Updated: Jul 19, 2020
This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators
It’s a simple game, Vince Lombardi used to explain. You block better, you tackle better, you win more. Lombardi played in the era of leather helmets and coached as football transitioned from single wing to more sophisticated passing games. The offenses of today spread the field and create mismatches, the likes of which you wouldn’t have seen when the Green Bay Packers were steamrolling their way to five world championships. Yet, for all the dazzling schemes of the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL or the LSU Tigers, whose 2019 offense might have been the greatest in college football history, the game really doesn’t change. Block better. Tackle better. Win more.
For the Florida Gators in 2019, the tackling part significantly improved from the year before evidenced by a 60-yards per game improvement in stopping the run and 49 sacks. In holding opponents to 102.77 yards per game (3.19 yards per carry), Todd Grantham’s stop troops ranked eighth nationally. In the Southeastern Conference, only Georgia was better stopping the run than UF. The Gators were 65th in 2018. Florida led the SEC with 49 sacks – 12 better than second place LSU – and ranked fifth nationally. It was a 12-sack improvement from 2018 when UF ranked 19thin the nation.
In a line of scrimmage league, the Gators took charge up front where it counts most and the results were a dominant defense that only twice gave up more than 400 yards (407 in game three to Kentucky; 511 to LSU). Only two teams – LSU (217) and South Carolina (219) – ran for more than 200 yards. Virginia (323), in the Orange Bowl, was the only team that eclipsed 300 passing yards.
Improvement at the line of scrimmage had as much to do with the Gators taking that all so difficult step from 10 wins (in 2018) to 11 last year and it is the place where, if the Gators continue to improve, they can make that next important step, which is to beat Georgia and win the East Division of the Southeastern Conference.
What Grantham and D-line coach David Turner have to work with is a combination of big wide bodies who have ballerina feet in the middle, the place where stuffing the run begins, and speed off the edge to make life miserable for passers. It’s a near perfect blend of veterans and youth that forms what is likely the deepest and most talented collection of D-linemen the Gators have had in years.
The guys in the middle are formidable, led by senior Kyree Campbell (6-3, 300), who got better as the season progressed in 2019 to finish with 39 tackles, a rather impressive number for a nose tackle. With Jonathan Greenard off to the NFL, Campbell becomes the emotional leader for the UF defensive unit. Pairing Campbell with Tedarrell Slaton (6-5, 358, SR) gives the Gators two huge guys strong enough to fight off double teams without giving an inch. Through his first two seasons, Slaton was long on potential, short on productivity, but the lights went on midway through 2019. He finished the season with 19 of his 29 tackles in the final five games, nearly equaling his production in 2017-18 (32 tackles). When Slaton (six tackles) and Campbell (four tackles) came up big against Georgia, the Gators were able to shut down the Bulldogs’ vaunted running game, holding them to a mere 119 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.
The third guy in Grantham’s 3-4 is Zachary Carter (6-4, 263, RSR), who was so impressive down the stretch in 2019 that he’s mentioned prominently as an All-SEC candidate in several of the preseason magazines. Carter had three of his 4.5 sacks and five of his seven tackles for loss after the midway point. He’s quick off the ball and relentless in pursuit.
Career backups Elijah Conliffe (6-4, 312, SR) and Marlon Dunlap Jr. (6-4, 300, RSR) are wide bodies who have experience on the inside although they’ve never played starter’s minutes. They need to step it up in 2020 to give the Gators serviceable, experienced backups.
If there are a couple of X-factors on the D-line they are Brenton Cox Jr. (6-4, 247, RSO) and true freshman Gervon Dexter (6-7, 295). Cox, a former 5-star recruit who transferred to Florida from Georgia just prior to the start of 2019, is versatile enough to play with his hand on the ground or in space as an outside linebacker. During his freshman year at Georgia, Cox looked like a future terror off the edge. The question heading into the season isn’t whether Cox has the talent to be a difference-maker but instead how long will it take him to shake off the rust of inactivity from sitting out last season. Dexter, a consensus 5-star coming out of high school who had 18 quarterback sacks and seven forced fumbles as a senior at Lake Wales, was a man among boys at the prep level. The question for Dexter is how long will it take him to adjust to playing against guys his own size on a consistent basis. He’s big and strong enough to play inside with Campbell and/or Slaton but quick enough to take on that strong side defensive end. How long will it take him to get up to speed at the college level?
