After Jachai Polite and Jonathan Greenard threatened school records for sacks and tackles-for-loss in 2018 and 2019, the expectation was that there would be a smooth transition at BUCK in 2020.
After all, former five-star prospect Brenton Cox transferred into Florida in the fall of 2019 and had been groomed to take over the position. He has everything you could want in a weakside defensive end/outside linebacker: length, strength, explosiveness and a hunger to prove people wrong after his career at Georgia ended just as it was getting started.
However, it didn’t play out that way. The transition from Greenard to Cox was anything but smooth. Cox recorded only four sacks in 2020 and wasn’t the dominant player that many expected him to be. While he’s extremely athletic, he didn’t display any great pass-rush moves or get off of blocks as well as anticipated.
He was a disaster against the run at times, as he too often went for the big play in the backfield and left his gap wide open for a cutback. He saw his playing time dwindle a bit in favor of Khris Bogle and Andrew Chatfield down the stretch.
If the defense is to improve this season, Cox will have to be a big part of the solution, as he’s once again expected to start at BUCK. Todd Grantham’s defensive scheme relies upon a dominant pass-rusher impairing the quarterback’s decision-making. Cox needs to become that all-around force. His teammates have liked what they’ve seen from him so far this spring.
“I see now [that] he’s paying more attention to the run,” Chatfield said. “At first, he used to be a little focused on the pass but just trying to make sure he’s an all-around player, make sure he’s trying to play the run and also get a nice pass rush at the same time.”
The Gators need Cox to step up his game away from the field as well. BUCK is a fairly inexperienced, albeit extremely talented, position on this team. Cox will be expected to provide leadership to players such as early enrollee Chief Borders, redshirt freshman Antwaun Powell and redshirt sophomore Lloyd Summerall.
You can check that box off, too, apparently.
“He’s more knowledgeable,” running back Nay’Quan Wright said. “He’s being that leader on the defense, coaching guys up. He’s becoming that all-around player. In practice, he gives us a little trouble. He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.”
Perhaps Cox’s commitment to expanding his skillset and his improving leadership qualities can be attributed to him becoming more comfortable at the position. He played a more traditional outside linebacker position as a freshman at Georgia before transitioning into what basically amounts to a glorified defensive end position at Florida.
Rushing the passer from the second level of the defense versus with your hand in the ground is a bit different. Also, as a linebacker, you’re taught to go get the ballcarrier and knock the ball loose if possible. At defensive end, your job is often to set the edge, funnel everything back inside and let the inside linebackers and safeties make the plays. It may have taken Cox a year to adapt that mindset.
“As a running back, we’re reading the D-Line each play,” Malik Davis said. “I’ve definitely seen him improve. Not just when making plays but knowing the game and understanding what’s going on. He knows what he’s doing. I definitely say he’s got a better understanding of what he’s doing out there.”
Now that he’s more comfortable in this defense, he’s able to communicate with his teammates in ways that he couldn’t before.
Whatever the reason is, the Gators are glad to have an improved Cox on their team this season.
“I’m seeing a lot of improvement from him,” linebacker Amari Burney said. “Like I said before, attention to detail. Not jumping offsides, not getting petty fouls, just taking your worst plays and moving them kind of up toward your great plays so that your worst plays aren’t really worst; they’re average, and then your great plays can still be great.”
Cox is the key to everything. If he plays at a Polite- or Greenard-like level this season, that’ll leave more one-on-one matchups for the rest of the D-Line, allow the defensive backs to be more aggressive and play more press coverage and reduce the amount of time opposing quarterbacks will have to exploit potential mismatches against the linebackers and safeties.
And then the narrative surrounding this defense will be totally different next spring.