Kaiir Elam Breaks Down Florida Gators' Defensive Issues vs. Vanderbilt
The biggest reason why Florida fans aren't celebrating a three-touchdown, 38-17 victory over Vanderbilt may be as simple as this: The Gators allowed a true freshman quarterback in Ken Seals, the starter for one of the worst offenses in the SEC, to lead the Commodores to 406 total yards.
Seals threw for 319 of those yards himself, starting strong by going 11-of-12 passing across Vanderbilt's first three drives of the game. An up-tempo passing attack allowed the Commodores to execute plays, line up quickly and run them again while UF attempted to adjust and get set.
The results? Communication errors galore and wide-open receivers. A now 0-7 Vanderbilt held a lead in this game about four minutes before halftime - a head-scratching fact for this 6-1, College Football Playoff-hopeful Florida team.
"It’s just something we have to go faster, getting the call to get us lined up," Kaiir Elam described of UF's struggles defensively after the game. "But I think, I mean you just gotta play, just trust what coach [Todd] Grantham is telling us to do."
Elam, one of Florida's better-but-not-perfect defenders this season, finished his day with a game-sealing interception in the redzone. Elam made a play on an underthrown pass to a poorly-run slant-and-go, putting the lengthy cornerback in great position to make an athletic, leaping catch down the field.
Vanderbilt's slant-and-go didn't work against UF. The slant itself, as well as its deep variation called the bang 8 (also known as a skinny post) worked wonders, however.
For example, both of Seals' touchdowns came against the in-breaking routes. The first came as UF struggled to line-up pre-snap, which put Elam over the outside shoulder of the slot receiver who broke inside quickly on his route. The second came when Seals diagnosed significant off coverage from safety Shawn Davis pre-snap against a bang 8, while STAR Brad Stewart Jr. bit on a run option fake, creating ample space in the second-level of the field.
Vanderbilt also connected on an outside slant route on a fourth quarter 4th and 3, with plenty of space between the receiver and coverage linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper at the catch point (the broadcast angle cut off the view of this matchup, so the pre-snap cushion couldn't be evaluated). The completion put the Commodores over the 50-yard line and in UF territory, but the drive ended in a punt anyway.
Elam walked the media through the first score, acknowledging communication errors before the ball was hiked.
"On that touchdown I gave up, I was looking over, the whole defense was looking over for the play. They were going fast. My linebacker called me over, because the tight end lined up out and the wide receiver lined up in. But we're too busy looking for the play so we didn't get communicate, get lined up and they already snapped, snapped the ball. So I had to try my best to get the ball. And then, I'm supposed to be inside leverage... I think it’s just something we have to clean up because I think, like you said, most of the yards came from those slants and those bang 8’s." - Elam
Across Florida's first two drives defensively, two offsides penalties including one on the touchdown were called, along with another obvious jump over the line before the ball was snapped.
The slant and bang 8 have given Florida fits all season long, and Grantham, UF's defensive coordinator, hasn't done much to stop them. Quarterbacks routinely identify the off-coverage looks and space in the middle of the field, and take advantage of a soft cushion from defensive backs and less-than-ideal coverage skills from Florida's second level box defenders.
Through seven games, it's clear that Grantham would prefer to allow those types of plays to find success rather than deep shots, which is why Florida gives receivers such a large pre-snap cushion to operate within.
Doing so should keep plays in front of UF's secondary, although that strategy hasn't been perfect either. Georgia missed several open deep shots that could have changed the outcome of the UF-UGA game two weeks ago.
However, even if UF can live with offenses targeting slant routes and their variations with a high success rate, communication errors this drastic seven games into the season is a major concern. Elam said it himself that the defense struggled looking for play calls.
Such errors lead to even offenses of even Vanderbilt's caliber to touchdowns, so imagine what the SEC's No. 2 passing offense in Alabama will do if the Gators and Crimson Tide both make it to the SEC Championship next month.
Florida can't afford slow starts if the Gators want to achieve their goals. Elam amplified that thought and put it simply: UF has to clean it up.