“I also think they’ve got the best defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) in the league.” – Anonymous quote from an SEC coach in Lindy’s preseason SEC magazine.
It’s true that Todd Grantham is the SEC’s best defensive coordinator and easily one of the top four or five coordinators in the entire country. The numbers don’t lie. Take a look at what they tell us about 2019. Even with less talent and depth than rivals such as Georgia, the Gators still finished the year ranked 7th nationally in scoring defense (15.5 points per game), 8th in rushing defense (102.77 yards per game), 5th in sacks (49 for -318 yards), 9th in interceptions (16) and 9th in total defense (304.8 yards per game). Statistically, what the Gators did in 2019 was solid improvement from the year before, Grantham’s first year on the job. The 2018 defense was really good. The 2019 defense was even better and that should only whet the appetite of Florida fans for 2020. Florida fans know that if the Gators are to surpass Georgia as the king of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division, the defense will have to come through in a big way and Grantham has the horses to do it.
Without question, this should be the best Florida defense since the 2012 team that went 11-2 thanks to a hard hitting outfit that rarely made mistakes and was coordinated by Dan Quinn, now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. That 2012 unit, which featured 18 players who spent at least one year in the NFL, gave up only 14.5 points and 286.7 yards per game, terrific numbers that the 2020 Gators have the ability to equal or exceed.
The Gators lost some outstanding players from 2019 in cornerback and NFL first round draft pick C.J. Henderson, bookend pass rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, and middle linebacker and tackling machine David Reese II, but Grantham has more talent, depth and experience to work with this year. It’s never easy replacing players who will make a living playing on Sunday, but Grantham has replacements capable of getting the job done. Like any new season, improvement will have everything to do with staying healthy, but if the Gators can avoid the injury bug, then this could become a defense that will be remembered.
In nearly every preseason publication, the national media sees a very solid Florida defense but points to two areas as questionable – pass rush and inside linebacker – that will have to be addressed for UF to take the next step in Dan Mullen’s overall rebuild of the program. Close examination indicates Grantham has the players who can more than eliminate any doubts.
The pass rush should pick up right where it left off last season. Returning are the players who registered 28.5 of Florida’s 49 sacks last year including rush end Zachary Carter, who got to the quarterback 4.5 times playing mostly in place of Zuniga, who saw action in just six games due to a severe high ankle sprain. Carter (6-4, 263, RJR) is expected to compete for All-SEC honors. As freshmen, Mohamoud Diabate (6-2, 215, SO; 4.5 sacks) and Kris Bogle (6-6, 220, SO; 2.5 sacks) showed enormous quickness off the edge although both played almost exclusively in passing situations. Added strength combined with last year’s experience should put both on the field in every down situations. A healthy Jeremiah Moon (6-6, 230, RSR; 3.0 sacks) strikes fear into every offensive tackle in the SEC, but he’s got to prove he can stay healthy enough to play every game. If there is an X-factor in the pass rush it’s Georgia transfer Brenton Cox Jr. (6-4, 250, RSO), who sat out last year due to NCAA rules. Cox was a 5-star recruit who was expected to be a starter at UGa in 2019 after a standout freshman year in 2018.
Reese (322 career tackles, 94 in 2019) rarely made mistakes and was the unquestioned leader of the Florida defense. The Gators have the athletes to replace his productivity, but can someone emerge as a leader? The guys in the middle who will be expected to step up their games are Ventrell Miller (6-0, 225, JR) and James Houston IV (6-1, 233, RJR). Miller was in on 55 tackles in 2019 with 3.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, while Houston had 38 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss.
Florida’s interior defensive line should be the best since 2012, led by the big guys in the middle. Kyree Campbell (6-3, 304, SR) flirted with the NFL before making the decision to return for what should be an outstanding final season. Last year he was in on 39 tackles (4.0 for loss, 1.0 sacks), which is phenomenal for a nose tackle. He will be flanked by gigantic Tedarrell Slaton (6-5, 358, SR), who showed up in a big way toward the end of 2019, finishing with 29 tackles including 4.0 for loss and 2.0 sacks. Expected in the D-line rotation are Marlon Dunlap Jr. (6-3, 295, SR) and young stud Gervon Dexter (6-7, 295, FR), a 5-star recruit that may have more impact in the interior D-line than any true freshman in the country.
There is a reason Florida competes for the claim of DBU and this year will be no exception. The Gators return four starters in corner Marco Wilson (6-0, 190, RJR) and safeties Donovan Stiner (6-1, 203, SR) and Shawn Davis (5-11, 185, SR) plus hybrid LB/S Amari Burney (6-2, 224, JR) and promising sophomore Kaiir Elam (6-2, 190, SO), who saw more action as the 2019 season progressed. Wilson (36 tackles, 3 interceptions) spent much of the season shaking off the rust from an injury-caused redshirt in 2018 but by season’s end he was showing the form he showed as a freshman in 2017. Wilson will team with Elam (3 interceptions) to form what should be one of the SEC’s best corner duos. Stiner (30 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Davis (51 tackles, 3 interceptions) figure to be one of the nation’s top safety tandems while Burney (37 tackles, 1 interception) is big enough to give strong run support and quick enough to cover tight ends.
Grantham doesn’t lack for experienced starting talent, but he’s got more good athletes than he’s had in the two previous seasons. For the first time since he arrived, Grantham can go top-to-bottom and see a true SEC roster on defense. Recruiting has brought in size, talent and speed at all three levels so there will be plenty of talented bodies to rotate in and out. History tells us Grantham subs early and often in the first half so that he has fresh legs on the field in the final two quarters. He’s got enough talent that there should be little if any dropoff when he sends in new faces.
One of the reasons Grantham stuck around rather than bolt to the NFL when it came calling after the 2018 season is because he sees a roster that can compete at the highest levels. The injury bug is always a concern, but this edition of the Gators is better equipped to deal with injuries than any Florida team in recent memory. It’s a nice combination of experienced veterans to go with talented youngsters.
Offense is great but the teams that win championships in the Southeastern Conference have depth to go with outstanding talent at every level. The 2020 Gators have everything it takes to be the best defensive unit in the SEC and that could very well translate into an SEC Eastern Division championship. An SEC East title puts the Gators in Atlanta where the winner is assured of one of the four College Football Playoff slots.
Todd Grantham has everything he needs to do his part to bring the Gators their first SEC East title since 2016. If the defense comes through, the sky is the limit for Florida in 2020.