ORLANDO — The Florida Gators needed an overhaul, that was apparent and it’s what Jim McElwain was brought to Gainesville to do. An offensive mind, McElwain was brought in to fix an offense that had sputtered and due to the state of the offense, McElwain was afforded some leeway in how he’ll be judged this first season.
The same cannot be said of defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
The 44-year old coach had spent the previous four years at Mississippi State, first as Co-Defensive coordinator and then as the defensive coordinator on his own. His defense in 2014 led the SEC in red zone efficiency, allowing opponents to score on just 63.64 percent of the times they reached the red area. Mississippi State’s defense was also third in the league with a stingy 34.95% third down conversion rate for their opponents. Collins is young, but he had shown promise as a coordinator and McElwain took a shot on him, making him the first hire for Florida’s first year head coach.
If Florida’s offense was a beat up used car that needed a new transmission the defense was a pristine 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder that Cameron Frye’s dad loved more than his son in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off and Collins was given the keys. It’s pretty, fast and powerful and Collins was responsible for keeping that baby humming. Collins walked into a room loaded with All-Americans, All-SEC players and young guys hungry to prove themselves.
“You know, to these guys’ credit, they bought in,” Collins said. “We said that, you know, we chose you. Jon [Bullard] didn’t necessarily choose us. But the way their mindset was, the way their attitude was, you saw that improvement across the board and, you know, kept us as an elite defense.”
Florida had a group of solid veteran leaders in the defensive meeting room. Getting Jon Bullard back was a huge first step. He along with Vernon Hargreaves, Brian Poole and Antonio Morrison provided the leadership that Florida needed. Collins first job was winning them over. For the seniors and guys like Hargreaves who were destined for the NFL even before the season began, Collins was a rent-a-coach. They’d play for him this season and then move on to the next chapter of their life.
“I think a lot of coaches come in and say we’ve got to break this guy or a big name like me at the time try to show that they’ve got power, and they didn’t do that,” Bullard said of Collins. “They got everybody to buy in. And I bought in early so I could get some of the young guys to do it and I think that’s where some of our success came from.”
Collins is energetic, listens to the same music that a lot of his players do and he relates well to them. His youth and energy was appealing, but what really sold the team was his ability to adjust what he had done in the past and change some of the things he knew in order to make things easier on the players.
“His flexibility to say, ‘Oh, this is how you call it, let’s keep it that way. I’ll learn it.’ I think sometimes coaches might be the most inflexible people there are,” Jim McElwain said of Collins. “Everybody’s nomenclature is all over the board, right. So you learn one thing and rather than you learning something, you force 60 other people to learn what you know.”
In his first year Collins biggest and most important decision was just that. Florida had a good thing going on defense and if it ain’t broke there’s no sense in taking it apart and trying to fix it. The Gators led the SEC with 25 turnovers, were second in the league in sacks (40) and third with 68 passes defended.
“It all starts with the players,” Collins said. “The thing that I tell them almost before every game, we’re going to make some good calls; we’re going to make some bad calls. But the magic is in our players.”
The magic may be in the players, and Florida has an embarrassment of riches on the defensive side of the ball, but the coach that pulled them all in together and got the seniors to buy in and the underclassmen to play with an added sense of urgency and intensity deserves some credit to.
Like Ferris and Cameron, Collins took the car out and red lined it, but he may have brought it back in better condition than when he first got the keys.