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Did Florida’s defense turn a corner against Missouri?

UF’s defense pushed and fought against the Tigers last week. Not just in the halftime brawl.
The Florida Gators' defense struggled through three games but played much better against Missouri.
The Florida Gators' defense struggled through three games but played much better against Missouri. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Nov. 3, 2020

If No. 8 Florida is going to knock off No. 5 Georgia on Saturday to take control of the SEC East, a big reason why will be the carryover of the shoving and fighting the Gators showed last week against Missouri.

Not from the halftime brawl. But from the way a struggling defense rediscovered its physicality and tenacity.

“I think we looked more like a Florida defense Saturday night,” coach Dan Mullen said Tuesday. “That’s just taken this extended period of time for us to get to that at this point of the season to look that way.”

Related: Is Dan Mullen a villain? It’s doubtful he cares.

The obvious reason why UF’s defense jumped from historically bad to stout was the addition of defensive tackle Kyree Campbell, who missed the first three games for unexplained reasons.

His numbers weren’t eye-popping — only one tackle, which was for a loss. But the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Campbell helped clog the middle of the line. His return allowed UF to move other players back to their natural positions, like Brenton Cox dropping from defensive end to outside linebacker.

Brenton Cox was able to play in his more natural role (outside linebacker) against Missouri last week.
Brenton Cox was able to play in his more natural role (outside linebacker) against Missouri last week. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

“We played with bigger-body guys, and that physical presence allowed us to be pretty stout against the run,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.

With that increase in physicality, a UF defense that allowed 4.1 yards per rush through the first three games held Missouri to less than half that figure (40 yards on 23 carries). Considering how much Georgia’s offense still centers on the run game, that will be a pivotal trend for UF continue.

The other major changes the Gators noticed in their defense were an improvement in tackling and sheer effort. Players simply played harder and flocked to the ball better than they did during their 2-1 start.

“You see a massive improvement of 11 guys running extremely hard to the football,” Mullen said. “Those are things that we can control. Those are things that I think I was worried about … coming into the season because you missed so much football time.”

Brad Stewart and the rest of the Gators' secondary showed a lot of improvement against the Tigers.
Brad Stewart and the rest of the Gators' secondary showed a lot of improvement against the Tigers. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

It’s too early to make any declarative statements about a rejuvenated UF defense because of one game — especially when that one game was against a Missouri offense that’s 69th nationally in yards per play and 81st in scoring.

But if you’re looking for signs of optimism and growth, last week’s performance is encouraging. The Gators reevaluated their personnel before and during the two-week shutdown because of the coronavirus spike. When they returned, they seemed to have a better understanding of players' strengths, weaknesses and ideal roles.

“You get into games, you realize this guy struggles doing this in a game situation, but he’s better than we thought he would be in other ways,” Mullen said. “We’ve got to put those guys in that position to do the right thing.”

COVID-19 update

The football team reported no new positive coronavirus cases among players in their weekly update Tuesday. UF reported 37 positives in October and 68 since players returned to campus in May. Coaches and staff members aren’t included in those figures.

Related: How Gators adjust from COVID-19 shutdown will define their season

The Gators had 15 players who were unavailable against Missouri, including kicker Evan McPherson and starting defensive back Marco Wilson. UF isn’t specifying why any players are out because of privacy concerns, nor is the program saying when they might return.

UF reported only one positive case among athletes across all sports in the past week.