By: Franz Beard
As good as Florida's defense was in the Gators' 34-3 win over Tennessee, Jonathan Greenard knows things can be better.
"The crazy part is we're only scratching the surface of what we really can do,” says Greenard, a 6-3, 265-pound athletic freak of a grad transfer who came to Florida from Louisville where he was originally recruited by current UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. “Just with that happening, I'm excited about where we are right now. It's still somewhat early, midway through the season. It's not our best performance. We've got a lot of things to work on still.”
The Tennessee win was Florida's most complete defensive effort of the season as the Gators held the Vols to zero touchdowns, 239 total yards (88 rushing, 251 passing), forced a fumble, picked off three passes and sacked the quarterbacks four times. Through four games, the Gators ranked 23rd nationally in total defense (285.3 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (11.0 points per game). The Gators are tied for the national lead in sacks with 20 (for 101 yards in losses) and they are tied for second in interceptions with seven.
All this for a defense that has been missing critical players due to injuries and suspensions in all four games. Barring injuries in this week's game with D1AA Towson, the Gators will begin the murderer's row portion of their schedule (#7 Auburn, #4 LSU on the road and #3 Georgia in Jacksonville in the next four) as healthy as they've been all year.
It might take a full complement of players at their physical peak for the Gators to continue their winning ways with a chance to equal or improve on last year's 10-3 record. One thing that seems certain is that for Florida to score 10 or more wins, the defense can't afford to rest. This has the feel of a season in which close encounters decided late by the defense will be the rule, not the exception.
That the Gators seem destined to a year of living dangerously has everything to do with an offense that hasn't quite caught fire and has had to change starting quarterbacks due to a dislocated/fractured ankle suffered by incumbent Feleipe Franks. Kyle Trask has more than exceeded next man up expectations the way he's led the Gators to a fourth quarter comeback against Kentucky (19 straight points for a 29-21 win) and 293 passing yards in his first start since he was a high school freshman in the win over Tennessee. While it appears Trask has a very high ceiling and that the offense has the potential to become explosive with him making the throws, it is the Florida defense that is going to have to show up every ball game. If the defense can shut opponents down, it lowers the pressure on Trask to deliver.
Even though it's only four games into the season, the way things have played out so far conjures up memories of a couple of other Florida seasons in which the offense never set the world on fire and the defense more often than not had to carry the day.
Dan Mullen called the plays for the 2006 Gators who won the national championship with a 13-1 record. The Gators averaged 29.7 points and 396.1 yards per game that year, allowing 13.5 points and 255.4 yards per game. There were great escapes like the 21-20 win over Tennessee in Knoxville and the 17-16 win over South Carolina in Gainesville. In the win over the Vols, the Gators rallied for the go-ahead touchdown then got a game-saving interception from Reggie Nelson. The defense came up with two fourth quarter stops against South Carolina to force field goals, which the Gators blocked. The second field goal block was by Jarvis Moss on the last play of the game. The Gators won by six at Vanderbilt and by seven each in wins over Georgia and FSU. In Florida's 28-13 win over Alabama, Nelson ran back an interception 70 yards for a fourth quarter touchdown to seal the win.
Florida's 2012 Gators were a goal line fumble against Georgia away from a possible unbeaten regular season. The Gators averaged 26.5 points and 334.4 yards per game while giving up 14.4 points and 287.5 yards. The great escape of that season was against Louisiana-Lafayette when the Gators blocked a punt that Jelani Jenkins returned 36 yards for a touchdown with two seconds remaining for a 27-20 win. The Gators won by three against Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on the road and they pulled out a 14-6 win over LSU and a 14-7 win over Missouri. In the win over LSU, the Gators forced a fumble by Odell Beckham to seal that win and in the win over Missouri, the Gators had two interceptions in the final five minutes to preserve a victory.
So if it seems the Gators have been down this road before, there is a very good reason. Can the Gators survive with an offense whose running game may not ever come around? Can they win just by throwing the ball and if required, can they put three or four touchdowns on the scoreboard late in the game?
We have no way to know those answers in advance, but it seems clear at this point that the defense has to be prepared to carry the load.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Florida's 34-3 win over Tennessee wasn't just the most complete game turned in by the defense, but for the entire team in every phase. Mullen saw a good game coming in the way the Gators prepared for the Vols in practice.
“I thought we played a lot better against Tennessee than we had in the previous weeks,” Mullen said at his Monday press conference. “That had a lot to do with because we practiced better. Our scout teams executed a little bit cleaner, the defense finished plays at practice a little bit better. Thought we did an amazing job of our Friday night and early Saturday morning
… it was a quick turnaround and preparation going into the game, of guys really honing into their routine and getting ready to go perform on a Saturday. If we don't continue to take a step forward with that this week, it'll show. And it'll show not just this week, it'll show the next week and the week after that and the week after that as you continue to move forward.”
Mullen is a firm believer that great teams are ones who focus in on the things they can control and that begins with practice.
“What's important is, 'Am I getting better as a player?'” Mullen said. “And I don't want to downplay this week's game or next week's game, because if you ask me that question next week saying, 'You're a week off from another Top 10 matchup, this one on the road, is it harder to stay focused?' No, it's on our exact attention to detail and our development and our improvement from one day to the next of getting better. And that's what we can control and that's what we need to worry about. If we're worried about other things, we're worried about the wrong thing and we're not going to be able to accomplish the goals we have as a team."