Last week, I discussed how the Gators’ offense needs to get better at generating explosive plays in their second year under Dan Mullen. The other side of the coin is true: the defense needs to get better in the explosiveness category in the second year under Todd Grantham.
I can hear Georgia and Louisville fans saying “Third and Grantham” as I write this, but let’s look at the big picture first. According to Bill Connelly’s two main measures of explosiveness, UF was 68th and 73rd in the country in explosive play defense. With 130 teams and half of that number being 65, the Gators were slightly below average in the category.
It actually is worth noting again that Florida was in the first year under a new defensive coordinator and scheme. One of my favorite things I noticed last season was that the Gators didn’t give up a red zone touchdown until the fourth week of the season against Tennessee. They allowed a 22-yard touchdown run in garbage time to Charleston Southern, a meaningless 48-yard touchdown pass to Colorado State, and scores of 29, 24, and 54 yards to Kentucky. UK never actually made into the red zone at all; the Wildcats either were stopped short or scored before they got there.
Early-season struggles in a new scheme are to be expected unless a team has an abundance of talent, which, thanks to some iffy and uneven defensive recruiting under the previous coaching staff, Florida did not have. You can really see it, again, in the Kentucky game. Connelly’s advanced stats box score shows the Wildcats having an above average day in explosiveness, whereas their season-long rankings in the explosiveness categories were in the triple digits nationally.
Late in the season, there weren’t any repeats of the Kentucky debacle. Georgia and South Carolina had great success in explosiveness on passing downs, which are defined as 2nd & 8 or more and 3rd or 4th & 5 or more, but those offenses were top 20 in the country in generating big plays in those situations.
FSU couldn’t score except for two drives with explosive plays; their first touchdown drive closed with plays of 11, 14, 25, and 15 yards, while the second had 68 of 75 yards come on just two plays. However, explosive plays were about the only way the Seminoles could move the ball given their atrocious offensive line, so the offense by the end was geared around high risk, high reward plays. They were 11th and 24th in the two explosiveness metrics, so they were going to hit on some at some point.
Now, it is true that the Gators were not great on third and long. The defense was 84th by allowing conversions on 26.2% of 3rd & 7 or longer situations. It also was 76th by allowing conversions on 49.3% in third-and-medium situations. It was only in third-and-short that the defense had real success, and it clocked in at sixth nationally at 57.1% conversions allowed.
Two of Kentucky’s touchdowns came in long yardage situations, one on 2nd & 16 and another on 3rd & 16. The former was a bit of a busted play, though, with quarterback Terry Wilson improvising after being flushed from the pocket. In any event, the Gators rushed only four guys on each of those plays. They weren’t classic “Third and Grantham” situations where the offense burned a blitzing defense.
When FSU had four straight plays of 11+ to score, the defense rushed four on the first three of them. It wasn’t until the fourth that Grantham sent six, but the score came when Cam Akers beat Jeawon Taylor one-on-one and made an improbable leaping one-handed catch. On the other scoring drive, Grantham sent five on the first big play but Tamorrion Terry simply beat a safety (Donovan Stiner) on a sideline 50-50 jump ball. On the other, the four rushers collapsed the pocket but the other seven defenders had dropped far enough back that Deondre Francois had room to scramble a long way after juking Vosean Joseph. Again, these breakdowns weren’t a matter of ill-advised blitzes.
Some of the issues with allowing long passing plays should go away with the return of Marco Wilson. Things were dicey across from CJ Henderson at times with either a true freshman Trey Dean or a career backup CJ McWilliams allowing some big completions. Wilson is a big upgrade over either of those, and Dean will be a lot better in 2019, likely in the star position, thanks to all the snaps he learned on from last year.
The long rushing gains don’t have as clear a solution. The interior of the defensive line could get beat in 2018, but there’s not an obvious guy who’s going to step up and solve the problem. There are just the same ones as last year, and we’re still waiting on any of them to become dominant. The linebackers took bad angles at times too, and while Joseph and his bad overpursuing habit are gone, there is no one proven to replace him. The safeties need to get a lot better in run support too, but maybe the lumps they took last fall will result in stronger play like what we can expect from Dean.
I’ll close by going back to some of the explanations I was giving earlier. Georgia, South Carolina, and FSU had explosive success versus Florida in the same way they did against everyone. It was understandable that UF gave up big plays to those teams in those situations. To take a step forward in 2019, it needs to work the other way and become understandable that teams fail to hit their explosive rates against the Gators.