Defense can carry the Florida Gators in 2016

We are still stuck in the hot doldrums of the summer and the barren landscape that July and early August is for the college sports fan. With over a month left before football practice starts up fans really want to hear as little news as possible, because most news at this time of the year is bad news. I went over last week what I thought of the Florida Gators offense going into the 2016 season and we all know that the success or lack thereof of the offense will likely define the season but Florida needs the defense to avoid any regression as well. As long as the defense remains the strength it has been for years, any improvement in the offense will go a long way.

The Gators lost a lot of talent to the NFL from last season’s intimidating defense. Gone are Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Keanu Neal, Alex McCalister and Vernon Hargreaves III. Also gone is dependable backup Brian Poole. Florida avoided a much more serious scenario when linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Marcus Maye chose not to enter the NFL draft and return for their senior seasons. If both had opted to move on the Gators would be woefully thin at both positions. As it is, there is still some depth concerns at defensive back and linebacker.

There is also a lot of returning talent on the defensive side of the ball for Florida. There is plenty of depth along the defensive line. Jordan Sherit and Bryan Cox JR should provide a good pass rush from the outside while CeCe Jefferson can play both inside and out. Caleb Brantley, Taven Bryan, Joey Ivie and Khairi Clark all have game experience on the inside with Brantley looking like a star. The Gators can look for contributions from a list that includes Jabari Zuniga, Keivonnis Davis, Thomas Holley, Andrew Ivie and Luke Ancrum. Defensive lines are what make the SEC the best conference in college football and the Gators promise to field one of if not “the” best defensive line in the SEC in 2016.

The linebacker unit is talented but a little thin. The importance of Jarrad Davis deciding to stay cannot be overstated. After that it becomes important for Matt Rolin and Alex Anzalone to stay healthy for a change. David Reese and Daniel McMillian will be counted on for depth and at least one of the other youngsters will need to step. The Gators desperately need some luck when it comes to the health of this unit in 2016. But the talent is there and things can be done to cover for depth issues if injuries do occur. Again, it is hard to imagine what this unit would be without Jarrad Davis. Gator fans need to remember that little piece of fortune if this season goes well.

And then there is the secondary. Vernon Hargreaves III is one of the best cornerbacks to ever come through Gainesville but as hard as it is to imagine he may have been the third best corner in the Gator defensive backfield last season. Jalen Tabor was an absolute beast in coverage and Quincy Wilson showed signs of greatness. Tabor will almost certainly be a first round pick in the next NFL draft and I will be surprised if Wilson doesn’t play his way into a first round pick as well. So the two starting corner spots are well manned. The problem is when you get past the starters. Hopefully Duke Dawson can step up. Newcomers like Chris Williamson, McArthur Burnett, Chauncey Gardner and Joseph Putu will need to provide depth at corner. As for safety, the return of Marcus Maye is just as important as the return of Jarrad Davis is to the linebacker unit. Marcell Harris and Nick Washington will need to improve this year. Gardner will likely see some time at safety as well. Secondary depth must be developed, even more so because the Gators may be forced to use five DBs a good bit if injuries strike the linebacker corp.

While there are some depth concerns, this Gator defense is quite capable of being dominant. I recently saw an ESPN piece naming the top five defensive front seven units in the nation. Florida was ranked number one. Add that to a starting secondary with three future high NFL draft picks and it is easy to get excited about the Gators’ 2016 defense. Barring injury issues, this should be one of the best defenses in all of college football this season. So what does that mean for Florida’s season?

It means this: if the offense can be consistently effective, not necessarily outstanding just effective, this team could easily make it back to Atlanta in December and maybe even beyond. An expected great improvement of the kicking game should make the offensive play-calling more versatile. Sustained drives, fewer 3 and outs and even moderate points per game should prove enough to win a lot of football games this fall. If the defense can lead the way.