It’s understandable to worry about the the Florida Gators defense as they prepare for the 2020 season. It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about how they’re going to replace CJ Henderson and Jon Greenard and David Reese II. One can’t help but wonder if an offseason without spring practice and limited fall camp will mess with the chemistry of the units.
Yet, while there has been a host of talent lost, the Gators defense may very well be in a better position this season than last to find success. Why? A reshuffling of players to put guys in their more natural position.
There are a lot of things about the Gators depth chart that frankly, don’t matter. When Head Coach Dan Mullen and Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham say that, it’s not just coach speak. The depth chart they set is purely just names on a paper for a system that is going to rotate and shift players all season.
"We do rotate a lot as a team, and I feel like its best man win,” Like I said, we have a lot of guys that can play. So, I feel like whoever gets it has that chance to make the best impact that week, so I feel like it's the best man that wins."
That being said, there was one spot on the depth chart released for Saturday’s opener against Ole Miss that stood out. Zachary Carter—named a preseason 2nd All-SEC selection—is labeled as a defensive tackle at 290 lb. Carter has always been a defensive end in the past.
A notable absence from the depth chart is tackle Kyree Campbell. When asked about on Wednesday’s SEC Teleconference, Dan Mullen responded to reporters, “you and your depth charts.” He also added that Campbell and safety Brad Stewart will both be available.
Normally, Campbell not being on the two-deep depth chart would’t be a huge concern. There could be an injury or class issue. He’d be back in a week or two. Yet the fact that Carter has put on enough weight and is now listed as a tackle makes us wonder if that won’t in fact be his season long position. And if that’s the case, is Campbell playing at all this year?
Behind Carter is Gervon Dexter, the freshman who has the potential to become a wrecking ball in the middle of the line as he grows. He’s already at 308 lbs. Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham said of Dexter, “Gervon was a guy that obviously we thought a lot of when we recruited him.
“The best way to improve is to go play, and he's done a good job from the standpoint of - with the OTAs as far as just t-shirts and learning and stuff like that, he applied himself and got some background that way. And as we put on the pads his physicality showed up, his ability to utilize his skillset, hold the point, play with power.
“That's shown up, and I think as we move through the season you always need guys upfront. If you go back and look last year, we really kind of got depleted at certain times last year with injuries and things like that happen. So, I think anytime you can play a lot of guys in the front, it's a good thing, and right now he's earned the right to play with his play and his practice and we'll just put him in there and let him roll."
Jaelin Humphries isn’t on the two-deep depth chart after spending his first year in Gainesville recovering from injury. But Grantham says he’ll still be seen this season.
“Jaelen is a guy that has done a good job of progressing himself, getting in the kind of shape that we feel like he should be in. He's a strong, powerful guy. Kind of a guy that can give you some quality stuff on say some two-down snaps, meaning first, second down, and do those kind of things. So, he understands that role, and quite frankly in the scrimmages, when he played, he improved from scrimmage one to scrimmage two.”
At end is Brenton Cox, the Georgia Bulldogs transfer that has patiently bided his time to get on the field. Now he’s poised to take a year’s worth of frustration out on the next opponent. The former 5-star recruit received the No. 1 jersey—a high honor in Dan Mullen’s program—before ever even playing a down for the Gators. How did an unknown earn so much respect and anticipation simply from practice?
Grantham says a lot of factors are taken into account, the primary of which is academics. And when it comes to Cox, the buy-in from the former rival made coaches take notice.
“You really pull for guys like that when, when they put that much into it. And generally speaking, you know, the all in investment—and what I mean by all in is from an academic, from an athletic, from a social standpoint, those are the kind of things that allow you to get that kind of number, and he's done a really good job.”
Added teammate Jeremiah Moon, “Brenton is great, I love coming to work with him every day. He's a great guy, and he comes with his hard hat to work every day.”
Speaking of Moon, the redshirt senior will be lining up at BUCK this season, after learning behind Greenard last season. This is the reason Moon was brought to Florida and he knows this is finally his year to take control of the vaulted Gator position.
“I'm looking to go out with a bang. I'm excited for the season to come up and to prove what I can do. I know it's been a long road with me with injuries and everything. But I know, everything is in control. And it'll be okay.”
Greenard dominated at BUCK during the 2019 season, riding it to a third round draft pick by the Houston Texans. That position will have more rotation than others though. Khris Bogle is listed as an “or” with Moon. David Reese can also take snaps there after recovering from his ACL tear.
"It's pretty competitive,” explained Moon.
“We have a lot of guys coming up, getting better at that spot and I’ve seen so much improvement over this offseason. Everybody's taking it so seriously. And so we'll, we'll see when game time comes."
At corner, Marco Wilson returns for his final season and should lock down that side of the field. As such, teams would be apt to throw towards sophomore Kaiir Elam…which might be a mistake. The kid who wrapped up the win for the Gators in the Orange Bowl against Virginia in December has the potential to become one of the best defensive backs in a recent Florida history that includes NFL 1st rounder and NFL Rookie of the Week, CJ Henderson.
“My biggest goal every day is just to get better,” said Elam.
