Last season was supposed to be a fluke for the Florida Gators’ defense, a one-season stumble never to be repeated.
Instead, the Gators’ defensive struggles are becoming a trend, born of bad habits and inferior recruiting during three years under former coach Jim McElwain.
The collapse of the Gators’ defense against Kentucky continued the rapid decline of a unit that ended last season ranked outside the nation’s top-15 defenses for the first time since 2007.
“We got our tails kicked, OK? You can't hide that,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “We always talk about playing to a standard and playing to an identity. We didn't do that.”
Expected to be an aggressive, attacking unit under Grantham, the Gators spent Saturday night on their heels. By game’s end, UF’s defense had been exposed in every phase of the game by the Wildcats.
UF allowed 303 rushing yards, eight yards per play and nine of 13 third-down conversions. Expected to be a strength, the Gators’ pass rush failed to record even one quarterback hurry.
The once-vaunted secondary, claimants of the fictional title DBU (Defensive Backs University), gave up two touchdowns to quarterback Terry Wilson. A week earlier, Wilson, a sophomore junior college transfer, threw for 78 yards and two interceptions before he was benched at home against Central Michigan.
By coach Dan Mullen’s count, the Gators finished with 20 missed tackles allowing 168 yards to the Wildcats.
“That’s not us,” sophomore cornerback C.J. Henderson said. “Defense is what we’re known for.”
Those days are fading.
When the dust settled Saturday night, UF defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s guarantee of victory became empty words rooted in past achievements.
The current team’s failures likely are rooted in the past, too. A seeming lack of depth and top playmakers on defense and poor practice habits could be catching up with the Gators.
McElwain reached consecutive SEC title games thanks to an impressive pool of defensive talent left behind by Will Muschamp. But McElwain and his staff failed to restock it with as many big fish.
Fifteen players from the Gators’ 2015 and 2016 defenses are on current NFL rosters, and end Jordan Sherit likely would be if not for a career-ending hip injury. Of those 16 players, three were five-star recruits and nine were four-star recruits. Two of the four three-star recruits, Jarrad Davis and Taven Bryan, were first-round draft picks, while another, Quincy Wilson, was a second-round pick.
McElwain signed one five-star recruit on defense, pass rusher CeCe Jefferson. Among the 10 four-star recruits on defense, Gardner-Johnson and fellow cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson have been the standouts. Linebacker David Reese and ends Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite are the only three-star recruits to have started more than a handful of games for the Gators.
Mullen, Grantham and the Gators (1-1, 0-1 SEC) looked to turn the page Monday and place a renewed emphasis on physicality and finishing plays.
“There's going to be a fine line between winning and losing games,” Grantham said. “There's a fine line between a negative-one play and an 11-yard play. So it's really about finishing the play.
“Finish the play, you know, tackling, finish your job.”
Following Monday’s practice, Polite said he realized the Gators’ effort level had been lacking, though he could not explain exactly why.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “But I know it’s getting fixed now.”
UF practiced in full equipment during a long, intense practice Monday night.
“Today was a work day. We had pads on,” Grantham said. “You've got to continue to develop yourself.”
The Gators’ defense needs to grow up quickly.
The last time UF allowed 300 yards was during its 2013 loss to Georgia Southern, the nadir of a 4-8 season. Before that, no one has put up 300 rushing yards on the Gators since defending national champion Miami in 2002.
Polite said he saw encouraging signs two days after Saturday’s humbling defeat.
“Everything was more like intense, everything,” he said. “Every little detail. It was just the energy, competition and that’s really it.”
On a scale of 10, Polite graded the Gators’ effort level an eight.
“We’re trying to get it to 10,” he said.
Time will tell whether that will be enough for turn things around for Gators’ defense. If not, last week’s performance could be a sign of things to come.
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Edgar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org