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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Gators back on the gridiron: three questions Florida’s defense can answer this spring

Florida is hoping to rebound defensively with a younger and revamped unit in 2021

<p>Defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) at the Gators game versus UGA Nov. 7.</p>

Defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) at the Gators game versus UGA Nov. 7.

Florida fans felt like their chance at a fourth national championship slipped through their fingers. And the reason, to many, was the Gators’ defense.

Pressure on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has sky-rocketed after several coaching changes were made in the secondary this offseason. Mullen hired Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar to replace the former coaches.

Here are three questions Mullen and Grantham need to answer on defense before they take the field against FAU Sept. 4. 

Where do Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk fit in at defensive tackle?

The Gators’ interior defensive line struggled to get off blocks the first three games without Kyree Campbell. Opponents averaged 164 rushing yards per game in his absence. When he came back, they only surrendered 139 yards per game, not including the Cotton Bowl. The unit steadied itself once he returned on Halloween versus Missouri

Campbell declared for the NFL Draft in December. Grantham also saw his other starting defensive tackle, Tedarrell Slaton, depart for the NFL. He required a double team from opposing teams on most plays to prevent him from penetrating into the backfield. 

These two losses leave a large void in the roster. The only other trench monster to see snaps last season was former 5-star Gervon Dexter. To fill that gap, Mullen worked his magic in the transfer portal. He signed a pair of graduate transfers from Penn State and Auburn in Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk. 

Shelton had his most productive season as a Nittany Lion in 2020 and recorded 3.5 sacks, 13 tackles and a forced fumble. Newkirk was much more disruptive for the Auburn Tigers and contributed 28 tackles and 1.5 sacks. 

Will the defense figure out their pre-snap alignment issues?

As coach Dan Mullen pointed out Tuesday, Florida’s defense was plagued by pre-snap issues in 2020. Players lined up in the wrong spot or didn’t receive or recognize play calls from the sideline in time, especially when facing hurry-up and no huddle offenses.

Of the four SEC teams that appeared in the final AP Poll, the Gators’ defense lagged well behind Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia. While those other top programs were the top three SEC defenses in points and yards allowed, Florida fell 8th and 9th in each category. With the amount of production leaving on the other side of the ball, Mullen can’t expect to allow more than 420 yards and 30 points per game and still compete. 

No amount of talent, both incoming and returning, can overcome communication issues.

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Mullen emphasized haste ahead of spring practice and said the defense’s relaxed pace of settling into coverage led to confusion and misalignment. This spring will be a great chance to pull whatever roots allowed this problem to bloom, especially with the returning defense’s youth.

What impact will incoming freshmen and youth have on the secondary?

Florida’s defensive backfield left a lot to be desired in 2020. The Gators allowed 257.5 yards per game through the air at 7.76 yards per attempt

However, the secondary could be in for more renovation than a home improvement show this offseason. Starters Shawn Davis, Marco Wilson, Donvoan Stiner and Brad Stewart are all headed to the professional ranks. 

All-SEC First Teamer Kaiir Elam will have the number one cornerback spot to himself, but the door is open for some of the younger members of Florida’s secondary. 

Trey Dean, who intercepted Mac Jones in the SEC Championship, and Jaydon Hill both got minutes last year, and Jahari Rodgers and Ethan Pouncey are a pair of 2020 four-star recruits who could make a splash. But the returning talent will be pushed by an incoming freshman class that includes Jason Marshall, a five-star corner and the Gators’ top 2021 recruit, and a pair of four-star safeties in Corey Collier and Donovan McMillon

With only one starting role claimed from last year, the battles in the secondary between the returning talent and new blood will turn the defensive backfield into one of the most entertaining and impactful position battles in the coming months.

Contact Ryan Haley at or follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley

Contact Zachary Huber at or follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber

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Ryan Haley

Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.

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