“Keep elevating my game, to keep learning and continue to be coachable, and then everything else will probably play off on its own. Not worrying about the media, not worrying about what people say. It’s whatever my coaches ask me to do, I’m going to do it 110 percent and make plays. That’s my biggest goals. Whatever God has planned for me, that’s going to happen. Not to stress about anything, not to get down or anything, just keep being me and good things will have paid off.”
If Marco Wilson is moved over to nickel at times (which he will be) then Elam could be joined outside by Chester Kimbrough, who started next to him during the Orange Bowl.
Nickel will be one of the more interesting positions this season. Coaches moved Wilson over there mid-way through the 2019 season after Trey Dean needed to be sat. Wilson told GatorBait Magazine during the Orange Bowl week that he would rather play corner, a position that historically has a better NFL assurance. However, nickel is a better fit for the physicality that Wilson possesses. He’s handsy and rough, something that gets him way too many pass interference flags outside at corner. But when he’s closer to the ball at nickel, he can get away with more.
CJ McWilliams is listed as starter at STAR (nickel), coming off a year’s long ACL tear recovery. Freshman Tre’vez Johnson is listed as his backup. But Wilson and linebacker Amari Burney should also see significant snaps at nickel—the hybrid defensive back/linebacker role—to the point that the rotation is split nearly evenly between the three.
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate is extremely versatile. He’s listed behind Burney at WILL linebacker on the two-deep depth chart but can also play STAR. If Burney is moved over to STAR for a play, then Diabate can move up to WILL.
Essentially what all of this means is that between Marco Wilson, Amari Burney, Mohamoud Diabate, CJ McWilliams and Trey Dean in pinch, the Gators have more options than they even need at the STAR position.
Explained Grantham, “At the end of the day, defense is about, 'how do I get my best 11 players on the field, relative to the situation that we have?' I think that's even more critical now, because you really don't know what next week can hold or the next couple days can hold. As you get through that, you got to have flexibility in your program.”
Ventrell Miller will be taking over for the departed David Reese II at middle linebacker. The former shy underclassman has blossomed and boldly taken on the responsibility that comes with the quarterback of the defense, manning the middle of the field. But he’s just the first of many that position coach Christian Robinson considers an embarrassment of riches.
“Ventrell Miller's been just great. I've talked to anybody and everybody that will listen that he's done everything we've asked him to do and had a great attitude.
“If you talk to anybody on the staff, he's been vocal. He's on the leadership committee. Just the depth that we have because of those guys being here for a while and then you add in young guys like Josiah Pierre and [Tyron] Hopper and [Derek] Wingo coming in. I feel spoiled just because I have bodies, so it's next guy up mentality. It's allowed us to move guys around and really see guys play different guys.
“It's a different mixture when you see somebody that's never been on the field together, how they talk, how they communicate. And I've really enjoyed the way that they've meshed together and really the leadership that's had to come through settings like this, being on Zoom. I've had, 'How do you do that?' from afar, it's we're having to talk and communicate and that creates confidence. I've got Derek Wingo talking to guys that have been here for four years.”
Behind them is the safety group that lost only one of the four main contributors from a year ago…and the graduated Jeawon Taylor has been replaced with Trey Dean. Safety is Dean’s natural position. It’s where he played in high school and as he explained to GatorBait Magazine at the end of last season, after the failed STAR experiment, safety seems like a better fit for the talented cover DB anyways.
“His tackling has improved, his physicality has improved, his technique has improved, so I’m pleased,” began safety coach Ron English.
“He’ll help us this year both those spots. You know what really has improved about Trey Dean is managing his ego. He finally has learned and matured in the sense that he is really not arrogant like he was before. I think we all know when you’re arrogant you miss stuff and you don’t grow as quickly as you should if you were more humble. That’s one of the biggest thing he’s doing. He’s growing exponentially because he’s listening, which he didn’t always do that. And he’s matured and he’s humble. So I’m really proud of him and I’m really pleased.”
The biggest question when it comes to safety is how would the rotation work. During the 2019 season, English let Taylor, Stewart, Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner split up an even rotation snap count wise. It was something the players wanted and advocated for before the 2019 season began.
Now with more veteran guys still in the role—Davis and Stiner are listed as the starters—English explained to reporters that the infamous 2019 safety rotation wouldn’t be as prevalent this fall.
“It may be a little bit different simply because we're in a situation where we have some older guys who are ahead of some of the younger guys. So it may not be quite the same, but again we'll try to keep the players as fresh as we can. So, I'm looking forward to see how it plays out. I think we have to be conscious of how guys are playing a little bit more, as opposed to, you know, when guys are kind of playing evenly you can play them that way, but when they're not, you might have to react a little differently.
“There were obviously some things that you guys didn’t know that happened that we haven’t put out there. I think whenever you look back and evaluate yourself you might see some things that you wish you did a little bit differently. You might see other things or you might want to do this a little more or that a little more. But I feel good about going into this season with these players because they’ve played a lot of football and they’re mature, they’re physically mature. You watch them practice, I mean, they’re pretty physical players right now and they’re smart and they’ve been around. I’m excited.”
All in all, the Gators defense was able to retain much of their talent. Convincing Marco Wilson to return was crucial. But the biggest difference in the Florida Gators defense this season will be not even who is playing, but where they are playing as this defense is now set to make a run with everyone in the position for success.