The 2016 Florida Gators Defense will be an elite unit in college football this year. The Gators finished 8th in total defense last year. They allowed 18.3 points per game, and made an SEC Championship Game appearance. All this despite playing tired and being put in bad positions by an offense that struggled after losing quarterback Will Grier. Most programs would need a rebuilding year after losing five defensive players to the 2016 NFL Draft — including first round picks Vernon Hargreaves III and Keanu Neal. Popular opinion is that the Gators will take a step back this year.
2016 Florida Gators Defense: How High is the Ceiling?
However, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and his unit aren’t in the business of popular opinion and the Gators look ready to reload and chomp down on opposing offenses yet again.
Even though the 2016 stats looked good for the Gators, they made some mental mistakes against LSU in one of their two regular-season losses. Competition for playing time should help eliminate the mental errors. In the other regular season loss, an ineffective offense left the defense tired, demoralized, and vulnerable.
The defense scored the Gators’ only points against Florida State and held stud running back Dalvin Cook to 33 yards through three quarters before fatigue set in. The inability of the offense to score had as much, if not more, to do with the loss than anything the defense did. This year, the Gator offense should be improved and help the defense avoid unfavorable situations.
Now let’s take a look at the defense by position group.
Preseason All-American Teez Tabor (JR), the artist formerly known as Jalen, was as good as, and sometimes better than, Hargreaves last season. He anchors an elite group in the secondary this year. Quincy Wilson (JR), will start at the other corner position. Despite playing behind both Tabor and Hargreaves last year, he logged seven passes defended and two interceptions. He also locked down first-round pick Laquon Treadwell in the Gators’ 38-10 drubbing of Ole Miss in 2015.
Duke Dawson (JR) is expected to start at the nickel position; he can also play safety if needed. Joseph Putu (JUCO, JR), one of the most compelling human interest stories in college football, will work his way into the rotation as he becomes more acclimated to big-time college football. Freshman Jeawon Taylor (FR), not to be confused with offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor (FR), will also factor into the mix at corner.
Marcus Maye (RSR) returns at safety and is an absolute stud who’s on the All-American watch list. In five games against teams that finished in the 2015 Top 25, he recorded 46 tackles (29 solo). Clearly he’s not afraid to get downhill and fill the alley. Marcell Harris (RSR) is his backup. Nick Washington (RSR), who has played in 25 games, and Chauncey Gardner (FR) are at a stalemate in competition for the other safety spot. Look for whoever loses that battle to rotate early and often to keep everyone fresh.
Maye, Tabor, and Wilson could all be first-round draft picks and there is a good mix of talented veterans and newcomers competing for playing time behind them. The Gator secondary is deep, talented, and the defense’s best unit. Opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators will have nightmares about these guys.
Jarrad Davis (SR) anchors a linebacker group that is somewhat of a mystery heading into 2016. Davis recorded 98 total tackles last season and has the frame of a prototypical middle linebacker (6’2”, 235lbs.) with the speed and athleticism more typical of an outside ‘backer.
Beside him, Alex Anzalone (RSR) hopes to stay healthy after multiple shoulder issues have kept him from significant playing time and live up to his five-star rating coming out of high school. He and Davis both have high football IQs that help them anticipate plays and get in position to utilize their superb athleticism. If (and it’s a big IF) Anzalone can stay healthy, then the Gators shouldn’t miss a beat despite losing Antonio Morrison, the team’s leading tackler in 2015.
The big question at linebacker is whom will linebackers’ coach Randy Shannon look to when Davis and Anzalone need a rest, or should the injury bug bite? The Gators will definitely need to find answers here, as they will face several elite running backs, including Jalen Hurd, Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, and Dalvin Cook. The Gators will try to employ three traditional backers on a situational basis against these guys.
David Reese (FR), an early enrollee middle linebacker, will be first man up as he possesses good strength and a nose for the ball. Kylan Johnson (RFR), a converted safety, looked fantastic in the Gators’ spring game and will also rotate in three-linebacker sets. Daniel McMillian (SR) played significantly in 2015, and his experience may help him find playing time on the outside, but I expect him to be overtaken by Reese, Johnson, and perhaps even Miami native Vosean Joseph (FR).
The Gator defensive line is right there with the secondary in terms of depth and talent. After putting defensive linemen in the first round of the NFL Draft for five consecutive years, there’s still no drop off in talent for D-Line coach Chris Rumph to work with in Gainesville.
Joey Ivie (SR) and Caleb Brantley (RJR) will start out at the tackle positions with Bryan Cox Jr. (RJR)and CeCe Jefferson (SO) at the ends. Cox, Jr. is the leader of the unit; groomed by his father, who is still putting guys on their back in the NFL. He knows how to motivate the group and elevate their level of play. Brantley’s effort and technique have been inconsistent over the last two seasons. However, expect him to break out as one of the premier defensive linemen in the country. He has improved his mental game during spring and fall camp. Jefferson will play at end in run situations. Don’t be surprised to see him in the mix at tackle as well when expecting the pass. Despite tipping the scales at 265 pounds; Jefferson has elite speed and strength, great technique, and brings it every play.
Jordan Sherit (RJR), Keivonnis Davis (SO), Taven Bryan (RSO), Khairi Clark (RSO), Jabari Zuniga (RFR), and Antonneous Clayton (FR) will all see lots of playing time in the first two weeks. Their production in those games will sort out what type of rotation the Gators implement up front. Zuniga, called a “silent assassin” by teammate Cece Jefferson for his tough play and quiet demeanor, and Sherit are the early leaders to rotate at the weak and strong side end spots, respectively. With such a talented secondary, teams will likely keep the ball on the ground against the Gators. Several of the younger guys will need to prove themselves early on to ensure this unit’s success.
Johnny Townsend (RJR) finished 12th in net punting average in 2015 as a sophomore. He returns this season. Townsend will continue to help the Gators flip field position on opponents and put the defense in good positions.
Twenty-six Gator defenders (twenty-seven if you include Janoris Jenkins, who finished his career at Northern Alabama) currently reside on NFL rosters. At least seven more Gators on this year’s team will join them eventually. This begs the question, why are so many people sleeping on the 2016 Florida Gators defense?! It will be a tall task for offenses to manufacture points against the Gators. They will once again finish in the top ten in total defense and produce multiple first-round draft picks.
The Gator defense has reloaded for the 2016 season and will be ready to wreak havoc against opponents. Last year, on third downs – Money Down, as the Gators like to call it – teams converted a lowly 33.5 percent of the time. It may prove and even taller task this year, especially in passing situations. The secondary and defensive line are oozing with talent. If the starting linebackers stay healthy, expect the Gators to steal the shine from Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee defenses.