• Ainslie Lee

Sunday Morning Snooze: Florida's Defense Is Fine

With a little WD-40, I mean, play time, Florida's defense will be rust-free in no time. Courtesy of Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Sunday morning. Gators fans slept well knowing that Florida is 1-0, and Florida State is 0-2 after an embarrassing performance against Miami last night. 

Heart rates have dropped, normalcy has resumed and the noise surrounding Florida’s lackadaisical defensive performance against Ole Miss has quieted -- as it should. 

Despite beating the Rebels with a 16-point margin, the Gators were only 29 yards better than Ole Miss. 

After generating 642 yards of total offense, the Gators gave up 613 yards to Lane Kiffin’s Rebel offense, making for a very Big 12-esque showing in week one of the SEC. 

After the offense-heavy battle, Dan Mullen and Lane Kiffin were quick to share a laugh at midfield. 

“Lane said he thought… he hadn’t been in the SEC a couple years… he said he thought when he left it was a big defensive league,” Mullen revealed.

And though the winds of the SEC might be shifting some, Florida fans should be assured that Todd Grantham and the Gators aren’t dressing a Big 12 defense. 

Two hundred and seventy one days had surpassed since Florida last took the field against a team not named the Gators. And unfortunately, there aren’t many lined up outside of Florida’s practice facility each day wanting to be a tackling dummy. 

And naturally, Gator-on-Gator crime is kept to a minimum. 

“We’ve tackled twice since the Orange Bowl,” Dan Mullen said during Saturday’s postgame press conference. “Normally you’ve got a lot of spring ball, you’re getting physical, you’re getting tackling… We only did two in our scrimmages.”

Some might argue that tackling is like riding a bicycle. One does not simply “forget” how to tackle. But there’s a lot more that goes into than that. 

Getting an earhole across the ball is the easy part. But taking good angles in pursuit, watching the hips of a ball carrier and containing an agile quarterback are areas of the game in which rust is sure to accumulate. 

Matt Corral, though not the quarterback on Ole Miss’ roster that one would expect to be elusive in the pocket, rushed for 50 yards on 13 carries -- including the four times he moved the sticks with his legs on third down. 

“We haven’t hit a quarterback since the Orange Bowl last year,” Mullen explained. “You look at all the quarterback scrambles that went on today… In practice you’re not allowed to touch the quarterback.

The lack of game-speed and live-ball reps in practice likely attributed to the sluggishness on Saturday. However, the moving puzzle pieces and new faces likely played a part, as well. 

As pointed out by GatorBait’s Kassidy Hill, seven of Florida’s defenders were either playing in new positions, were playing for the first time since 2018 or earned their first start on Saturday. 

Florida especially seemed to struggle at safety as it was announced that Brad Stewart wouldn’t be available for action against the Rebels, followed by Shawn Davis Jr’s early ejection. 

Shawn Davis Jr. didn't disguise his displeasure with the targeting penalty called against him in the first quarter. Courtesy of Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Rashaad Torrence was called upon to fill the void at safety, a daunting task for anyone against Lane Kiffin’s offense, but especially a freshman seeing the field for the first time. 

All considered, it’s no surprise that Kiffin and Corral immediately started to pick on Torrence as the weakest link of the Gators secondary. 

The Rebels’ first touchdown of the day came on a 46-yard lob pass from Corral to Dontario Drummond.

A leftward crank of Corral’s neck successfully looked off Torrence. All the while, Drummond had worked his way behind Kaiir Elam (only his second start) and Donovan Stiner. 

Stiner, despite his nine total tackles, seemed to struggle through the course of the game. On deeper routes, the senior veteran allowed a handful of receptions that, at the very least, is worth questioning. 

However, it is possible that he was forced to overcompensate for the inexperience of Torrence at free safety, and would cheat over to help the freshman. 

Most of the defense’s struggles stemmed from the secondary, which, again, was pretty depleted considering the absences of Steward and Davis Jr. 

Florida’s run game attack has been victim to much less criticism, when compared to its pass game counterpart. 

If you take away Corral’s 50 yards on the ground, the Gators held the Rebels to just 120 rushing yards. 

Ole Miss bellcow Jerrion Ealy proved to be a pretty quality back. Nonetheless, the Gators were able to hold him to just 4.9 yards per carry. 

Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller started his campaign as the “heart of Florida’s defense” on Saturday. And he lived up to the offseason hype. 

Fifteen pounds lighter, Ventrell Miller's (51) ball hawking abilities seemed to be much improved on Saturday. Courtesy of Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

After losing 15 pounds in the offseason, Miller appears much lighter on his feet. And, in return, much more successful in sideline to sideline tackling. The redshirt sophomore led the defensive stat sheet with 15 total tackles on Saturday, 13 of which were solo. 

“Ventrell… that’s what we expect out of him,” Mullen said postgame. “He’s one of the leaders of our defense, if not the leader of the defense out there… we need that steady performance from him week-in and week-out because he’s the guy that everybody looks to.”

Meanwhile, Brenton Cox Jr. finally got his orange and blue debut, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Georgia transfer quietly tallied eight total tackles on the day, 2.5 of which were for losses. 

Florida’s defensive lapses were just as plentiful as the changing personnel on that side of the football. The two go hand in hand -- especially in week one. 

And though 613 yards is a lot of offense to give up, given all the circumstances, it shouldn’t warrant knee-jerk reactions calling for the head of Todd Grantham. 

“You try to simulate the game in practice, but you can’t,” Mullen admits. “I think we took some things for granted defensively.”

Sunday morning brings a new day, a new outlook and a new game week. It also brings 60 minutes of live football that the Gators hadn’t played prior to Saturday. 

Just as Gators fans slept well knowing they hung 51 points on Ole Miss, come Sunday night, they should sleep well knowing that they should snooze the panic button on the Florida defense.