Dan Mullen had a chance to blow up the entire defense after last season’s fiasco and start over from scratch. He could’ve fired most or all of the defensive coaching staff and brought in a slew of transfers to infuse more talent into the defense.
Instead, Mullen exercised incredible patience and trust, much to the dismay of a ton of Gators fans. He retained defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and only replaced the two secondary coaches. A pair of defensive tackles were the only significant additions to the unit via the transfer portal.
With the offense expected to come back down to earth at least a little bit this season, the Gators need the defense to carry their share of the weight this season. If they are to pull off this incredible bounce-back season, they’re going to have to do it with mostly the same core group of players and the same man calling the shots.
While fans look at Grantham as public enemy No. 1 (Or is that offensive line coach John Hevesy? It’s hard to keep track these days), Mullen wouldn’t even admit that the defense was bad last season at SEC Media Days on Monday. Instead, he believes they were an “erratic” defense with correctable flaws. He didn’t view Grantham’s scheme as being the reason for one of the worst statistical seasons in program history.
Mullen thinks they played well in some games last season even though the stats didn’t reflect that. Because the Gators’ offense was so high-powered, opponents were forced to get aggressive from the opening play of the game, which led to more big plays than usual. UF’s ability to strike quickly also led to more possessions for opposing offenses and less rest for their defense, which led to more yards and points.
“There’s other games, one or two early in the year, I certainly think the learning curve of missing spring practice and the time off and the speed of the game of going to tackle live for the players and the time off of not being able to do that, I think that showed early in the season,” he said. “And that improved as the year went on.
“When I look and I go through game-by-game situations, I think it’s easy to identify ‘In this game, here were our issues,’ and it wasn’t one specific thing.”
Defensive lineman Zachary Carter said a lack of cohesion was one of the main culprits last season. Growing tighter as a group, on and off the field, was a huge point of emphasis this spring.
It seemed to work, as the defense got the best of the offense in all three scrimmages in the spring.
“I think the biggest thing about a unit is being close off the field, and I think guys started to come together more, and you could see like the cohesiveness on the field, honestly,” Carter said. “We knew we had some things to work on this year on defense, definitely, and I think spring was a great step forward. Defense looked pretty good this spring.
“It’s really how we attack the day, and it’s really how we go out there and handle our business and practice. Guys paying close attention to small details. The margin of error is very small, and we’ve been working on that this offseason.”
Mullen also likes the leadership and attitude he’s seen from the veteran players. They’ve held their younger teammates accountable and demanded excellence out of everyone. That leadership has proved especially beneficial in the secondary, which features nine true freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
“Really, to me, the attitude of where our defense is at is what I’m really pleased with,” Mullen said. “We play a lot of guys defensively, roll guys through to keep them fresh and healthy, and I’m really excited of the mindset, the attitude that the defense as a whole is bringing to the table and leadership that they have within our program.”
Carter and linebacker Ventrell Miller have emerged as the two biggest leaders on the defense, and Mullen rewarded them by bringing them with him to Media Days.
Carter said the defense knows they underperformed last year, and it’s on the older guys to reestablish a winning culture and elevate the play of everyone around them.
“It starts on an everyday basis, just creating that culture that we got to do what we got to do to get it done,” he said. “We know last year where we left off is not where we want to be, so we had to raise the bar this whole season, this whole offseason, starting in the spring. I think me and Ventrell have done a pretty good job of doing that.”
Mullen gave his players and Grantham a giant vote of confidence by mostly standing pat on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. He believes that the ingredients to an elite defense are already in the defensive meeting room.
Miller said the players are determined to prove that last year was merely an aberration.
“[We’re] definitely coming in with a chip on our shoulder, got something to prove,” he said. “We’ve just been working towards that, and like [Carter] said, it’s going to be whoever’s getting in our way [that’s] got to pay.”