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Why the Gators think their historically bad defense will improve

Florida’s 2020 defense was one of the program’s worst ever. There are reasons for optimism this spring.
The Florida Gators' defense struggled last season, including in a 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game.
The Florida Gators' defense struggled last season, including in a 52-46 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game. [ BRYNN ANDERSON | AP ]
Published Mar. 2
Updated Mar. 2

Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has no interest in revisiting the Gators’ historically bad 2020 defense.

“The issues and reasons before are really irrelevant now,” Grantham said last week.

Those issues only become irrelevant if the Gators identify them, learn from them and fix them. There’s a lot to address.

Related: Why Mel Kiper Jr. is praising former Gators star Kyle Trask

UF’s scoring defense (30.8 points per game) was the program’s worst since 1917. The run defense allowed the most yards per carry (4.6) since 1971, a year before coach Dan Mullen was born. A secondary that calls itself DBU allowed 28 passing touchdowns — nine more than any other year since at least World War II. UF had its worst third-down defense since at least 2009 and ranked 98th nationally on fourth down.

The unit’s collective failures weighed down an elite offense, causing a team with College Football Playoff potential to finish 8-4. If the Gators’ offense regresses without Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask and superstar tight end Kyle Pitts, UF’s SEC championship hopes hinge on how much Grantham’s defense improves.

Two weeks into spring practice, the Gators are optimistic about a turnaround. When they sorted through last year’s wreckage, they noticed recurring issues with communication and alignment. Players failed to get lined up quickly enough too often or wouldn’t end up in the right gap.

“We all know … how serious that can be now,” linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said. “All those things are incredibly fixable.”

This spring gives the Gators a chance to accomplish that.

Jimbo Fisher's Aggies ran over the Gators last season.
Jimbo Fisher's Aggies ran over the Gators last season. [ SAM CRAFT | AP ]

Coaches can also use the three remaining weeks of drills to dive deeper into personnel evaluations they couldn’t do a year ago during the coronavirus shutdown. Players can cross-train at other positions to see if their specific talents fit better elsewhere.

“You’re going to kind of identify those roles,” Grantham said.

That process might not have happened quickly enough in the fall.

Mullen said during the season that one of his focuses to fix the defense was on making sure coaches were putting athletes in the right position to make plays. The experimentation continued all season; UF used 10 different defensive starting lineup combinations in 12 games. The spring gives the Gators 15 practices to sort through possibilities without having to prepare for an opponent.

The biggest reason why the Gators believe in a quick defensive turnaround is their offseason turnover.

UF replaced both assistants in an underachieving secondary. Mullen landed Wesley McGriff —a veteran SEC assistant he wanted to hire previously —to coach the nickelbacks and safeties and poached Jules Montinar from USF, where he was the cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator. Although Montinar doesn’t have the resume of McGriff, he’s an up-and-comer who has worked under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.

Mullen and the rest of the staff also have personnel upgrades that should help patch last season’s holes. Five-star early enrollee Jason Marshall is already earning buzz as a potential impact player in the secondary.

Daquan Newkirk is a big boost to Florida's defensive line after transferring from Auburn.
Daquan Newkirk is a big boost to Florida's defensive line after transferring from Auburn. [ BUTCH DILL | AP ]

UF added a pair of contributors to the defensive line — one of the issues keeping the Gators from breaking into the Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State tier. Redshirt senior tackles Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton combined to play 70 games at Auburn and Penn State, recording 91 tackles (17½ for a loss). Grantham compares their leadership and maturity to what all-SEC end Jonathan Greenard brought two years ago when he transferred from Louisville.

“When you look at our team and you guys say what do we need to do to get better,” Grantham said, “I think adding those guys is a big step in the right direction.”

One of many the Gators are hoping to take this spring.