A few thoughts to jump start your Wednesday morning:
WHY FLORIDA’S DEFENSE WILL BE VASTLY IMPROVED IN 2021
Is it possible Florida’s football defense can be as bad or worse it was in 2020? Anything is possible, but if Todd Grantham intends to be gainfully employed beyond 2021 at the University of Florida or a highly paid coordinator anywhere – college or pro – then he better have figured out what went wrong and know how to plug those massive leaks that caused last year’s troops to ring up the worst defensive stats in school history.
Because Grantham had strung together three consecutive top 20 defenses – Mississippi State 2017; Florida 2018-19 – and the 2018 unit he left behind at MSU led the nation in total defense (263.1 yards per game) while finishing second in keeping teams off the scoreboard (13.2 points per game), it doesn’t seem likely that he forgot how to coach. But something went very, very wrong and not just at Florida. Defenses throughout the country were, for the most part, subpar in 2020 but most of the bad defenses didn’t have near the talent Grantham had at his disposal.
COVID-19 bears some of the responsibility for defenses nationwide playing at uninspiring levels. Head coaches and coordinators alike were overly cautious about too much contact in practice for fear that injuries and missing a couple players due to the virus could leave them shorthanded on Saturday. The lack of contact in practice reared its ugly head particularly when it came to tackling. When it came to the Gators, just when you thought they had set a new record for missed tackles in a game, there was always next week. Also factoring in was the cancellation of spring practice and no organized offseason activities whether in the weight room or in position groups.
Still, it’s not like the Gators were the only team handicapped by the lack of contact or offseason preparation.
We could continue to nitpick away at all the reasons why Florida’s defense was so bad last year, but that won’t change anything. They were bad. Time to move on.
That brings us to the most important offseason in Todd Grantham’s coaching career. This year there was a spring practice to implement concepts, figure out who needs to play where and find out which combinations of players work best together. There will also be an offseason strength and conditioning program that will allow Nick Savage to get the Gators into much better physical shape than they were in last year when they tended to give out of gas in the fourth quarter. Position groups will be out on the practice fields several times a week so team chemistry – pretty much absent last year – should be vastly improved.
When the Gators reconvene in August to begin preparation for the upcoming season, Grantham needs to greet a group that is ready to atone for the football sins of 2020, a season in which the difference in three pre-bowl game losses and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff was a couple of defensive stops per game. As good as Florida’s offense was last year, that’s all it would have taken to go into the playoff 11-0 as the Southeastern Conference champions.
The overall level of talent is more than adequate. Florida has three of the top 50 players in the country for 2021 as ranked by Sporting News and all three are from the defense – 15. CB Kaiir Elam; 17. LB Ventrell Miller; and 21. LB Brenton Cox Jr. Alabama is the only other team in the country with three top 50 players on the defensive side.
I have always been of the opinion that great defense begins with stuffing the run and making the other team one-dimensional. The Gators got worn out in the run game last year (see Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M; see Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl) but there should be significant improvement with the addition of transfer tackles Antonio Shelton (Penn State) and Daquan Newkirk, plus the maturation of former 5-star Gervon Dexter. If UF can stop the run at 2019 levels (102 yards per game) Florida’s defense will take huge steps toward becoming an elite unit once again.
Add Diwun Black to a mix that includes Miller and Cox and Florida’s linebackers will be one of the best groups in the SEC. Elam and Jaydon Hill are going to be exceptional corners. Freshman Jason Marshall Jr. didn’t come to sit. He will play early and often. The only question mark position is safety but there is more than enough talent although experience is lacking.
That brings us back to coaching. Grantham knows what is at stake this season and knows all the excuses from last year won’t work this year. I think he coaches like his hair is on fire in 2021, knowing fully well that Dan Mullen will ensure the offense scores more than enough points to win games.
Understand this. If Todd Grantham gets the Florida defense playing anywhere close to the 2019 level the Gators will be in the SEC East Championship hunt. If he has the Gators playing better than they did in 2019, Georgia will have to settle for another one of those infamous Near National Championships because the Gators will win the SEC East.
GATORS LOSE UGLY AT STETSON, 6-1
How is it that Florida can wear out a pitcher like Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter and yet can only muster three hits and one measly run against a mediocre Stetson team? Kevin O’Sullivan must be asking himself that question after the 9th-ranked Gators dropped a 6-1 decision to the Hatters (25-20) in DeLand Tuesday night.
For six innings, the Gators got good enough pitching to win, but they couldn’t put any kind of offense together. The Gators held Stetson scoreless through six innings, largely on the strength of Brandon Sproat’s best start of the season – 4 innings, 1 hit – and good relief work by David Leuthje, but UF allowed Stetson to tie the game at 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh before the wheels came off in the eighth when Stetson scored five runs to put the game away.
This was a bad loss, the kind that could impact Florida’s ability to host all the way through the NCAA Super Regionals. It puts enormous pressure on the Gators to sweep Georgia in Gainesville this weekend and then find a way to win the series on the road with No. 1 Arkansas the following weekend when the regular season concludes.
