Photo credit: University of Florida athletic association
The Florida Gators entered the 2020 season optimistic that their defense would pick up where it left off a year ago. That wasn't much the case on Saturday in Oxford, Mississippi.
The Gators allowed 613 total yards to Lane Kiffin's Rebel offense in the season-opener, with starting quarterback Matt Corral tossing for 395 yards and three touchdowns. Florida's offense stole the show, putting up 51 points and 642 total yards of its own, but the performance on defense left ample room for concern.
Cornerback Kaiir Elam is having none of it. He expects better from the entire unit, including himself.
"Looking back on the film, I’m not going to lie. I was kind of pissed off," Elam told the media via Zoom on Monday.
"Not because of my own film," he continued, "but I know our defense as a whole, and I know how hard we practice and how hard we work. For us to go as far as we can, that wasn’t acceptable, and it’s just something we have to improve on, and it starts in practice.”
Elam had an up-and-down day, forcing a beautiful pass breakup an on early third down slant route that was negated by a targeting call on safety Shawn Davis. Elam also glimpsed moments of strong run defense coming downhill on plays to the outside, although he missed a tackle on one play that which calls "unacceptable."
However, he also played a part a 46-yard, first-quarter touchdown from Corral to wide receiver Dontario Drummond. Drummond ran a double move against Elam in man coverage that deep-half safety Donovan Stiner missed with his eyes to the quarterback, allowing Drummond to glide wide open down the deep-middle of the field.
“It was a missed alignment, a missed assignment," Elam described the play. "I’m not going to point the finger. It’s just something for us to get better at, and it should never happen again. Honestly. I kinda stumbled or I could’ve been there to help even more, but it’s something we definitely have to learn from."
There were miscommunications, what "felt like a lot" of missed tackles, and blown coverages against the Rebels that will hurt Florida in the long run if the issues aren't cleaned up. Some player stood out positively, such as middle linebacker Ventrell Miller and defensive linemen Zachary Carter and Brenton Cox Jr., but the unit in its entirety was lackluster.
Head coach Dan Mullen expects a much better performance from the Gators' defense in week two however, at home against South Carolina. As he foreshadowed throughout fall camp, a lack of spring camp amid the coronavirus pandemic took away crucial offseason training on fundamentals, including tackling, which offured in only two practices throughout the fall.
Now with a game under their belts, Mullen thinks the rust has been shaken off and that the fundamentals will improve.
"I don’t want to take anything away from Ole Miss," said Mullen. "Obviously we were down some players in game one playing against an extremely up tempo offense, and they do a really good job of getting their playmakers the ball."
Nose tackle Kyree Campbell and BUCK rush end Jeremiah Moon, both projected starters, missed Saturday's game for undisclosed reasons. Key backup safety Brad Stewart Jr., among others, were out as well.
"I expect us to make a really big jump from week one to week two defensively with tackling, the effort, with running to the football, with communication and making sure we are fitting everything properly," Mullen said. "I think all of those things since we are kind of in a game mode, I expect us to be much better defensively this week.”
Elam, a true sophomore, is one of Florida's headlining players defensively, after starting five games as a freshman and intercepting three passes. Pro Football Focus credits Elam with allowing just 10-of-23 targets in coverage to be caught a year ago, a completion percentage allowed that was more than 10% better than 2020 first-round pick and former Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson.
PFF tabbed Elam with allowing two receptions on three targets on Saturday, the Drummond touchdown and another that went for 12 yards. He also had seven tackles, but is not satisfied whatsoever with the performance.
“I’m not going to make any excuses. We didn’t play up to par," said Elam. "A lot of our players and coaches feel the same way. I think it’s just something we’re going to have to improve on.”