Though offense has been a struggle for the Florida Gators during head coach Will Muschamp‘s tenure, the team’s defense has been well-respected and even feared by opponents over the last three seasons.
Florida looked to be trending upward offensively and holding steady on its defensive success after its 65-0 season-opening rout of Eastern Michigan, but Muschamp cautioned after the game that his young secondary made a number of mistakes in the game that a better opponent would expose.
That opponent was the Kentucky Wildcats.
Picking on the Gators’ young defensive backs, Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles passed for 369 yards on Saturday – only eight fewer than he did against Tennessee-Martin – and a career-high three touchdowns.
Florida gave up eight big plays in the game and 173 yards on six of them, mostly due to miscues in the secondary.
“Defensively, eight big plays – a busted coverage for a touchdown in a tempo situation, not getting aligned, two guys that shouldn’t have occurred there. [We gave up] 173 yards on six plays, and you can’t afford that and win games moving forward in those situations,” Muschamp explained on Monday.
He continued: “We didn’t play in the slot very well. What happens, a lot of times, and I’ve been doing it a long time, when you have a guy that gives up a play, you start playing a little cautious instead of playing aggressive. You get tentative in your techniques and that’s what happened to us a little bit, especially late in the game coming off the goal line.
“We just have got to make a play on the ball in those situations and go play the ball, be aggressive and keep that same mentality regardless of the situation and understand that you’ve always got to stay aggressive on the back end. That’s where I felt like we got a little tentative when we gave up the plays.”
Sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III chalked up the Gators’ miscues to communication errors, noting that he and his teammates need to get lined up quicker.
“That happens. Everybody gets beat,” he said. “We’ll get better as the season goes on.”
Among the Florida defensive backs that had rough evenings on Saturday were senior safety Jabari Gorman, who was out of position on more than one occasion.
UK wideout Garrett Johnson picked on Gorman primarily but took advantage of UF’s entire secondary, hauling in career-highs of six receptions for 154 yards and two scores. He was not handed all of his catches on a silver platter, however, as Johnson went up and won some battles in his own right.
Gorman was also not the only player who struggled. A couple of his teammates messed up as well, though each rebounded with at least one big play later in the contest to make up for their miscues.
Freshman CB Jalen Tabor learned some lessons on Saturday, such as how fast Southeastern Conference football is compared to high school and how important it is to know your technique. Hargreaves believes that giving up those big plays early in one’s career can help a player like Tabor develop quicker.
“That’s good for him. He needed that. He needed to get beat a couple times,” Hargreaves said. “He needed balls thrown at him to kind of get used to SEC football. I’m kind of glad they went after him. He’s learned from it, and he’ll come back better.
Sophomore S Keanu Neal also made some errors early in the game. Of course, he rebounded to grab two big-time interceptions, one of which came off a deflection from junior CB Brian Poole.
“Keanu comes back and has two interceptions to help us win the ballgame. You look at it from a positive standpoint, a young player goes through a very tough deal in front of 90,000 people and obviously everybody knows he’s probably somewhat responsible for what happened. Whether they know it or not, it doesn’t really matter. And then he rebounds himself and comes back and plays well in the game, and really settled down from there and played extremely well,” Muschamp explained.
Even Poole made some huge plays as the game went on, grabbing an interception, deflecting the ball to Neal for a pick and knocking down a would-be touchdown in the end zone during overtime.
The Gators’ de facto safeties coach, Muschamp took a lot of positives from the secondary’s performance, especially because it gives him plenty of film to review with the playres this week.
“There were some things — all of the things are very correctable from a fundamental technique standpoint of how we play the slot and some things that we — [that] are all correctable issues, they’re not things that can’t be corrected,” he said.
“The encouraging thing for me, as you watch the film, is it’s all correctable. You’re not looking at it going, ‘Wow, we couldn’t cover this guy.’ That wasn’t the case.”
Florida will have every opportunity to prove it has made improvements this week when it faces the Alabama Crimson Tide and their 33rd-ranked passing offense on the road Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.