Women’s golf: The Gators were 3-over par Tuesday but that moved them up three spots to sixth in the NCAA Regionals at Stanford. Stanford remains in first place at -25, a full 22-shot lead over second place Virginia Tech. Clara Manzalini and Maisie Fuller are both tied for 15th in the individual standings at even par 142.
The final round will be played today with the top six teams advancing to the NCAA Championships.
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC
Alabama: Ronald Williams, who was the 4th-ranked junior college corner in the country in 2020 is transferring to Michigan State where he will play for former Alabama assistant Mel Tucker. Williams played in three games in 2020.
Arkansas: Former Texas A&M small forward Jaxon Robinson (6-7, 200, FR) has transferred to Arkansas. He is a former 4-star recruit who averaged 2.1 points and 1.1 rebounds per game last year ... Defensive lineman Nicholas Fulwider, who hasn’t played in a game the last two seasons, has decided to transfer out.
Auburn: Auburn AD Allen Greene says the plan is to lift all attendance restrictions for football this fall, operating at full capacity for Jordan-Hare Stadium … Calvin Jackson, who returned an interception of a Danny Wuerffel pass 96 yards for a touchdown to help Auburn to a 38-35 victory over the Gators in 1993, has passed away. He was 48 years old.
Georgia: The basketball exodus at Georgia continues as two more are transferring out. Leaving are Andrew Garcia (6-6, 225, RSR) and former 4-star recruit K.D. Johnson (6-1, 190, FR). Johnson was Georgia’s second leading scorer last year at 13.5 points per game. He shot 38.7 percent from the 3-point line. Garcia came off the bench to average 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. Garcia and Johnson are the eighth and ninth players to transfer out.
Kentucky: UK secondary coach Steve Clinkscale is leaving to coach the secondary at Michigan.
LSU: Coach O had only praise for quarterback TJ Finley, who has decided to transfer out. Speaking on ESPN radio in Baton Rouge, Coach O said, “I think he’s a great quarterback but he felt that there was something that he needed to do, but I got to say, he did everything right. He did it first class, and we wish him the very best wherever he goes. Someone’s gonna get a great young man, a great quarterback.”
Mississippi State: Mississippi State’s midweek game with UT-Martin was cancelled because of weather.
Ole Miss: Center Shon Robinson (6-11, 220, SO), a former 4-star recruit, is transferring to San Jose State. Robinson played in six games last season, averaging 1.1 points per game.
Tennessee: Corner Shawn Shamburger’s saga continues. First he was going to transfer out in January, then he changed his mind and decided to stay. Now he’s transferring out again. He made 86 tackles and intercepted a pass during his UT career ... Tennessee has moved its season opener with Bowling Green up two days, starting the season on Thursday, September 2. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Texas A&M: Graduate assistant Nick Williams is leaving Georgia to become a defensive analyst for the Aggies.
Vanderbilt: Former Vanderbilt safety Donovan Kaufman has narrowed his transfer choices down to Texas and Auburn.
FOOTBALL, BASKETBALL, BASEBALL AND OTHER STUFF
Colt Brennan, the University of Hawaii quarterback who was on the Heisman podium in New York when Tim Tebow won in 2007, has passed away. He was 37 years old. No cause of death has been reported. Brennan passed for 14,193 yards and 131 touchdowns in his Hawaii career including 58 in 2006. He was on his way to becoming the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins when he suffered a serious hip injury that required surgery. He never threw an NFL pass in a real game. He suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident in 2010 and was never the same again. This is a sad ending to someone who once seemed to have all the potential in the world.
ESPN, which is bleeding subscribers left and right, has parted ways with Kenny Mayne. Mayne took to Twitter to say it was “salary cap” issues. I can think of several ESPN anchors and reporters who should be shown the door, but Kenny Mayne was not one of them. One of the few ESPN had that actually has a personality and a sense of humor.
Now that talks to build a new baseball stadium in Oakland have stalled out for the umpteenth time, Major League Baseball has given the Athletics permission to pursue relocation. With the NFL Raiders relocated to Las Vegas that seems like the obvious choice. Other cities that will likely make a play for the Raiders are Nashville, Charlotte, Portland and Vancouver. Portland has a stadium with a retractable roof that will seat 35,000 scheduled to open in 2022. I will be interested to see if Omaha tries to land the Athletics. TD Ameritrade Park, where the College World Series is held, seats 24,000 and has a stadium that was built to expand to 35,000.
With 28 points, 21 assists and 13 rebounds Monday night, Russell Westbrook of the Washington Wizards recorded his 182nd career triple-double, breaking the record held for 47 years by Oscar Robertson.
ONE FINAL PITHY THOUGHT: The NCAA’s basketball oversight committee is proposing technical fouls for players who flop, which isn’t a bad idea but I have to wonder how it’s going to be enforced without going to replay. Sure, some calls will be obvious, but those that aren’t will result in games being delayed as officials huddle around a monitor to look at a play from several different angles. Unless, of course, they give a one-minute time limit to make a decision. If they add a time limit like that, then I think we’ll see fewer flops and a better game. Now, if they would only start calling walking again and take that silly Euro-step out of the game.