It’s no secret that Florida was carried by its defense last season.
Aside from a late-season collapse during which the Gators allowed an average of 32.3 points per game over their last three, Florida’s defense bailed out its anemic offense time after time.
The Gators ranked 11th in scoring defense, 18th in third down conversion defense, 15th in sacks per game and eighth in total defense. They tied for 100th, 94th, 121st and 112th in the corresponding offensive categories. And while UF is hoping to find answers to improve the offense, the defense expects to pick up where it left off.
"There’s a high expectation in that room, high expectation with that group," said Geoff Collins, UF’s second-year defensive coordinator.
But those high expectations start with replacing what was lost. And Florida lost a lot.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is a sure-fire first round NFL Draft pick, and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard could join him. Antonio Morrison anchored the defense at middle linebacker, Keanu Neal was an enforcer in the secondary and Alex McCalister’s 6.5 sacks were tied with Bullard for the team lead.
Collins knows he has a lot to replace, and he’s made sure to let his team know, too.
"The first or second meeting of the offseason, what we do is we put up a production sheet of what we lost at each position," he said. "Here’s what we’re gonna miss. Here’s stats that are gonna come off the board right now.
"And who’s gonna step up? Is it gonna be one, is it gonna be multiple? Either way it’s fine, but somebody’s gotta fill that void for us, and they know that and they collectively work to make up for that."
One thing that could help Florida maintain its solid defense is continuity among its coaching staff. Collins raved about how he and linebackers coach Randy Shannon and defensive line coach Chris Rumph are so in sync that they call out the same adjustments at the same time.
And while Florida’s only coaching change came in the secondary, where former Virginia Tech assistant Torrian Gray replaced Kirk Callahan, Collins doesn’t think that will be an issue.
"What a great guy. A lot of enthusiasm, very disciplined," Collins said of Gray. "The nickname for the DBs at this school (DBU) I think was shared at the place he was at, which is nice."
Despite losing Hargreaves, the Gators return an elite and experienced crop of defensive backs.
That starts with Jalen Tabor, who had a better statistical year than Hargreaves.
"The expectations for him are high, they should be, and I don’t think he’s shying away from that one bit," Collins said of Tabor.
At linebacker, the Gators caught a break when Jarrad Davis decided to return for his senior season instead of declaring for the draft. Collins called Davis "arguably one of the best linebackers coming back in the country."
But other than Davis, the position is a virtual unknown. Alex Anzalone has looked solid in the past, but he’s returning from a shoulder injury. And Daniel McMillian and Matt Rolin, who came in with Davis and Anzalone, haven’t produced in the way that they were expected to when Florida signed them.
Up front, while the Gators lost two big playmakers in Bullard and McCalister, they aren’t lacking bodies to replace them.
Caleb Brantley, Khairi Clark, Taven Bryan, Justus Reed, Jordan Sherit, Bryan Cox., Thomas Holley, Keivonnis Davis and Cece Jefferson will all see considerable playing time on the line.
"We move everybody around because… the more techniques they can play, the more marketable they are," Collins said.
But only time will tell if anyone steps up to fill the void, or if the void is filled by committee.
Either way, Collins expects more of the same for now and improvement down the road.
"We’ve stepped right where we left off," he said. "The expectation is to take it even higher than we were. That’s nothing we’re gonna shy away from."