Jalen Tabor kept his eyes on the quarterback for the most part. There was a brief second when the defensive back took a glance towards the receiver he was covering, more as a courtesy than anything, then glanced back towards the quarterback before cutting into the route. It took a little under two seconds for the Florida Gators sophomore to jump in front of the receiver and haul in his third interception of the season—and his first that didn’t get returned for a touchdown. While Tabor’s teammates whooped and hollered, their defensive coach stood idly by.
Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins didn’t jump up and down in jubilation but waited with a smile on his face and a marker in his hand.
When Tabor made it to the sidelines, Collins handed him the marker, for what has become a tradition of sorts for the Florida Gators defense.
Create a turnover write it on the board.
The board was something that Coach Collins began in the Swamp this year because as safety Keanu Neal points out, “Coach Collins starts a lot of stuff.” At the beginning of the season we explored the Collins Point System that the young coordinator started with his unit and the difference it has made. If you’ll remember, a large part of the point system’s success seemed to be in the mystery that shrouded it.
The same can be said for some of the newer things we’re learning about this Gator defense, which consistently finds itself in the top of many of the nations defensive categories.
There’s the board for example, the bracelets, the backfield and the brotherhood.
Bracelets and Boards
It’s not unheard of for a defensive coordinator to convert wide receivers to defensive backs. They want someone who can go after the ball, has good hands and can break tackles to score after catching it. These are all necessary aspects to Geoff Collins’ defense and what the board and bracelets serve as a reminder to.
The white board sits in the defensive section of the sideline during every game. It’s purpose is simple — remind guys how many turnovers they have/need.
“It’s just our turnovers,” explains Neal. “Whenever we get a turnover and we get the ball we’ll put our name on it. Our objective is to get five each game.”
Those five can come in whatever way possible as long as there are five, according to defensive lineman Alex McCalister.
“We go for five turnover’s a game so we need five different numbers up there, or five of the same number,” McCalister said laughing. “As long as we got five turnovers, we always write our number on the board. It’s just a little reminder for us, like ok we got three turnovers; we need two more, and just simple as that…it’s fun.”
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 14, 2015
By playing so close to the ball, the Florida Gators have posted a passing defense efficiency rating of 103.96 (52.8%), which is second in the SEC and ninth in the nation.
There’s the tandem of Vernon Hargreaves III and Jalen Tabor, which is really just a pick your poison scenario and then when they sit down, quarterbacks still have to deal with the likes of Quincy Wilson, Brian Poole, Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal. The list really goes on and on.
It’s a rotation, not a hierarchy; with 11 guys that Collins and defensive backs coach Kirk Callahan can feasibly rotate in the secondary. This is a fact pointed out by former LSU and Cowboys defensive lineman and current SEC Network analyst Marcus Spears when discussing how ridiculous it is to refer to Quincy Wilson as second string.
“That goes to show the guys that are ahead of him,” explained Spears. “College football is such a different dynamic because it’s matchups and certain guys thrive well in certain games against certain schemes. [Quincy] is a guy that will have success, but the guys that are back there now — look I’m a bit partial to LSU who I think they have the best secondary because of depth, and one of their best players is not playing right now and they’re still doing well — but this secondary, I would like to have them on my team. All of them.”
Tabor echoed the sentiments pointing out how their depth is perhaps the Gators biggest strength.
“That’s another good thing about our secondary,” says Tabor.“We have so many guys and can rotate. One series, you might get me, then I might be on the sidelines and then the next series I’m going to be fresh. So that receiver just played three series and now I’m coming back off one. So that makes it a lot easier when he’s tired, and it’s late in the fourth quarter. We’ve got so many DBs that we can just rotate and be just as good.”
Although the Florida Gators haven’t seen a game yet this season where they’ve been able to fill up the board with five forced turnovers, that constant strive to reach that pinnacle has placed Florida near the top in every major turnover category.
The Gators have snagged 13 interceptions so far this season, which is second in the SEC and 17th in the nation. Six different guys have contributed to these interceptions.
Forced fumbles bring Florida’s turnover number even higher with eight total, good enough for 24th in the country (but in that weird way where tons of teams tie so even though Florida is 24th, they and every other team tied for 24th have the fifth best stat) — four of those eight come from Marcus Maye who is 5th in FBS in forced fumbles thanks to that tally. Nick Washington also has two fumble recoveries, one for a touchdown, on special teams.
It creates a +9 turnover margin that puts Florida at the top of the SEC and 13th in the nation in the statistical category. It also lends itself to the old adage, “win the turnover battle, win the game”, which is further proved when you consider that the Florida Gators have scored 81 points off opponent turnovers, while only giving up 30 so far on its own.
It also means a whole lot of bracelets. That’s the second half to the white board.
“Well the thing is, you’ve got to get a turnover to get these,” explains DB Brian Poole, looking down at a silicone bracelet on his wrist. They’re the kind most people wear today for all sorts of causes, events and accolades.
The Gators are generally blue with the phrase “#AllAboutTheBall” punched into them. Every turnover earns a bracelet and they are worn proudly. These are sprinkled across the defense thanks to that deep secondary and stout front line, because while the secondary gets a lot of credit, they are admittedly able to handle their coverage’s thanks in large part to a productive pass rush and brick wall of a front seven.
“Oh yea it defiantly make it easier,” says Brian Poole. “We don’t have to cover that long.”
“I always see [Jon Bullard] and McCalister always in the backfield,” adds Quincy Wilson.“That also helps out with our covering. I remember one play was a double move and (Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs) went to pump fake, [Antonio] Morrison was already on him but pretty much everyone was already in the backfield.”
