Then and Now: Gators defense

With Dan Mullen entering his fourth season on the UF sideline this fall, most of the roster is composed of players that he recruited to Florida, either directly out of high school or via the transfer portal. So, it seems like the perfect time to analyze the job he’s done of overhauling a roster that was short on depth and established stars prior to his arrival.

Given Mullen’s reputation as a slightly above average recruiter, you might be a bit surprised at just how much better the Gators’ roster is now compared to Jim McElwain’s final team.

Below you’ll find the roster broken down by position with a brief discussion of the groups and a final verdict on which unit is better.

We wrap up this miniseries today with the defense.

Defensive Line

2017 (Starters): Taven Bryan, Khari Clark, CeCe Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga

2021 (Projected starters): Zachary Carter, Brenton Cox, Daquan Newkirk, Antonio Shelton

Breakdown: The two units are almost even at defensive end. Zuniga and Carter have given the Gators similar production as far as sacks and tackles-for-loss. They both are also versatile players that the coaches can move around to create mismatches. On the other side, both teams have a former five-star recruit who hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations just yet in Jefferson and Cox.

The edge at defensive end goes to the 2021 team because of its depth. Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield have proven to be reliable backup options, while Khris Bogle, Justus Boone and Princely Umanmielen could be future stars.

Meanwhile, the 2017 team had the true freshman version of Carter, Jordan Sherit, Antonneous Clayton, Keivonnis Davis and a redshirt freshman Jachai Polite. Other than Polite and Carter – who didn’t blossom until the new coaching staff took over – you probably had forgotten all of their names because of how unremarkable their careers were.

At defensive tackle, this isn’t much of a competition. The 2021 team features a pair of experienced and talented veterans in Newkirk and Shelton who should greatly improve UF’s rushing defense. Then you’ve got some extremely talented youngsters who could be real difference makers by the time their careers are over in Gervon Dexter, Desmond Watson, Chris Thomas and Jalen Lee.

Clark and Bryan were decent starters on the 2017 team, but they didn’t have the ability to impact games the way that the 2021 unit will. Bryan was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, but that was primarily due to his athleticism and strength and not his college production. Depth was almost nonexistent on that team.

The Gators finally look like an SEC defensive line again.

Verdict: 2021

Linebacker

2017 (Top five): Jeremiah Moon, Rayshad Jackson, Kylan Johnson, Vosean Joseph, David Reese

2021: (Projected top five): Amari Burney, Mohamoud Diabate, Ty’Ron Hopper, Ventrell Miller, Derek Wingo

Breakdown: We’ll pretend that the 2017 linebacking corps wasn’t decimated by the preseason credit card fraud scandal for the purposes of this discussion.

The 2017 group was stacked with what fans derisively referred to as “Randy Specials.” Former defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Randy Shannon recruited a bunch of big, physical, highly intelligent linebackers that didn’t possess great speed or coverage skills. That type of linebacker excelled in the 1980s but is nearly extinct now for a reason.

In a scheme that leaned primarily on man coverage, UF’s linebackers were simply not athletic enough to cover tight ends, running backs and slot receivers, and opponents frequently took advantage of that. You can maybe get away with having one linebacker on the field that’s like that if he’s a superb leader and field general like Reese. However, you can’t field an entire linebacking corps of old-school players.

The 2021 linebacker room has almost the complete opposite problem. Burney, Diabate and Hopper are all supremely athletic but don’t seem to have a great feel for how to play the position. Burney started his career at safety, while Diabate was a pass-rushing specialist as a freshman.

Miller is as steady as they come and is basically Reese with slightly better athleticism. If Diabate improves his coverage skills and his knowledge of the position, Hopper gets better at stuffing the run and Burney improves his awareness of what’s going on around him, the linebackers could be one of the Gators’ biggest strengths.

That’s a lot of ifs, but the raw talent level is unquestionably higher now than it was under Shannon.

Verdict: 2021

Defensive Back

2017 (Starters): Chauncey Gardner, Duke Dawson, CJ Henderson, Nick Washington, Marco Wilson

2021 (Projected starters): Trey Dean, Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill, Tre’Vez Johnson, Rashad Torrence

Breakdown: The Gators were exceptionally young but talented in the secondary in 2017. Henderson, a freshman, wound up becoming a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft. His classmate, Wilson, had some good moments until a season-ending injury in 2018 sent his career on a downward spiral.

Gardner was a sophomore on the 2017 team. He overcame some early tackling struggles to get drafted in the fourth round. He’s arguably had the best professional career of any UF defensive back in the last five years or so.

Dawson was a solid defender who brought value to the defense with his ability to bounce between cornerback and nickelback.

The 2017 secondary also had some solid depth, as Brad Stewart, Jeawon Taylor, Donovan Stiner and Shawn Davis all started games throughout their careers. Marcell Harris was also a part of this team, though he missed the entire year with an injury.

The 2021 secondary probably has more talented starters than the 2017 version. Elam’s lockdown coverage abilities are comparable to Henderson’s. Hill and five-star freshman Jason Marshall have a chance to be a better partner to Elam than Wilson or Dawson ever were to Henderson. Johnson has the ideal combination of speed and physicality to play the STAR position. Dean and Torrence are a huge upgrade over the likes of Washington, Davis and Stiner.

However, the 2021 secondary, while possessing better frontline talent, doesn’t have a single proven commodity outside of Elam. The rest of the excitement for this group comes from what experts think they can be based on their physical attributes.

Depth will need to be provided by a bunch of inexperienced players, such as Jordan Young, Avery Helm, Ethan Pouncey, Donovan McMillon and Corey Collier. The Gators are an injury away from things getting really scary in the back end.

This one’s close, but the 2021 group likely features two future first-round draft picks in Elam and Marshall. The 2017 team only had one, which gives the 2021 team the nod.

Verdict: 2021

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.