technique, played some nose for us, and has such tremendous takeoff, violent explosion into the backfield. Sometimes he’s so athletic, he would get out of gaps at times last year. You watched him throughout the spring working with coach [Chris] Rumph, really improved his technique, his hand placement, his gap integrity. …
“So we are so excited about him. He’s a confident individual. And combine his confidence [with] his raw, natural athletic ability and then the technique and discipline that he’s really worked on in the offseason and throughout the spring, I think that’s a dangerous combination for him.”
OK, so we got Brantley covered, but who else is there?
“Joey Ivie staying healthy is going to be huge for us, “McElwain said. “Khairi Clark [is] a guy who played a lot towards the end of the year and has got his weight down and really had a good summer. So when you’re talking some of those inside guys, I think the importance of that, the development of Luke Ancrum, is something that we’ve got to make sure continues. So, the numbers are there. And yet, you know, time will tell when we see about consistency in performance. That’s the key.”
Collins said Florida is not as much focused on finding guys to replace the players lost but rather the overall production. The Gators have accepted that mission, Collins noted, though there is one player in particular who may be able to replace much of it by himself. That would be sophomore defensive end Cece Jefferson.
“Cece, I think, had a really good freshman year, at times relied a lot on his athletic ability. But I think the big thing, kind of like with Caleb Brantley, is really focusing on understanding the defense. Not just relying on your natural athletic ability to make plays, but making plays within the framework of the defense. We’ve moved him around a bunch. He’s played the rush for us. He’s played the end. At times, played him like we did with Jonathan Bullard, played him on the inside. I think he can be a force, as long as the effort is there, the technique is there, which he has shown so much during the spring.”
Not talked about much during media day on Wednesday was spring sensation sophomore Keivonnis Davis, though McElwain did touch on him after the player was ballyhooed a few months ago.
“His ability to stay focused, his ability to learn how to finish were all things that he’s got to do. But I’ll say this: He has the talent to be a guy that can be a force, especially on the pass rush side. And when he allows himself — when he allows himself to go ahead and stay disciplined in his gap controls and those type of things, he’s a guy that can really help us,” he said.
Collins did also discuss redshirt senior rushers Bryan Cox Jr. and Jordan Sherit. “Jordan is a guy that knows the defense inside and out, can basically play any position that we need across the front four. Probably, if we need him to play linebacker, he can do that. I think the thing about Jordan Sherit — and I’ll talk about Bryan Cox at this time, too — those are two of the arguably hardest-playing defensive players I’ve ever been around. Their motor, their energy, their pursuit to the ball is as high as anybody in the country. So I think that kind of gives them the edge to play at a high level for us.”
Garnering best-linebacker-in-the-nation hype and finding himself on some preseason All-American teams, redshirt senior Jarrad Davis is poised for a campaign that could put him among the top defensive players available in the 2017 NFL Draft. That is still a long way’s off, of course. At hand first is Davis helping Florida win football game and standing out as a leader on a team that lost a bunch of them last season.
“It’s his character, his upbringing,” explained Collins on what makes Davis a special player and leader. “He is a driven human being to be the absolute best he can be at anything he does. If he’s going to be a face of the program and go out for season tickets and carry peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, he’s going to do that as hard as he can do it. He’s going to put everything he has into it. If he’s going to be in the training room, he’s going to be all-in while he’s in that training room. … Film study, conditioning with Coach [Mike] Kent, whatever the case may be.
“But the thing that separates him is his character and his drive, really separates him. Obviously he’s a great athlete, great football player. But I think those two things really set him apart.”
Injuries have kept redshirt junior Alex Anzalone, a former five-star recruit, from truly coming into his own. A breakout season was expected in 2015, and now that he’s back from a shoulder injury, those expectations have returned for 2016.
McElwain is being cautious with Anzalone. Though the player is cleared, he will not go through everything in practice in order to ensure maximum healing while keeping him fresh for the start of the season. As it stands now, Anzalone’s shoulder is stronger than it’s ever been, which has Collins excited.
“Going into last preseason or going into the season last year, there was debate or even conversation that he might be one of the best players on our football team. I think through the first two games, he showed that,” Collins said. “He was all over the field making plays, making calls. He makes the people around him better. So having a guy like J.D., who we know what J.D. did last year, and adding an Alex Anzalone, high-character kid, intelligent kid, wants to win, cares about his teammates.