As a true freshman Khris Bogle (6-6, 220) got by on quickness to record 2.5 sacks and 18 tackles. As he grows into his frame and adds muscle, Bogle will probably see more time with his hand on the ground where he can be a nightmare matchup for opposing left tackles. Until he fills out, he’ll be more of a situational player, in the game mostly on passing downs.
Redshirt freshman Jaelin Humphries (6-4, 320) has the size and mobility to push for playing time behind Campbell. In any other year, true freshmen Antwaun Powell (6-3, 245), Lamar Goods (6-3, 303), Jalen Lee (6-3, 295) and Princely Umanmielen (6-4, 265) would probably redshirt, but with four seniors on the D-line all four probably will get a chance to work their way into the rotation. Powell is an edge rusher, Umanmilelen is a strong side end who may grow into an inside guy, while Goods and Lee are inside guys.
SCHOLARSHIP DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (13)
Marlon Dunlap Jr. (6-4, 300, RSR) Kyree Campbell (6-3, 304, SR)
Tedarrell Slaton (6-5, 358, SR)
Elijah Conliffe (6-4, 312, SR) Zachary Carter (6-4, 263, RJR) Brenton Cox Jr. (6-4, 247, RSO) Khris Bogle (6-6, 220, SO) Jaelin Humphries (6-4, 320, RFR) Gervon Dexter (6-7, 295, FR) Lamar Goods (6-3, 303, FR) Antwaun Powell (6-3, 245, FR)
Princely Umanmielen (6-4, 265, FR)
Jalen Lee (6-3, 295, FR)
POSITION ASSESSMENT: Before the 2019 season began, Dan Mullen talked about how difficult it would be for the Gators to make even a one-game improvement from 10 to 11 wins. With Campbell, Slaton and Carter all three registering career highs for tackles, Florida’s defensive line took on a more dominant role which, in turn, led to the Gators getting to the 11-win mark. Immediately after the Gators beat Virginia in the Orange Bowl for that 11th win, Mullen began talking about the added difficulty of improving from 11 wins in 2020. Due to the corona virus, it’s likely to be a shortened season, but for Florida to take over as the top team in the SEC East it will begin with outstanding play along the defensive line.
This is, after all, a line of scrimmage league and the teams that dominate are the ones that stuff the run and get after the passer. Florida has the potential to be an elite group in the defensive trenches this season. It’s the right combination of experience, size and talent mixed in with a second straight recruiting class that fills in the gaps.
The two guys in the middle – Campbell and Slaton – are space eaters who have the ability to stand their ground and keep interior offensive linemen from getting to the linebackers. But they do more than just plug things up on the inside. They’re both strong enough to win the hand fights that allow them to get in on their share of tackles. When your two big guys on the inside are regularly getting in on tackles, run production by the bad guys comes to a screeching halt.
It’s said the closer you play to the football, the more difficult it is to play early on but if Dexter can live up to his potential and contribute early, he will allow Grantham to go very big. It would be helpful if Conliffe and Dunlap contribute but they may find themselves behind Humphries and Goods, both of whom bring size and mobility to the position.
Carter is solid at one end. If Cox, Bogle and Powell can bring the speed off the other side then Grantham could have that perfect storm of a defensive line – one that can’t be budged on the inside and can’t be slowed down coming off the edge.
The covid-19 virus could become a factor this season and not just when it comes to the number of games every SEC team will play. If the season moves forward in the fall, those who test positive for the virus will have to quarantine and that means having quality depth ready to go is critical. The Gators have 12 defensive linemen – seven with experience and five rookies – so the numbers should be more than adequate. From a talent standpoint, Grantham has a D-line quite capable of dominating every team on the UF schedule. He has the personnel that can adapt to whatever scheme concocted by opposing offensive coordinators.
One thing that never changes in the SEC is the teams that win the most games do the best job on the line of scrimmage. Florida has the personnel do to it in 2020.