Following a unique 2020 season, many programs around the nation have been looking to reestablish themselves and their identity through their offseason programs.
For the Florida Gators, their identity rested in the unsustainable hope to outscore opponents with a high-powered passing attack and lackluster defensive efforts. However, in 2021, Florida looks to overcome last year's narrative, engineering success on both sides of the ball.
To do so, the Gators — like the great teams of college football — will look to find their identity through a select handful of players vying to establish themselves as the undenied leaders of the pack.
In anticipation of another year of high expectations for Florida football, AllGators will analyze five individuals that could make or break UF's season with their on-field production as well as their impact off of it.
Previously sifting through Ethan White and Jacob Copeland's possible impacts on the offense, our attention now turns to the defensive side of the football with fifth-year senior linebacker Ventrell Miller anchoring down No. 3.
Bursting onto the scene as an off-ball linebacker with an impressive campaign as a redshirt junior, Miller was tasked with filling the leadership role left behind by departed middle linebacker David Reese II in 2020, an experiment Dan Mullen and company were confident in after the season opener against Ole Miss.
"Now I think he knows he’s the leader of the defense, and you saw that and you expect that from him," Mullen said following the Gators' week one victory.
"I talk to him all the time about that, we need that steady performance from him week-in and week-out because he’s the guy that everybody looks to.”
Proving as a daunting venture that became even more so with COVID-19 shortening the offseason, Miller would be plugged into a crucial role of the Gators defense -- starting 10 out of his 11 games on the year -- with little experience under his belt as the full-fledged leader of a defense.
Taking a step forward from a production standpoint -- tallying for 88 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and three pass breakups -- Miller's step into the spotlight was overshadowed by the tumultuous year the Florida Gators defense had.
Heading into 2021, Miller will once again be asked to lead a unit looking to bounce back from their year characterized by busted coverages and lapses in presnap communication. In coordinator Todd Grantham's efforts to resurge, similar expectations that Mullen placed on his shoulders in 2020 will carry over for Miller when the Gators kick off their season on Sep. 4 against FAU.
With a full year under his belt and a normal offseason regiment, Miller is slated to enter the season much more prepared as a leader, which will likely prove vital to his own success and that of the defensive unit whole.
However, his leadership must stretch beyond statistical production as the go-to guy on the defense into increased vocality on the field, something he understands the immensity of.
"It's a big role to play, but I embrace it. I like that coach believes in me that much to put the load on me. So just going out there, looking forward to doing everything I can to help the team win," Miller said two weeks ago.
As the quarterback of the defense, Miller's continued growth in his knowledge of the game plan -- and his ability to articulate that understanding to other in-game -- looms large to command the Gators defense effectively.
Ultimately, the success of Florida's defense will largely rest on the shoulders of Miller in 2021 with it being paramount that Miller continues to build upon his statistical impact while bonding to his niche as a leader.
However, his teammates and coaches stand behind him, believing that he'll be able to take that next step as a player. "The leadership, the things that he does that nobody else sees outside of this building. Those are the things that are left for him. I think he's gonna perform really well and lead this defense," Robinson said.
If Miller capitalizes on his second run as the unrivaled top dog defensively, Grantham's unit will be drastically better than 2020.