Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
It’s a mantra that has stuck with me since my days of playing recreational sports growing up, where I helped anchor my defensive line while playing soccer. Or when I played high school lacrosse after I had signed up to be a D-Pole but was ultimately switched to attack due to my size and speed.
It’s also why I had picked Gators cornerback Marco Wilson to be Florida’s breakout player this season.
But then everyone’s attention remains with the offense.
While UF fans anxiously waited to see who would be named the starting quarterback and kept saying “all we need is a good quarterback for this team to be good,” I’m going a different route.
Florida’s key to success this year isn’t Feleipe Franks, who was named the starting quarterback on Monday. Rather, it involves a unit that is highly underappreciated.
The pass-rushers. The defensive linemen.
Before you ostracize me and label me as not knowing what I’m talking about, hear me out for a second.
Florida football was really bad last year. Horrendous even. A 4-7 finish that was two plays away from potentially being a 2-9 season with close games to Kentucky and Tennessee.
A lot of it could be blamed on the quarterback and the offense. As the faces of the team, they are expected to get the job done. However, when you look at the breakdown, you’ll see a much different picture.
The Florida defense had only three games where it created four or more quarterback hurries -- four against Michigan, nine against Tennessee and a whopping 12 against Vanderbilt. In each of those games, the rest of the defense played better as a result of the added pressure to the opposing quarterback.
While the Gators lost to Michigan, they intercepted the ball twice and sacked Wilton Speight and John O’Korn five times. And against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, where they flushed out the quarterback a combined 21 times, intercepted the ball three times, recorded two sacks, and forced opposing quarterbacks into going a combined 39-for-79 passing.
That was in just three games. The Gators managed just 11 QB hurries in the other eight games combined, where they forced nine interceptions and recorded 15 sacks. When you account for the wider game pool, those numbers aren’t nearly as good as what the team produced against the Wolverines, the Volunteers and the Commodores.
It comes down to this. When Florida’s pass rush consistently gets to the quarterback, it can significantly help the Gators pull out the win. When the group can’t break through the line, it allows the opposing quarterback more time to make the play.
And this year, the defensive line will make all the difference. UF’s starting group of Jachai Polite, Tedarrell Slaton, Elijah Conliffe and Jabari Zuniga will need to be on its game every week if the Gators want a shot of winning this year.
And so far, they have shown it in fall camp.
“(Jachai)’s had a great camp,” Florida head coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s worked his tail off, and you know, it’s the effort you give on the field.”
If UF’s pass rush comes to play this year, expect a much better season in 2018.
Jake Dreilinger is the assistant sports editor at The Alligator. Follow him on Twitter @DreilingerJake and email him at email@example.com.
Junior defensive end Jachai Polite will start ahead of senior CeCe Jefferson for UF on Saturday. Coach Dan Mullen raved about Polite's performance during fall camp.