How Florida leads the SEC in returning sacks

Yesterday, ESPN’s Cole Cubelic pointed out that Florida has the most returning sacks in the SEC. By his count, the Gators return 28.5 sacks, which is a little more than Georgia’s 27 and considerably more than third-place Tennessee’s 22.5.

At first, this struck me as wrong. Jonathan Greenard led the conference with 9.5 sacks last year, and he’s now on his first NFL contract. How could this be possible?

There are a number of factors that got the team there, so let’s run them down. All ensuing stats in this piece are from

Florida had a lot of sacks in 2019

As a team, UF came up with 49 sacks. The only teams with more in the conference since 2009 were the 2015 (52 sacks) and 2016 (54) Alabama teams that featured a trio of sackmasters in Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson.

However, those Crimson Tide teams played 15 games versus the Gators’ 13 of a year ago. On a per-game basis, Florida’s 3.77 per game is the most in the SEC since ’09. When you rack up a ton of sacks, you can lose the league leader and still have the most coming back.

Florida ran up the sacks score when possible

You probably remember that the Gators had a remarkable ten sacks in the Week 0 opener against Miami. They also had six against Vanderbilt and eight against FSU’s dreadful offensive line. Total those three games up, and you come out with 24. So, roughly half of the team’s sacks came in three games.

I will highlight that those were all Power 5 teams, because against FCS competition Florida had five sacks against UT-Martin and four against Towson. They probably could’ve had more if they didn’t empty the bench and go relatively vanilla against those teams.

But, add in those two lower-division opponents and you get 33 in five games. When the opportunity presented itself, the Gators feasted on opposing quarterbacks.

The departing players didn’t get many sacks

Greenard is the one exception, of course, but he didn’t play the whole season. He led the conference despite missing some of the LSU game and not playing at all the next week against South Carolina. Jabari Zuniga only appeared in six games and wasn’t himself in most of them.

David Reese was a terrific run stopper but didn’t blitz to get after passers much. Defensive backs didn’t record as many sacks either. In 2018, CJ Henderson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson had three sacks each. In 2019, Henderson had just one, while Trey Dean had two and Brad Stewart had only a half sack (and the latter two return).

Adam Shuler had 3.5, which is in line with a bunch of other players, but he’s the only senior in that bunch.

Non-Reese linebackers found their way home

I do worry about short yardage situations with Reese gone, but no one should worry about pass blitzing from the returning non-Buck linebackers.

Vosean Joseph was the only one who did much in the sack department in 2018 with four. Last year, James Houston had 3.5 and Ventrell Miller had three. Mohamoud Diabate will probably get a fair bit of playing time at this level of the defense as well, and he ties Zach Carter for most returning sacks on the team with 4.5. Diabate is too fast not to line up on the edge sometimes, but he can be disruptive from a few yards back in the middle too.

The linebackers more than made up for drop in sacks from the secondary, in other words.

The prognosis is good for 2020

It’s not immediately clear who will be the focal point of the sack listing as Greenard was last year and Jachai Polite was the year before. Carter might be the best guess, since he is tied for the returning lead. The newly-eligible Brenton Cox is probably the other top candidate. He had just one sack and seven tackles while playing as a true freshman reserve for Georgia, but reports from last fall said it was obvious how good he could be the moment he stepped into practice for the first time.

Beyond Carter and Cox, UF has a terrific pool of edge rushers to draw from. Diabate will come around the end sometimes, but so will Jeremiah Moon (3 sacks in ’19) and Khris Bogle (2.5). Diabate, Bogle, and Lloyd Summerall looked a bit slight as true freshmen a year ago, but they’ll be a year older and bigger—though perhaps not as much as they would be without access to Nick Savage’s program for the whole offseason.

Getting the younger David Reese back after missing all of last year will add a new option for Todd Grantham to have fun with. He is listed as a linebacker now but was listed as a defensive back as a true freshman. His versatility will allow him to do a lot of different things from a lot of places, and Grantham may use that to get some creative angles on blitzes.

There may be some help coming up the middle, too. Tedarrell Slaton really came on in the back half of the year, finally appearing to fulfill the obvious potential that’s always been there. Accordingly, he notched a sack against Missouri and a half a sack against FSU. UF hasn’t had a real sack threat up the middle since Taven Bryan graduated, but Slaton may be that next year.

Florida should have no problems remaining at or near the top of the SEC’s sack listings in 2020.

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