The Florida Gators, in coach Will Muschamp’s first season, finished a disappointing 7-6, the worst record in Gainesville since 1989. This season the turnaround has been dramatic as they are off to an 8-1 start with three games to go. Perhaps the biggest reason for the turnaround has been the magnificent play of the Gator defense.
If there is one word I would use to describe this defense it would be tenacious. Tenacious D. Tenacious is defined by Merriam-Webster as “not easily pulled apart: cohesive,” and “tending to adhere or cling…” and finally “persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired.” All of these definitions can describe the Gator defense perfectly.
The stats bear this out. Currently, the Gator defense is ranked first in the nation in pass efficiency defense, fifth in total defense, and fifth in rushing defense.
Last season this unit was good finishing in the top ten in total defense but they were young and they were soft. They struggled against physical teams, physical receivers, and they struggled late in games. The defensive backs were hesitant at times being young and learning a new defensive system. They were thinking too much instead of reacting and they played slow. The defensive line struggled to stop good, physical running teams and they had trouble getting any kind of consistent pass rush. Often they played tough for three quarters but wore down and couldn’t finish late.
This season the contrast is significant. They are more mature, more physical, and able to maintain their intensity through four quarters. They are tenacious. Cornerback Jaylen Watkins talked a little about the change in the defensive backs this year from last,
“just having… six guys that played together last year and we are all on the same page. We all can just play fast and react instead of thinking.”
Last year the play was jagged, guys trying too hard to make a play, trying to do to much. The result was players out of position and opposing offenses were able to take advantage. This year they play together, each man doing his job, trusting each other to do their job, no one trying to make a play, just taking care of their business. The big difference this year from last according to Watkins,
“Accountability, a lot of guys holding ourselves accountable to do their job. everybody not trying to make the play and just waiting for things to come to you. Stop trying to be the hero. We’re all just grown up… Just trust, we have trust between all eleven guys.”
Trust… in all eleven guys… tenacious. Coaches have a lot of terms for it. Some call it grinding, some call it bringing your lunchpail, but whatever you call it, it’s simply each man doing his job and being where he’s supposed to be. When that happens there are no superstars just a bunch of guys getting the job done.
The result is a team that has allowed only 12 touchdowns all season, third fewest in the country. They’ve intercepted 15 passes on the season which is tied for 6th in the nation, after only creating eight all of last season.
“We put in a lot about balls coming our ways,” Watkins said. “We haven’t dropped that many interceptions and know how valuable they are to the team. A lot of our turnovers have turned into touchdowns and it is easier on the offense.”
Of course it’s not just the defensive backs. The defensive line has matured greatly as well, and received some valuable depth. Last season they barely had enough guys to put a practice together. Depth on the defensive line was non-existent. As a result, guys had to play too many snaps and just got wore out. They played well in the first half of games but by the second half they were unable to maintain their intensity and it showed.
After an offseason in Jeff Dillman’s strength program, with depth provided by true freshman Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler as well as junior college transfer Damien Jacobs, and getting guys like Larentee McCray and Neiron Ball back healthy the Gators defensive line looks like a whole new unit.
While not lighting up the stat sheet with sacks, they have done a marvelous job of controlling the running game with their front six, getting a consistent if not spectacular pass rush, and forcing teams to throw into the Gator’s talented defensive backfield. After the Gator defensive backs had four interceptions against Missouri’s James Franklin, Watkins said,
“we had a great pass rush they put some pressure on him. When you have a great pass rush you get some turnovers.”
And this season the Gators have had just that, a great pass rush. Guys have stepped up like Sharif Floyd who has been a run stuffer and a block eater in the middle, Larentee McCray and Dominique Easley have provided consistent pressure from the ‘Buck position and DT respectively, and the two freshman Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler have played like veterans. Those two were virtually unblockable against Missouri and that was a big reason the Gators won despite struggling once again on offense.
The linebackers too have seriously stepped up their level of play this season. Last year they might have been the softest unit on the defense. Fans criticized the play of Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins on message boards everywhere. The knock was that they played small, unaggressive, and they were physically unable to compete at this level.
After an offseason working with Dillman they came back bigger, stronger, faster, better able to cover on crossing routes, stuff running plays, and tackle. Bostic has been a beast on blitzes and is as good a cover linebacker as the Gator’s have had in a while. Jelani Jenkins too, when he’s been healthy has been great in coverage and on the edges, Michael Taylor has provided quality depth. Mostly they’re better at recognizing plays, reacting, and flowing to the ball. They’re taking better angles and are using their hands effectively to keep blockers from fully engaging them allowing them to get off blocks to make plays. In coverage they’re batting balls, intercepting balls, and making immediate tackles. They’re not allowing receivers yards after the catch and that is helping to get big stops particularly on 3rd down.
This season everyone seems to be more comfortable in their roles and they are playing fast, loose, and physical. All the things Muschamp has preached from day one. The result is a top 5 defense that is only giving up 3rd down conversions 27 percent of the time. Combined with the number of turnovers this defense has created that adds up to more offensive possessions and has kept Florida in games while the offense struggles to find some consistency.
In a word, this team plays some seriously Tenacious D.