“There are some things about Alex you guys might not have seen, but during the season, home games, whenever we would be on the sideline during a time-out or between quarters, change of possession, whatever, Alex Anzalone was right there in the middle talking to the guys, encouraging the guys. At times, in the past places I’ve been, some of the guys might not would have listened to someone who is not playing. But Anzalone has such great respect from his teammates, such great respect from his coaches; they embraced him and listened to him and kind of were urged on with him. Having him back is great.”
And yeah, that’s it. Seriously, no other linebacker was mentioned during these press conferences, which tells you all you need to know about the Gators’ depth at the position. Senior Daniel McMillian and redshirt junior Matt Rolin should both be seen plenty — and freshman David Reese got some love in the preseason — but when you talk about a position with snaps up for grab, look no further than the middle of Florida’s defense.
Continuing the trend of unit leaders, junior cornerback Jalen Tabor is the straw that stirs the drink for the Gators’ secondary. Heralded for his sophomore campaign, in which many correctly noted he had a better season than Vernon Hargreaves III, Tabor enters 2016 with legitimate pressure on his shoulders for the first time. McElwain has no questions about how he will handle the increased attention.
“I’ve probably seen more growth out of this guy than anybody in our program from the standpoint of what he is doing to invest in himself,” McElwain said. “He realizes how much better he can make the people around him. His studying of film, for example, is something that Torrian [Gray] has done a great job of [helping him] understand how this helps you even play faster. And yet, through that, how do I communicate with my teammates to help? I’m excited to see him play. I’m excited to see a lot of these elite players that we have, to see how they choose to … go about their business.”
Overlooked last season, junior Quincy Wilson has received plenty attention this offseason — mostly from people discussing how underrated and overlooked he was a year ago.
“I think at times Quincy did get overlooked, but he’s such a competitive kid. He’s a good kid. He every day works on his craft and wants to make a name for himself,” Collins explained. “I remember we played Ole Miss out here in The Swamp, and I think Laquon Treadwell was one of the better receivers in college football … and Quincy was as dominant of a player throughout that game at whatever matchup he might have had. So we are expecting big things from him. Just do what he does. He’s a long, rangy, athletic kid.”
If Tabor is leading the way on the boundaries, it’s redshirt senior Marcus Maye taking care of everything in the middle. Maye returning for his fifth year was a surprise to some, but there’s no question Florida is thrilled to have such an experienced and talented player back. Collins referred to the decision as “huge for the program.”
Added McElwain: “I really look forward to his versatility and being able to even help him next year [in the draft] … to see all the different spots he’s going to be able to play. I think that’s going to be important.”
Joining Maye is redshirt junior Nick Washington, who similar to Wilson is not discussed much because he simply gets his job done. “He’s a guy that all the guys in the secondary and on the team, especially on the defensive side, truly trust because he communicates, he understands what we’re doing,” McElwain explained. “Our one constant guy that we know we can trust and count on — and the team knows they can count on — is Nick. I’m excited to see how he develops now, too, under Torrian.”
Added Collins: “His progression has been great. He knows the defense inside and out. He knows all the positions, makes all the calls for us, gets corners lined up, nickels lined up if they need it. I just think he’s going to have a great season for us.”
Outside of those four, Florida has a handful of other players who will be looked at as contributors including redshirt junior Marcell Harris, junior Duke Dawson, freshman Chauncey Gardner and junior transfer Joseph Putu, who just joined the team in August.
“For us, every single day, [players] are fighting for reps. … There’s pressure to perform every day, because they are fighting for reps. So we’ve just got to find which guys at corner, which guys at safety, which guys we need to cross-train,” explained Collins. “If you guys watched in the spring, we cross-trained all the DBs, we cross-trained all the linebackers, we cross-trained all the D-line to find that best match to play at such a high level.”
Additional thoughts from Collins
On the depth of Florida’s defense: “Each position group that you look at on our defense, there are some guys, one or two at each position, that could be in the conversation for, ‘as good of a player their position’ in the country, SEC, nationally. But the big thing for us is those guys developing the leadership ability to get some of the other guys to come with them so they can contribute. … The times of having 11 strong are long gone. You need to have 18, 22, 24 guys that you can roll through and play at a high level.”
On the confidence he and the Gators have on defense: “This is how we play defense at the University of Florida. We have a lot of pride. We have an edge. We have a certain swagger that we play with and we want to bring those guys along and get them in play so they can be a part of that.”