It is just business as usual this week for Florida’s secondary coach Chuck Heater. It doesn’t matter that it will be a legendary passing genius in Steve Spurrier coaching on the other sideline this Saturday when the Gators face off against the South Carolina Gamecocks. To Heater, it’s just more of the same thing he sees every week.
South Carolina is going to throw the football, but that’s what every team has tried to do against the 8-1 Gators, who are ranked sixth nationally. Through nine games, opponents have launched 329 passes against the Gators, making Florida’s secondary the most picked on in the entire Southeastern Conference by a fairly wide margin. That’s an average of more than 37 passes per game. Opponents have completed 181 passes for 1,848 yards, an average of 205.3 yards per game.
“From a statistical standpoint, we get the ball thrown on us more than any team in the Southeastern Conference,” said Heater after practice Wednesday evening.
Just because teams throw more doesn’t mean they’re actually accomplishing a whole lot, however.
“We’re tenth in the country in pass defense efficiency which is a pretty good measure about how we’re really playing,” Heater said.
In terms of yardage allowed, the Gators are tenth in the SEC. The better measure of the defense is the opponent’s pass efficiency rating and that’s a paltry 99.69. What that means is that teams are forced to earn every single yard, every single completion against the Gators. The Gators are allowing only 5.6 yards per pass attempt, second best in the SEC. Florida has given up just six touchdown passes in nine games and the Florida secondary, led by junior Ryan Smith, has 14 interceptions.
Heater says the high number of pass attempts is a sign that the Gators are stuffing the run and making teams one-dimensional.
“It means we’re not perfect but we’re fifth in the country in rush defense (70.1 yards per game) which means people don’t think they can run it,” he said. “So they throw it and they throw it more than anybody in the conference.”
With the exception of the Auburn game, the Gators have made life fairly miserable for teams trying to run the football. The Gators are allowing only 2.65 yards per carry and opponents have made it into the end zone on the ground just four times all season.
Contributing mightily to Florida’s pass defense has been the ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks with the front four. The Gators haven’t had to do much blitzing this season. Of the Gators’ 26 sacks (for 181 yards in losses), only five have come from someone other than a defensive lineman. Defensive end Derrick Harvey leads the SEC in sacks with eight.
Getting pressure without blitzing has allowed the Gators to drop linebackers into pass coverage and that’s helped Heater’s corners, who are neither the biggest or the most experienced. Smith (5-10, 165), Reggie Lewis (5-10, 190) and Tremaine McCollum (5-9, 180) are the top three corners. Lewis is a converted wide receiver who played corner for the first time last year. Smith is a Utah transfer while most of McCollum’s action prior to this year was on special teams where he and his twin brother Jermaine are demons on the punt block teams.
To compensate for some of the size deficiencies and the lack of experience, Heater has been able to mix up the coverage on a regular basis. The Gators probably play as much zone as they do man coverage.
“You put a corner out there all by himself all day long and the very best corner in the world will have a tough time,” he said.
So it is a mixture of zone and man coverage that Florida will throw at Spurrier and his South Carolina passing game. The Gamecocks have big, physical receivers led by Sidney Rice, a 6-4, 200-pounder that Coach Urban Meyer calls the best wide receiver in the SEC.
Heater understands the matchup problems in terms of size, but he still thinks his guys can make plays.
“If there’s a jump ball situation like you’re playing basketball, the 6-4 guy is going to probably win most of the time over the 5-10 guy,” said Heater. “That’s the reality we lie in. There’s not many 6-4 corners running around. Corners as a rule are 5-10, 5-11, so you get a 6-0 corner and you’re living large. We’re always physically from a height standpoint not at a great advantage and sometimes that shows up but it doesn’t mean you can’t make a play.”
He knows he’s asking a lot of his corners Saturday, but it’s nothing more than he’s been asking them from the first game of the season.
“We’ve hung in there,” he said. “We’ve done a good job. Every week’s a challenge and this will be as big a challenge as we’ve had all year.”
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Meyer said his offensive linemen are still pretty dinged up but he expects they’ll be ready to go Saturday.
“Guys are still dinged up and we aren’t 100 percent yet but we have three days to get them right,” he said. “Rissler is a tough guy battling. Drew Miller and Jim Tartt are still banged up a little bit. They’re battling but they’ll be ready for Saturday.”
Middle linebacker Brandon Siler is battling through a sprained ankle this week and Lewis had ice on his leg when he left practice although Meyer said that’s nothing major. Wide receiver Percy Harvin, Meyer said, isn’t 100 percent right now but will be by week’s end.
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With all the concern about South Carolina’s passing game, the Gamecocks’ running game is often overlooked. Tailback Cory Boyd has 507 yards rushing while quarterback Syvelle Newton has 300 and backup tailback Mike Davis has 265.
Meyer says the Gamecocks present so many problems with their receivers that you have to devote defensive personnel to stopping the pass which opens up the running game.
“Their receivers present matchup issues and then you have to double and pull guys out of the box and you’re a gap short in the run game,” he said. “That’s part of their game plan.”
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No decision has been made whether or not to burn the redshirt on 6-5, 270-pound freshman defensive lineman Lawrence Marsh. Meyer said that at this point “probably not but he’s out there getting ready and he’s practicing every day.”
Meyer said the greatest issue is that Marsh isn’t quite yet ready to play, but the coach added “we have five games left and there’s a chance he will be. We’re getting him ready, though.”
Asked if the Gators are thin at the tackle position, Meyer said that on both the offensive and defensive lines the Gators are “about as thin as you can be.”