Gators defense striving to be elite

Every single offseason the questions swirl as the Florida Gators send players to the NFL Draft. There’s no way they can replace them. This will be the season that the Gators’ defense takes a step back.

This offseason was the departures of Jachai Polite and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson that highlighted but this has become an every-year occurrence in Gainesville. When one group of highly-touted, highly productive group leaves for the NFL or through graduation there are questions that get answered by the next group of highly-touted and talented players that have just been waiting for their chance.

This season the Gators have given up just 44 points through four games and just seven in the fourth quarter. Florida hasn’t allowed an opponent to score in the fourth quarter since the opening weekend of the season more than a month ago.

To make the number even more impressive the Gators’ offense has been kind to opposing defenses turning the ball over nine times. The defense has had their back, though, allowing just 10 points off of turnovers all season.

Currently, the Gators are tied for first in the nation in sacks (20) and lead the SEC in tackles for a loss (33), interceptions (7) and redzone defense (50.00%).

Not to mention the Gators have been doing all of this without their lone first-team All-SEC selection in CJ Henderson (ankle) and their returning sack getting in Jabari Zuniga (ankle). Henderson missed the entirety of the Kentucky and Tennessee games, while Zuniga missed most of the Kentucky game after hurting his ankle on the first drive and missed all of the Tennessee game. Florida has also been without Elijah Conliffe (season-ending surgery) and Amari Burney for an extended period of time. Basically, they’ve been playing with less than a full deck and playing at a very high level.

But not elite, yet.

“Overall, I’ve been pleased with our progress and what we’ve done,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said on Wednesday night. “We’ve got to continue to work and improve. Really, it’s about us getting better every week to play to our standard.”

Right now the only glaring statistic against Florida’s defense is their 3rd down defense. The Gators are 56th in the country and 9th in the SEC allowing opposing offense to convert on 34.55% of their 3rd down attempts. That’s not terrible by any means but there have been stretches in games where the Gators struggled to get off the field. They’re exceptional in the redzone, but could be helping the offense even more by getting them the ball back quicker.

“Getting off the field on third down, making smart plays, understanding situationals, just making sure we get off the field, knowing where the sticks are, keeping contain on the quarterback, just little smart details that make us that elite defense that we want to be,” Jon Greenard said after the Tennessee game.

It may be a higher bar that the players and the coaching staff are holding themselves to but that’s what separates good from great, great from exceptional and exceptional from elite. There is no complacency in the defensive meeting rooms or on the practice field. The coaching staff won’t allow it because they see how much talent there is on the field and the players are starting to see it as well.

“The crazy part is we’re only scratching the surface of what we really can do,” Greenard said. “I’m excited about where we are right now. It’s still somewhat early, midway through the season. It’s not our best performance. We’ve got a lot of things to work on still. That’s not our best performance. It was a greater performance than what we did and we had some pretty good numbers, but I just know what we’re capable of and what we can do.”

If this is just the surface of what the defense is capable of then you can go ahead and put every offense in the SEC on notice.

Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC