Why All the Criticism About Florida's Todd Grantham? Maybe They Don’t Get His Defense.

Todd Grantham leaves the field after a win. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Is that aggressive philosophy the reason the Gator defense can’t get off the field on third down? I asked Grantham if he considered his defense high risk/high reward. He quickly shot that idea down.

In the sometimes-alternative universe of Florida Gators football, fans usually want what they don’t have. The backup quarterback should start. They pass too much, they should run more. They run too much, they should pass more. They don’t throw enough to the tight end. They don’t blitz enough. They blitz too much. Our secondary sucks, but we are still DBU.

And so it goes. In baseball parlance it’s known as the “Second Guess.” In football, its corollary is “The Monday Morning Quarterback.”

There’s a hard-core group of Internet jockeys who have made Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham their favorite pinata on message boards. That’s a little odd, considering the respect Grantham has engendered in the coaching profession and among his present and former players – not to mention his boss Dan Mullen.

God bless those fickle people -- those Boys & Girls From Old Florida -- because they care. They care a lot. They are heart and soul of Gator football. They just don’t always grasp the concept of what the coaches are trying to do, but have every right to make their feelings known. And believe it or not, coaches are not always right!

The other day Steve Spurrier said to me that “sometimes the coaches don’t pick the right players” to put on the field. He’s right. They even forget about who’s on the sideline. That’s why Urban Meyer kept a punch list of who was available for the game. And even then, sometimes the coaches whiff on player evaluations.

I suppose Kyle Trask could be exhibit A. One wonders -- given his current status as Heisman Trophy favorite – why and how the Big Texas quarterback could have sat the bench ever since junior high school and through nearly two regimes of Florida coaching. They almost missed on that one and he may be about to become The Accidental Heisman winner. Or was it just a case of uncanny, rapid development by Mullen and his staff?

But back to Grantham. For weeks now I’ve been asking people why he has been so disrespected and continues getting insulted by terms like “Third and Grantham” since he coached at Georgia. Is it a well-deserved description? I get a mixed response.

There’s the perception that Grantham’s scheme breaks down on third and long – often for big chunks. That reputation came back to haunt him in the first three games this season on both third AND fourth down.

Let the numbers show that while the Gator total defense ranks a paltry 62nd nationally and 78th in allowing third down conversions (35), they are No. 1 in total sacks and total defense among SEC teams – playing in America’s toughest conference. So doesn’t that make them a high-risk/reward defense? Maybe not so much, say the brass.

Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham celebrate the 2019 Miami win. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

“Yeah, we have a very aggressive style defense,” Dan Mullen responded. “And don't mistake aggressive style defense for ‘we're just gonna blitz all over the place.’ We have an aggressive attacking style defense. I think we lead the SEC in sacks or maybe we're probably up there. We're going to get after quarterbacks, make life difficult for them.”

“He’s very good defensive coordinator,” Urban Meyer said about the guy he faced across the field several times. “And I know Dan likes him very much.”

Grantham and Mullen feel this is a work-in-progress defense that’s gotten much better in recent weeks. Since the loss Texas A&M, Grantham’s defense tightened up vs. Georgia (277 yards, 3x16 third and fourth down conversions) and somewhat against Feleipe Franks’ Arkansas team (3x10 third and fourth downs but 458 yards).

Yet what do the numbers say? I hate dealing with math – I was always better in college at philosophy and preferred studying Socrates over Isaac Newton – but sometimes you can’t ignore the numbers.

First, though, about the Socrates stuff. Is that aggressive philosophy the reason the Gator defense can’t get off the field on third down? I asked Grantham if he considered his defense high risk/high reward. He quickly shot that idea down.

“Not really,” he fired back. “I think that we’re pretty calculated in what we do. We understand that we have to play a certain way. Just because we’re bringing guys (blitzing) doesn’t mean we’re not in safe zone defense. I think it’s calculated. And there is an understanding of how you have to play. But as for ‘high risk’-- I really don’t think there’s high risk in it because we’re going to work to keep the deep balls to a minimum.”

Let me stop there before I get over my head in Xs and Os. I don’t know much about the technique, but seems to me the mental aspect of Grantham’s attacking defense and the variety of looks he gives a quarterback are a huge advantage to a high-powered offense that wants to get the ball back as quickly as possible.

“I think Todd and the staff do an excellent job of making adjustments, of changing things during the course of the game -- even this year,” explained Mullen. “Like I said early in the year, we had a lot of newer faces going into the season. We're going to coach those guys really hard …”

I’m not given to throwing numbers around in my writings, but there is veracity in them. As the astute Will Miles of Gators Breakdown noted about the 2018 Kentucky game (454 yards, 9 of 13 third down conversions), the 2019 Georgia loss (398 yards, 9x13 third downs), and then the first three games of 2020:

  • Ole Miss rang up over 600 yards and 9x14 conversions.

  • South Carolina only converted 6x17 on third down, but the Gator defense yielded 5x6 on fourth down.

  • Texas A&M had 543 yards 205 yards rushing and 12x15 on third down.

The explosiveness of those plays was painful for fans and in moments of anger, they would reach out to the graffiti of sports space – the Internet message boards – to vent. “Third and Grantham” might have been one of the nicer things that they posted.

If I understand his explanation, on Tuesday Grantham tried to explain to us dimwits why he is encouraged by the progress he sees and is using those explosive plays as a teaching tool.

“I think on the third-down thing, really, the credit goes to the players for executing relative to the sticks and the possessions and how much down and distance is needed,” he said. “I think they’ve done a good job of preparing that. As far as an explosive play, I think it goes back to what I said about the value of all 11 guys on the field being on the same page and doing their job.”

This gets a bit deep and it’s where fans – and writers – don’t connect the dots. So I asked Grantham:

“On a scale from one to 10, how much do you think the average fan understands what you’re trying to accomplish on defense? Understanding you’re attacking the quarterback, trying to knock him out?”

He thought for a milli-second and perhaps felt that I was mis-characterizing his defense.

“I would say probably a middle-round grade of five or so,” Grantham responded. “From the standpoint of. … it’s more than just sacking the quarterback. It’s understanding, for example, when you watch Feleipe (Franks) last week, there’s a lot of times his first read wasn’t there and he held the ball and the coverage really dictated the sack, from that standpoint.

“You obviously have to have pressure to get after the quarterback. You also want to find ways that you can make the pre-snap look like one thing, yet when the ball’s snapped, it goes to something else to make him have a choice: ‘Either I hold the ball or take a hit or throw the ball where I shouldn’t.’ When you get that, that’s when you start getting sacks and turnovers and things like that.”

It occurred to me that I was getting away above my pay grade, but that I was talking to a cerebral coach who saw a bigger picture as a pathway to possible greatness – the bookend to the offensive mastermind with a similar M.O.

This might have been the capper. A friend of a friend of mine – and I realize this kind of sketchy source gives journalists a bad name, but it perfectly illustrates the point – said he was sitting right behind the Gator bench during the Arkansas game when he saw Grantham chewing out his player. The player was trying to convince the coach that the reason he had done the deed was “I was trying to win the game.”

To which a fired-up Grantham allegedly said: “I don’t give a damn about the (expletive) game – I’m trying to win a (expletive) championship.”

I don’t know if that’s accurate or true, but I’d like to think it was.

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