Florida defense’s versatility is an asset in 2020

Playing football in a pandemic is no one’s first option, but here we are. And if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing as well as possible.

Players may be held out of a game or two merely from being near someone who has caught COVID-19, without even catching it themselves. There could be almost no warning too if players come up positive on their final pregame test.

Much has been said already, including by me back in March, about how Florida is in good shape for a disrupted season. Nearly the entire coaching staff returns, including the head coach and all coordinators, and the Gators return their starting quarterback. Few opponents on UF’s schedule can boast the same.

The relative continuity on offense has been the primary focus in this regard, which is not surprising given that everything with Florida football starts with offense. The receivers had a lot of turnover, but three upperclassmen still return. The offensive line brings back all but one starter and got a shot in the arm from grad transfer Stewart Reese.

However, don’t overlook some of the advantages Todd Grantham’s defense has this year.

There were some key departures in Jonathan Greenard, David Reese II, and CJ Henderson. Those were some big time players who are now in the pro ranks.

UF has a couple of drop-in replacements with Brenton Cox for Greenard and Kaiir Elam for Henderson. Reese is harder to replace straight-up, though Ventrell Miller has been getting some high praise in fall camp.

Beyond just replacing the NFL exits, the defense has a lot going for it. In particular, Grantham and staff have been recruiting versatile players and getting lots of guys on the field.

I don’t think it fully hit me just how stacked the defense is with these kinds of hybrid players until I was reading through notes from Grantham’s press conference earlier this week. The Gators’ DC praised David Reese — the 2018 signee, not the one who graduated — for getting stronger and being able to set the edge against the run.

Now, I’m old enough to remember the surprise when the ’18 roster came out and Reese was listed as a defensive back. He’d been a linebacker in all the recruiting coverage, but at 6’0″ and 221 pounds, he had “DB” in his position column. For a guy of that size to run well enough to play in the backfield is impressive athleticism indeed.

Reese was back to the linebacker spot, and apparently grew three inches while losing a pound, on the 2019 roster. We didn’t get to see him at linebacker because he missed the season to injury, and presumably he’ll get a linebacker designation if the team ever releases a 2020 roster. Grantham mentioned, though, that Reese doesn’t have a true position quite yet.

Imagine what kind of wizardry Nick Savage is performing, with a load of hard work on Reese’s part, that a guy who was able to be listed as a defensive back two years ago is getting praise for setting the edge against runs now. That’s the work of a defensive end, usually, or maybe a pass rushing outside linebacker in a pinch. It requires going up against tight ends and offensive tackles and pushing them around instead of having them seal off the edge for a ball carrier.

If Grantham’s not sure of Reese’s true position, then I sure can’t be either. However based on the description, you can imagine him appearing anywhere from a weakside linebacker near the line of scrimmage to the star position against a heavier offensive set. I’m not aware of any practice reports that pin down where he’s been playing, but there are plenty of options with a guy who’s that versatile.

And so it goes across the defense. Grantham is high on Cox, who can play both Buck and strongside defensive end. Khris Bogle, despite looking lean as a string bean last year, was able to hold his own in setting the edge too. He’ll probably play both sides of the defensive line as well. Zach Carter can go inside and outside on the line. Mohamoud Diabate was a promising Buck last year and will play some at middle linebacker. Amari Burney has played both star and linebacker. Marco Wilson, who Grantham tabbed as the most versatile player he’s ever coached, can play outside corner and nickel.

Want more? Nick and Andrew discussed some newer developments on this week’s Gator Country podcast. Nick mentioned that Brad Stewart is getting some time at star. Andrew likened Ty’Ron Hopper to a safety playing linebacker because — hallelujah — he has good pass coverage skills from the middle tier of the defense.

When the defense is full strength, these guys will give Grantham the ability to do a lot of different things without having to substitute. It’ll make it hard for opposing offenses to hit them with a mismatch.

But when the defense is not full strength, which almost certainly will happen at some point this year, it gives the team a lot of contingencies. The long rotations from the last two years will pay off because there will probably be someone with meaningful game experience ready to step in, and a good number of players will be able to perform more than one role.

The teams with the best records in 2020 will be the ones best able to adapt on the fly. Florida’s defense has been working toward that ideal for years anyway, and it could very well pay off in a big way this fall.

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