This should be the toughest test of the season for UF’s rebuilt secondary. As usual, Alabama’s wide receiving corps is loaded with former five-star recruits and future high draft picks. They’ve got Bryce Young, the No. 2 overall recruit in the class of 2020, throwing them the ball.
That would be a tough matchup for any secondary, but it’s even scarier considering that the Gators have 14 defensive backs who are in their first or second years as Gators and have struggled to defend the pass since the beginning of the 2020 season.
“[Young’s] a very talented guy,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He can make all the throws. He has the ability to throw it from the far hash, does a really good job of keeping his eyes down the field on the routes as they continue to develop, and he doesn’t really look at the rush. That really doesn’t affect him that way.
“He doesn’t necessarily maybe look to scramble to run, as opposed to scramble to extend the play to get the ball down the field. He’s good in protections, understanding where the looks are coming from and things like that. So, for a young guy, he’s really developed and probably ahead of his age per se, and he’s really talented. So, we know we’re going to have to play well.”
But the Gators have a very important X-factor on their side against the No. 1 Crimson Tide – the crowd. UF has sold every ticket, and the fans figure to be extra fired up for the first meeting between the two teams in the Swamp since 2011.
Young has never started in a true road game before. Though he’s enormously talented and will probably be a first-round draft pick someday, that’s still an enormous obstacle for a young quarterback to navigate. Verbal communication will be impossible, and it will be hard for him to collect his thoughts and relax after a bad play.
“Any time we play in the Swamp, any time we play anywhere, our whole goal is to rattle the quarterback, whether he’s been [playing] four years or two days,” linebacker Mohamoud Diabate said. “So, at the end of the day, we win the game, and our DBs can make plays if we’re making that quarterback uncomfortable. So, it’s going to be the same game to make the quarterback uncomfortable. We hope the crowd gets into it. It’s just part of what we do. It’s part of our DNA.”
The Swamp effect has benefited the Gators before under Grantham. In 2018, first-year LSU starter Joe Burrow got flustered by the frenzied crowd in the fourth quarter and threw two interceptions and took a couple of avoidable sacks in the Gators’ win.
A year later, Jonathan Greenard hit Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix on the first snap of the game, which made an already crazy crowd get even louder. Nix never looked comfortable the entire game, and the Gators won.
The 2021 Gators are hoping to make something similar happen to Young this Saturday. They plan on bringing the pressure, and they’re asking the fans to bring the energy.
“Whenever any team is coming into the Swamp, especially as big of a game as this is – I know it’s a sell-out crowd, 90,000 – that could probably rattle anybody, veteran or young player,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “So, I’m expecting the crowd to really help juice up, energize the defense this weekend, and we definitely feed off the crowd and the Swamp.”
Defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk played for Auburn during that memorable 2019 game in the Swamp, so he knows first-hand just how much of an impact a raucous crowd can have on the outcome of the game.
“Even though I was on defense, it’s like once they got momentum going, it was crazy,” Newkirk said. “The crowd got into the game. It was like a huge momentum boost. The energy from the crowd, you feed off it, so it’s huge.”
The other part of the equation is generating pressure up front, which Grantham has done as well as anybody in the SEC during his time at Florida. The Gators’ 128 sacks since 2018 are the most in the SEC and the third-most nationally. They’ve recorded seven sacks through two games this season.
But sacks aren’t even the primary metric that Grantham uses to evaluate the pass-rush. He prefers to use the phrase “affecting the quarterback.” Even if they don’t make a sack, they can still force Young to get rid of the ball quicker than he wants to and start feeling pressure that isn’t there. Basically, Grantham wants his defense to be in Young’s head instead of Alabama’s offense.
“I think any time you can affect the quarterback, you’re going to be successful,” Grantham said. “So, obviously, you’ve got to be able to, first of all, stop the run to where you put it in his hands, from that standpoint. But, any time you can affect the quarterback and get after him a little bit and make him a little nerve-racked, that’s got a chance to be in your favor. So, yeah, that’s obviously something we’ll try to do.”
That being said, Carter warned that there’s a fine balance between being aggressive with their pass-rush and being reckless. The last thing they want to happen is for everybody to fly at Young and leave him with a bunch of room to scramble outside of the pocket.
“He’s a pretty elusive quarterback, and, from the film that I’ve studied so far, I see how relaxed he is in the pocket, and he has good pocket-presence and awareness,” Carter said. “So, I feel like this week, we have to do a good job with our rush lanes and just … trying to cage him in the pocket because he’s a pretty elusive guy.”
On paper, the Gators have next to no chance of slowing down Young and the Crimson Tide’s passing game. He’s one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the country, and he lit up Miami’s secondary two weeks ago to the tune of 344 yards and four touchdowns.
But this game won’t be played on paper. It’s going to be played in the place where “only Gators get out alive.”
The Gators are counting on that slogan to hold true once again.