If you scan the stat sheet, it’s hard not to reach the following conclusion about the Gators’ defense at the midway point of the regular season: They are much improved over the 2020 unit.
Sure, that’s a bit like saying that the architects who designed the Titanic did a much better job of building their next ship given how horrible the 2020 UF defense was, but the numbers are still astounding.
Through six games in 2020, the Gators were giving up 30 points per game. Through the first six games of 2021, they’re surrendering just 16.5 points per game, the second-best mark in the SEC. They were allowing opponents to convert 42.2 percent of third downs at this point last season compared to just 36.9 percent so far this season.
Their rushing defense average has decreased from 150.8 yards per game through six games in 2020 to 108.5 yards per game this year. Their passing defense has improved from 260.5 yards per game to 230.3 yards per game. They’re giving up 316.8 total yards per game this season versus 411.3 yards per game after six games last year.
Yes, it helps that they played Florida Atlantic and South Florida after only playing conference games in 2020, but those two games don’t skew the statistics enough to explain discrepancies this large.
They held Alabama to its lowest yardage total in nearly three years (324 yards). A Tennessee team that they limited to 14 points has scored 107 points in its two conference games since then. Kentucky only managed to throw for 87 yards against them.
The verdict is clear. At the halfway point of the season, the Gators’ defense is very good and bordering on elite.
“I like our guys’ work ethic,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I like where they are. “At the end of the day, it’s all about competing, it’s about winning games and it’s about being hard to score on. If you go back and look, in the last 15 quarters in SEC play, we’ve given up 37 points. So, that’s a pretty low number right there. So, we know we’ve got things to work on, and these guys are willing to work and will continue to do that, but I like where we are, and I like the way we’re progressing.”
Defensive back Jadarrius Perkins said that he can feel the defense getting better every week, and he expects that to continue for the rest of the season.
“I feel like we’ve came really far throughout these six games,” he said. “We still have a lot to work on, but we’re coming together as a defense. We’re gelling together. We’re getting to know each other.”
What makes the defense’s performance even more impressive is the fact that they’ve battled through some high-profile injuries. Starting middle linebacker Ventrell Miller, who led the team in tackles last season, suffered a torn bicep early in the second game at USF and is expected to miss the rest of the year. Preseason All-American cornerback Kaiir Elam has missed half of the season with a sprained knee.
And yet, there’s been little to no drop-off.
Grantham said that rotating a bunch of young, inexperienced players into the two nonconference games and cross-training players at multiple positions has allowed them to build the depth needed to overcome significant injuries.
While doing so may have hurt their statistics a bit in those first two games, they’re reaping the benefits now that they’re into the meat of their SEC schedule. They’re able to get their best 11 players on the field regardless of who is available.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for us because we have injuries, and we tell our guys doing that,” Grantham said. “We kind of talked to our guys about special ops in the sense of ‘Guys in this room have specialized abilities relative to packages and things that we do, and we’re going to try to utilize everyone in here in a different way. So, you guys have got to take ownership in the playbook to understand where we’re going to play you, how we’re going to play you to allow us to be multiple with what we do.’
“I thought the guys have done an excellent job with that really since August, and it’s been something that we’ve needed. We’re going to continue to have to play that way as we move forward because I’m sure other situations will come up, and, whoever’s available, we’ll find ways to make plays and get the job done.”
Grantham also thinks that they’ve done a good job of limiting explosive plays. Tennessee and Kentucky scored a few long touchdowns on them, but they’ve done a good job in the other four games. Making offenses put longer drives together increases their chances of making a critical mistake that kills the drive.
“Even if you go to last week’s game, the team we played last week is really the team we played from two years ago,” Grantham said. “Our corners who are freshmen actually went out, and there were multiple shots down the field on them, and they handled it. I think your ability to handle those shot plays and the deep balls has allowed us not to give up explosive plays, which makes them run more plays, and you find a way to get stops.
“Our guys work well together, they work as a unit, and we’ve found ways to get stops without giving up explosive plays. If you do that, you’ve got a chance to be hard to score on.”
So far, they’ve been very hard to score on. Harder than everyone in the SEC not named Georgia, in fact.