With the end of spring football, we now wait…and wait…and wait. While the Florida Gators football team is taking a much break from football and school, we have to sit around and pontificate the next season. How will the Jim McElwain’s team do in year two? How will the quarterback situation play out? How will the offensive line improve? Will the Gators make it back to Atlanta? Will the Gators wear any jersey combinations that pit Gen-X vs. Millennials? Will Jim McElwain ever wear socks? Was Torrian Gray named after Dorian Gray?
But the most important question, I think, is how do the Gators replace their offensive and defensive players that have moved onto the NFL, graduated, transferred, or left the program?
With the turn-style change of players that is college football, we are forced to ask this question every year – with each year and it’s potential player change being more or less impactful.
This week, we are going to look at the defensive side of the ball.
Fresh off five picks in the NFL Draft on defense, including two first rounders, the Gators have A LOT of production to replace.
With the loss eight players that record tackles last season, the Gators lost 40.9% of all tackles on the season, including their two leading tacklers Keanu Neal (73.5 tackles, 10.2% of team total) and Antonio Morris (72.5 tackles, 10.0% of team total), while also losing leading tackler five (Jon Bullard) and six (Brian Poole).
But when talking defensive production, the Gators may not be completely lost. Juniors Jarrad Davis and Marcus Maye, ranked third and fourth on the team respectively, while Bryan Cox Jr., Jalen Tabor, and CeCe Jefferson round out the rest of the top-10, meaning five of the top-10 tacklers return.
For you visual learners, here are the returning tacklers for the Gators.
Obviously, with the loss of Morrison and Neal, I expect Maye and a combination of Davis and Anzalone to pick up their tackles at safety and middle linebacker (in a 4-3 or 3-4). Replacing Bullard at defensive tackle, will be more difficult from a strategic standpoint but expect CeCe Jefferson to move more inside, while also looking at Caleb Brantley and Khairi Clark to play more.
Of course, tackles are going to happen, so this is really the least important to stat to talk about, but thought it was worth looking at.
Tackles for Loss
The Gators get hit again in tackles for loss, with 48.2% of their tackles for loss leaving the program – 48 tackles for loss out of a total of 99.5. Jon Bullard (17.5) and Antonio Morrison (12) were the two leaders, but the next two, Davis (11) and Cox (10.5), stay with the program, while Jefferson, Brantley, Tabor, and Ivie (6th, 7th, 8th, 9th) also return.
Similar to the tackles category, look for the same names to pop-up in replacement – Jefferson, Cox, Brantley, and Ivie to accrue more in place of Bullard and McCalister (5th on the team); Anzalone, Rolin, and Davis to replace Morrison’s tackles, and Maye, Nick Washington, and whom other else plays safety, to replace Keanu Neal (10th on the team).
However, it’s probably not that simple. Part of the reason Cox, Jefferson, Brantley, and Ivie were so successful, was because of Bullard’s presence. Bullard was often double teamed by offensive lines, opening up more opportunities to make plays, which begs the question: will any of those players warrant similar schemes from opposing teams? The safest bet would be Caleb Brantley, who has shown a penchant for wreaking havoc, but has never been able to do it over the course of a full season.
If Brantley is able to take on the double team, could a mixture of Davis, Cox, Jefferson, and Ivie be more productive than Bullard, Morrison, and McCalister?
Also, how does the loss of Hargreaves as the top cornerback, change Jalen Tabor’s role? Tabor had three more tackles for loss than Hargreaves and also had more total tackles. Will his move to CB1 change his role and have him in more of a lockdown, island-type role and allow Quincy Wilson, Chris Williamson Joseph Putu, or any other cornerback to blitz or aid in more run support than Tabor?
A logical next category to look at would be sacks, simply because it is the exact same scenario as tackles for loss.
Again, the Gators lose over 48% of their production from last year, including Jon Bullard and Alex McCalister who combined for 13 total sacks (of a total 38.5 total sacks). Fortunately for the Gators, their replacements CeCe Jefferson, 3.5 or Bryan Cox, Jr., 3.5; and Joey Ivie, 3.5, or Caleb Brantley, 3, all had very productive seasons last year and will likely plug right into their roles. Those four combined for 14 total sacks playing second fiddle.
Other loses only combined for five total sacks, including 2.5 from Antonio Morrison and only .5 from the defensive backfield. The Gators return their leading linebacker sacker – Davis, 3.5 and leading defensive back sack – Jalen Tabor, 1.
The Gators ranked fifth in the country in sacks last year under defensive line coach Chris Rumph and look poised to do just as well this upcoming season. Add in freshman Antonneous Clayton, redshirt freshman Jabari Zuniga, and up and coming players like Keivonnis Davis, and the Gators could out-produce the defensive of last season.
The biggest advantage to me is experience. Jarrad Davis, Bryan Cox, Joey Ivie, Jordan Sherit, and Caleb Brantley are all in their fourth or fifth year of in their program and will all see significant playing time, while Jefferson could be the Gators most elite pass rusher and will be entering his second season.
Interceptions and Pass Break-Ups
The Gators produced two first rounders in their case to keep the illustrious title of “DBU” with Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal. While the loss of both players is big from a talent standpoint, from a statistical standpoint the Gators still look pretty good.
The Gators only lost four interceptions between Hargreaves (4) and Neal (1), but their presence was more represented in a lack of throwing their direction. However, the Gators do return Jalen Tabor, who was tied with Vernon Hargreaves last season, All-American Marcus Maye, rising junior Quincy Wilson, and Jarrad Davis.
The Gators ranked 33rd in the country in interceptions last season, but resulted in only one interception per 32 passes, among the more pedestrian rates in college football.
But don’t take that the wrong way, the Gators still did very good in pass defense. They had the 17th lowest QB passing rating against them; 13th fewest yards per game allowed; and 27th lowest completion percentage.
The Gators should be able to produce a similar number of interceptions this season if they can stay healthy.
Similar numbers and for pass break-ups, which you will see below.
Jalen Tabor led the team in pass break-ups last year, primarily because he was targeted more than Vernon Hargreaves and had more opportunities.
Again, if the Florida Gators can stay healthy you should see #DBU flourish.