Photo credit: University of Florida athletic association
Kickoff of the 2021 college football season is less than a month away and the Florida Gators were back in practice on Friday to begin their fall camp. After practice, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and two key defensive players spoke to the media as the defense looks to turn the page on what was a very underwhelming season for the unit.
A lot has been made of the defensive deficiencies the Gators had last year and how it can improve is one of the hottest topics heading into 2021. The Gators ranked 83rd in the FBS in total defense in 2020, allowing 428.0 yards per game; 71st in rushing defense, allowing 170.5 yards per game on the ground; and 100th in passing defense, giving up 257.5 passing yards per game.
The criticism the unit took in the offseason has resulted in the defense coming into 2021 with a chip on their shoulder. Junior cornerback Kaiir Elam, named by Grantham as a leader on the back end, said last year they were simply not good enough.
“We lost the last [three] games,” Elam said, “I feel like that really motivated everybody, everybody in my class I know that for a fact because that’s unacceptable, that's not the Gator standard.”
Linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said the criticism is something he is using as a motivator this season.
“I took it personally just because that’s something that’s going to drive me, so why not?” Diabate said. “Like Coach [Todd] Grantham was saying, a lot of people don’t understand what it takes to get to a certain level of football. A lot of people don’t appreciate once you get to that level, so that’s something that pushes you, makes you want to work harder, and do the things you didn’t do before.”
While the Gators are holding on to last year as motivation, they are also looking forward to moving past last season and proving everybody wrong. Grantham says the group has shown him they are ready to turn the page.
“You know, teenagers, they’re young, they’re resilient,” Grantham said. “They move forward. So, really to them, this is their team.”
The lack of any spring practice due to COVID-19 in 2020 seemed to have a huge impact on the defense. They were often lacking in their communication, not on the same page and a lack of development was evident. Elam spoke to how important having a full offseason would be to the team.
“I feel like having a spring and a full training camp this year, I feel like that’s very needed and important for us to be on the same page,” Elam said. “I feel like last year we looked a little out of whack, not communicating like we should, not everyone [was] on the same page. So I feel like this year hopefully we can clean that up so we can do everything we can to win every single game, every single week we can get better.”
Diabate said it only became clearer as time passed how much of an effect it had on the team.
“I didn’t really realize how big an effect it had until after this spring,” Diabate said. “So after this spring, and being able to learn, and having that film to watch for the whole summer, sitting down and watching film on my own, I was like, ‘OK, we didn’t even have this last year.’ That’s when I realized. This year when I could take that film from the spring to learn from it before fall camp, that really showed me a lot. It had a big negative effect on our play and the whole defense’s ability to learn the scheme.”
The defense had a full unit meeting Thursday night before the start of camp, something they could not do last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Grantham believes those little things can go a long way in helping create what he called “synergy” throughout the defense.
“You can define things as a unit,” Grantham said. “You can show examples ... you know, the D-Line can see guys in the back end making plays, well that's a respect factor, because you pointed it out to him in a meeting. You can see guys up front making plays, well then the corners and the off-the-ball players get to see that, so that becomes a respect factor.”
While noting that the limited restrictions will help the team, Elam noted that they cannot point to the limited camp as the reason the defense was so poor last year.
“Other people didn’t have an offseason and spring so we can’t use that as an excuse,” Elam said.
Now, the focus for the Gators becomes making the improvements to put together a defense that lives up to the standard they set for themselves. Grantham believes a big part of that will be the improvement of the front seven.
“There are still always things we have to work to improve and when you start thinking about those things, first of all, you talk about the front seven,” Grantham said. “This is a line of scrimmage game, you got to be able to play with a certain stoutness, set the edge, build the wall.”
Grantham said the Gators’ two transfers upfront, redshirt seniors Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Valentino, will give them that “stoutness” and bring experience that is much needed for the defense. He believes they can have a similar impact to the defense that Jonathan Greenard had when he transferred from Louisville before the 2018 season.
“I look at these two guys being the same in the sense of they’ve got talent,” Grantham said, “they’ve got stoutness, they’ve got the ability to make plays, they can hold the point, they can make plays 1-on-1. But also their work ethic, their character and all of that becomes contagious, and I think that that can breed into the habitual traits that we want from that unit and that group.”
Diabate believes the two defensive tackles will provide a huge benefit to the linebackers and allow them to play the game they want to.
“We didn’t have the luxury of having them two big boys in front of us last year,” Diabate said. “Me and Ventrell [Miller], [Amari] Burney, Ty’Ron Hopper, when we’re able to flow freely and use our speed to our advantage and not have to work about getting off a block every run, then you guys will see the improvement in our play for sure.”
The Gators will also have to figure out who will fill the other corner spot opposite Elam. Candidates include juniors Jaydon Hill and Jadarrius Perkins, redshirt freshmen Avery Helm and Ethan Pouncey and highly touted true freshman Jason Marshall Jr.
Grantham was asked about Hill and sounded impressed.
“Jaydon’s a guy that’s been here and he’s done a really good job of working to improve every day,” Grantham said. “He’s worked hard to understand leverage, to understand concepts. He understands the importance of being physical and working the play.”
Grantham named Elam and senior Trey Dean as the leaders of the back end of the defense. Elam said he has been impressed with the competitiveness and energy the guys fighting for that spot have shown.
“I feel like, there’s not gonna be a number one guy so there’s guys rotating in and everybody is aggressive and on the same page, everybody communicating,” Elam said. “That’s something we really fixed from last year a lot.”
He said it is important to him and Dean to lead the young guys towards bringing back the standard the school has set at the position.
“We’re trying to bring back DBU, not just the saying, we’re actually trying to prove every single day and every single practice,” Elam said. “We make sure we’re staying on everybody and we want people to stay on us if we’re slacking. So we’re just trying to install that mindset, like ‘OK we’re not Gator Standard if we’re not a top-five defense.’”
The Gators have a long way to go in camp to make the improvements, but many agree they were a top defense away from being serious National Championship contenders last year. Grantham believes so far they are on the right track.
“Training camp’s a grind, so you’ve got to continue to improve every day,” Grantham said. “But the biggest thing that I like is, that I like our attitude and our vision of where we want to go. I really do feel like that as we are able to have a normal developmental process, we can improve our synergy as a unit and be where we want to be.”
Other news and notes:
--Grantham said JUCO transfer Diwun Black will be an “off-the-ball” player for them. He is listed as a linebacker and was seen during practice Thursday doing drills with defensive backs.
--The Gators expect to have freshman defensive lineman Tyreak Sapp on campus this fall.
--Grantham said Dean will be a DB this year, but would not go into specifics. Dean has played all over the defensive backfield in his career seeing time in the slot, out wide and at safety.
-Diabate said that Hopper is “really like that.” The redshirt sophomore has yet to find his footing at UF, but he seems poised to finally break out in 2021.