Assessing what Florida has at defense in 2020 after three games

At time of publish, Florida’s football activities are halted due to a burst of COVID-19 positive tests. I certainly hope everyone returns to full health soon and that at least some number of them were false positives.

For the moment with the future unclear, the only thing we can do still is look backwards. I was hoping to be able to do a feature on the Florida offense after a win over Texas A&M, but here I am writing about defensive issues after a loss. Alas.

Because everyone likes lists and the Rule of Three, here are the top trio of reasons why I think the Gator defense struggled mightily in College Station. There are more than just three things going on, but you and I both have only so many hours in the day to write and read about football.

The Aggie offense played well

You may have wondered a few weeks ago why Kellen Mond made second team preseason All-SEC and was being cited as a reason for optimism for Texas A&M to be a challenger in the West. Hasn’t he always been inconsistent?

Well, now you know. He’ll do that to a P5 opponent about twice a year. Sometimes it’s against a suitably mediocre outfit like Mississippi State last year, but sometimes it’ll be against Clemson two years ago. That was the Clemson team that blew out Alabama in the national title game.

Not that this year’s UF team has a defense of the caliber that those Tigers did, but he always has a game like that in him. The preseason prognosticators just thought they’d see it more now that Mond is officially a fourth-year starter.

Mond was sharp and decisive, frequently placing passes in tight windows where only his guy could get it. I know you think of Marco Wilson as having a bad game, but he frequently was right on a receiver. Mond just put it into an impossible spot for Wilson.

Wilson also found himself covering the 6-5 Caleb Chapman a lot, and once after a rotation on a blitz, the 6-5, 265-pound Jalen Wydermyer. The whole reason you recruit targets that big is for them to catch passes over smaller defensive backs like Wilson. True to that strategy, Mond placed the ball for them in spots where their size negated the otherwise tight coverage of Wilson or Jaydon Hill.

There were a couple balls where Wilson was a half-second late on trying to break up the pass. He was not physically incapable of making those plays, and he did have a bad game by his own standard of expectations.

But there is a difference between being a half-second late on a PBU attempt and a bust (though he was not without busts). Mond was so good with his passing most of the day that there was zero margin for error for the UF defensive backs.

Now, watch as Mond uncorks a 130 passing efficiency against Mississippi State like he did in the opener against Vandy. If you think you’ll be frustrated by that, imagine Aggie fans who are now in their fourth year of this.

Low pressure situations

One reason why Mond was able to play so well was that he rarely had defenders in his face. He did a number of quick passes where rushers would never have gotten to him anyway, but Florida almost never got through the tough Aggie offensive line.

Minus Kyree Campbell, UF’s defensive front just isn’t that good. Zachary Carter is playing out of position inside, the Buck ends aren’t terrific at run defense outside maybe Khris Bogle (who missed the game), and opponents just double-team Tedarrell Slaton anytime they really need the protection or rushing yards.

Florida’s apparent solution was to send defensive backs on blitzes. Quite often though, they were blitzing from very far away. It takes a couple of seconds to run from the numbers to the hash at pocket depth, but that was one of the shorter blitzes they regularly tried.

The Gators kept doing them so much despite their ineffectiveness that I wonder if they weren’t about getting sacks or hurries but rather Mond’s mobility. He’s a better runner than Matt Corral is, and you remember the opener. In the event the defensive front flushed Mond from the pocket, it’d be handy to have another guy around to make sure a scramble doesn’t pick up cheap yardage.

It’s just hypothetical speculation, though. The rushers and blitzes basically never got to Mond, so we’ll never really know unless a coach or player tells us.

Personnel conundrums

Carter is not the only guy playing a position he wasn’t recruited to. Because Carter has to move inside, Brenton Cox is playing a lot of strongside defensive end. While fellow Buck transfer Jonathan Greenard was able to play plenty of end well, Cox just isn’t yet. He’s not as consistently physical in run support.

Amari Burney was recruited to play star. He’s moved up to the non-Buck outside linebacker spot, where he often looks like a defensive back trying to play linebacker. For instance, he’s still not always good at getting off of blocks in run support.

Mohamoud Diabate is Burney’s backup. He played Buck last year but is a bit small for it, so he’s moved back a level. He could’ve used spring to learn the position, but Florida didn’t get spring practice. He’s doing his best but is far from polished. Former tight end Dante Lang is playing defensive end for the first time since high school. He too could’ve used the spring to get back up to speed.

Continuity and versatility were supposed to be strengths for this team. Believe me, I wrote pieces about both of those.

It looks a little different in the cold light of reality. There wasn’t as much continuity as we thought on defense with so many old faces in new places. There’s also a fine line between versatility and being a tweener without a real position. Too many players cannot find their way to the good side of that line.

The defense had some bad plays that were just a consequence of poor execution and effort. Those can get fixed by hammering fundamentals and trying harder.

Campbell returning to the middle of the defensive line would help a lot. Him taking over at tackle would allow Carter to play outside and Cox to play Buck. That’s pretty clear-cut.

What is less so is what to do about other personnel issues. Burney could move back to star, but has he lost some quickness and speed in bulking up to play linebacker? Him moving back would allow Brad Stewart to play safety and fix some problems there, but are the coaches willing to flush the time they spent in fall camp training Stewart at star? Could Diabate play some Buck against offensive tackles that weekly film study identify as slow? What is David Reese’s actual position?

Florida didn’t do a great job of recruiting the front seven outside of the Buck position across the 2018 and 2019 classes. Those chickens are coming home to roost with a defensive front that is thin, light, and too often tentative. And while the defensive backs aren’t playing at the top of their ability, it would help them out a lot to have the opposing quarterback sweat a little from time to time.

Some things can get better. Others are what they are. It’s up to the guys being paid an awful lot of money to coach defense to figure out which is which and deliver better results.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2