Everyone was already in the backfield because they have a party to get to and this is not a party where you can show up fashionably late.
Party In the Backfield
The key to any good party lies in the menu. The Florida Gators defense understands this, so before every game, they prepare their feast.
“Our whole D-line, everybody in locker room before we leave say it’s a party in the backfield,” explains McCalister. “What you bringing? I’m bringing chips, you bringing drinks. It’s always a party in the backfield.”
Yes, there’s an actual menu.
“I always got the chaser,” continues McCalister, “[Jordan] Sherit always brings the alcohol. Jon-Jon brings the food because he’s fat, but still it’s all in having fun though.”
Once they’ve assigned task, this jovial mob takes on their angry persona and goes out to terrorize every quarterback, running back or wandering idiot who dares get in their way.
Thanks to their frequent get-togethers, the Gators defense holds the second spot in the SEC for sacks and is tied for 8th in the country with 31 total. The rush defense stands in much the same — 2nd in the SEC, 10th nation wide — after holding teams to just 105.1 yards per game.
As if the front line wasn’t scary enough, linebackers coach Randy Shannon has Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis to bring down into the trenches and they are always looking to crash the party, which, in turn, invigorates the rest of the defense, which causes them to play harder and is really just a vicious cycle for opposing offenses. There’s a good chance Chad Kelly still has nightmares about orange clad monsters barreling towards him.
“Oh yea you see [Antonio] rushing to get the sack,” gushes McCalister, “and he just goes crazy, that just get us even more crunk and more excited, watching those boys come off the edge, come up the middle, that’s big for the whole team, every time you get a sack, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Jalen Tabor is sent off on a soliloquy when describing the tandem Morrison and Davis make.
’Tone and JD, man those guys, they crazy…I like having them two out there. They just run around like I’ve never seen before. They really just have bad intentions when they get to the ball. They be mad at each other, I guess one play I think, I think it was JD didn’t spill back to Antonio. I think it was 4th and 1 and they did a little toss play and ‘Tone running for the running back and he got mad at JD because he didn’t spill it back to him. Like he was on the sideline like, ‘that was my tackle. Like that’s my tackle. What are you doing?’ We ended up getting off the field anyways, so it was good. Those two guys are just tremendous, just tremendous in how they go about their work.”
Getting mad at each other is a necessary evil at times, since it will then just come out on the field next possession. It can be seen in action a lot as well with Morrison on the sidelines taking it upon his self to call guys out for not doing their job to the standard to which he believes they should be. He’s definitely the guy standing in the corner at the party making sure things are going ok and willing to do the dirty work when he feels they aren’t. For any gathering to be successful though you need that guy. He keeps things running smoothly, makes sure everyone gets home ok and doesn’t let things get out of hand.
The reason these things are working well — the board, the bracelets, and the backfield parties — all boils down to a brotherhood that has taken a great defense and made them incredible.
Statistically speaking, the Florida Gators have had great defenses the past five years, but it takes more than talent. It takes a cohesiveness where everyone plays for the person next to him and eventually it wraps around to every one. It’s pretty simple according to Antonio Morrison.
“You see the film. They trying to double [Bullard]”, explains Morrison.“That’s why linebackers are making plays. That’s why you’ve got a good defense. That’s how it works.”
One play in particular (there are many but for time sakes lets look at one) that really showcases every facet of the defense working together is Keanu Neal’s interception in the endzone versus Georgia; a play which looked like a mad scramble and lots of luck at first glance, was thanks to so many guys doing their job for one another.
Georgia called play action and Marcus Maye was immediately there to greet it with a quarterback hurry. Faton Bauta, now with pressure, is forced to throw to the first open receiver he can find, Malcolm Mitchell, who was covered by Jalen Tabor. Tabor isn’t in position to make an interception so he knocks it away, right into the arms of Keanu Neal who had the wherewithal to turn back from his guy and make the play.
— Kassidy Hill (@KassidyGHill) November 2, 2015
That’s explaining it technique wise, and Jalen Tabor takes it a step further explaining it’s long-term personal benefits.
“Coach Collins, he always talks about play for one another,” says Tabor. “Last year, a lot of times a lot of the seniors were like, ‘I wanted to leave college. I’m done with it.’ It kind of showed on the field. But now that we’re playing for each other, we became more of a unit than we did in past years and I feel like that’s showing on the field.
When you see our Instagram, we’re posting other people. It’s crazy. I remember [Vernon] posted something and said thank you to Cali (McCalister) because of tips and overthrows…on one play [versus Georgia] they had a double move set up. But with our defensive line, they didn’t have time for double moves. You hit a double move, we’re so aggressive on the back end that he just tipped it and Vernon was right there and got the interception. Just playing together and playing for each other has done a lot for us this season.”
A whole lot as a matter of fact, as the Florida Gators rank 5th in the country in total defense and post a scoring defense that is best in the SEC.
The gist of all of this lies in Collins motto for his defense; it’s all about the ball.
Get the ball, put the ball down, just get the ball in whatever means necessary. It makes sense. The point of this whole game is to win and to win you need to score and to score you need the ball.
If it seems simplistic, well, it’s because it is. And in sort of an antithesis to the convoluted point system, this remains fairly easy to understand. Get the ball, win the game, and write it on the board.
It’s something Brian Poole is reminded of every time he lines up for a snap. As the opposing offense gets into position, so does Poole, always looking down first at the rubber bracelets on his arm. They’re connected to the board on the sideline, the backfield party and the brother next to him ready to do his job.
“Yea I see them, every time I get lined up I read them…it’s all about the ball, get the ball.”
Then that ball is snapped and 11 Florida Gators spring into action, racing to get it.