Ranking the Florida Gators Five Most Important 2020 Defenders
How do you replace your team's sack leader, tackle leader and best cover corner all in one season? That's a question that Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham must face in the 2020 season.
Cornerback CJ Henderson is now a Jacksonville Jaguar, linebacker David Reese is a Carolina Panther and BUCK Jonathan Greenard is a Houston Texan. While finding solid replacements may seem daunting at the surface, Grantham's group has guys that have already played meaningful snaps to pick up the load.
Here are the five most important:
5. Safety Shawn Davis
UF's safety play was overall tough to watch last season. They held their own against young quarterbacks who dealt with pressure against the Gators. South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski was just 17-35 for 170 yards and only one touchdown. Auburn QB Bo Nix was worse, going 11-27 for 145 yards while throwing one touchdown and three interceptions.
However, against experienced quarterbacks that could handle pressure in their face from Florida's front-seven better, UF safeties were picked apart. Then-Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was 20-30 against UF while throwing two touchdowns. Then-LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was an unbelievable 21-24 against the Gators for 293 yards and three touchdowns.
All of this to say, the safety room has to produce better. They were found out of position far too often last season. However, the group of safeties coming back is essentially the exact same. Shawn Davis, who had the second-most interceptions of the group behind Donovan Stiner, seems to display the best combination of tackling and coverage skills.
If the last line of UF's defense has a better season, Davis should be a huge piece to that.
4. LB Amari Burney
Linebacker Amari Burney presents such a unique skill set for the Gators. He has the speed to keep up with pass catchers and the size to throw his weight around to make tackles in the trenches.
However, he only appeared in eight games last season due to injury. Burney needs to become a guy that is on the field every defensive possession for Grantham. His abilities are simply too valuable not to be.
He can play STAR in heavy packages in place of Marco Wilson or Trey Dean. He can also play outside linebacker on nearly every down and is really Florida's only linebacker as of now that has proven Grantham doesn't have to sweat while he's in coverage.
3. CB Marco Wilson
Coming off a torn ACL the season prior, Wilson's 2019 season was a mixed bag. By no means was it disappointing, but there was a time before the injury where Wilson was considered better than Henderson.
In 2020, Wilson may be switched with STAR/cornerback Trey Dean. Dean played STAR/slot most of the time in 2019 while Wilson played outside. However, Grantham toyed with having Wilson play STAR and bringing in Kaiir Elam last season to play outside corner and it seemed to work.
Elam is essentially a lock at one outside corner spot in 2020. But, Wilson struggled against bigger wide receivers in 2019, thriving from the slot. With Wilson's coverage skills, ball-hawking ability and impressive tackling for his size, he could largely mimic what Chauncey Gardner-Johnson did in that STAR role in 2018.
Gardner-Johnson collected four interceptions and returned two for touchdowns that season. He also had 71 tackles. That playmaking was vital for the Gators; it was something that the defense seemed to miss in 2019. Wilson playing a full-time STAR role could bring that back.
2. CB Kaiir Elam
With the departure of Henderson, the importance of Elam is obvious.
The second-year corner is expected to replace a lot of what Henderson did. While he is capable, expect a learning curve for a still-young player. It is unfair to expect anyone, let alone a player starting for the first time, to replace the production of Henderson last season.
However, it is imperative that Elam does replace as much of the production as he possibly can. Grantham has been used to a luxury of a shutdown corner you can place on an island and have the other teams No. 1 receiver struggle.
With the problems the Gators' safety room has had, and without Greenard to bring 9.5 sacks this season, a lockdown corner will be necessary.
1. BUCK Mohamoud Diabate
Like Elam, the importance of Mohamoud Diabate is obvious. UF got such elite production out of Greenard in that role in 2019, it became another luxury.
Greenard has 27 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. That was a nightmare for every offensive coordinator that had to face the Gators. As the season went along, Diabate found himself in the game more, and he produced similar flashes.
He burst onto the scene against Vanderbilt, where he had three sacks, one of them forcing a fumble which Greenard scooped up and returned for a touchdown.
The importance of Diabate, more than anything, is because of how much a Grantham defense relies on getting to the quarterback. In games where the Gators could get no pressure, like Georgia, the secondary got picked apart.
Diabate has the highest ceiling of the front-seven to keep those types of games from happening.