Gators needs statement game from young defense against Texas A&M

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With the Florida offense mired in yet another season of stagnation and quarterback questions, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and his unit have soaked in most of the criticism this fall.

But equally concerning in the big-picture outlook is the emerging reality that the Gators don’t have the same fail-safe defense they have relied on for the last decade. Or, at least, they haven’t shown it yet.

The numbers say it all.

Florida enters this weekend ranked 55th nationally in total defense, giving up 373.2 yards per game. It ranks 53rd in scoring defense, allowing 24.2 points per game.

To put that in perspective, consider that the Gators have not finished ranked lower than 15th nationally in total defense since 2007. In every season but one since then, they’ve finished with a top-10 defense. In terms of points allowed, Florida has finished outside the top 20 nationally only once in that span (29th in 2010).

For reference, the Gators’ 2007 defense ranked 41st overall, allowing 361.9 yards per game, and 46th in scoring, giving up 25.5 points per contest. Of course, that Gators team also had Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin to pick up the slack on offense.

This Florida team doesn’t have that luxury.

While the Gators rushing attack has shown real promise with freshman sensation Malik Davis and steady sophomore Lamical Perine, the offense remains limited by redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks’ youth and the conservative game plan the coaches are putting around him.

That’s a roundabout way of building up to the main point here, which is that Florida simply needs this defense to look more like a Florida defense as the season progresses.

Starting Saturday with a hugely important game against high-scoring Texas A&M.

“It’s tough, man. You know, the bar has been raised really, really high. And you know we had a bunch of guys that left and went to the NFL and all that stuff, and these guys know that hey, we gotta get this thing back the way it was, because this is not the standard. This is the standard,” Gators defensive line coach Chris Rumph said this week, adjusting his hand level to make a visual point.

“We can lower the bar for you if you want to, or we could keep it up there. And they [say], ‘Nah, coach, keep it up there.’ We’re pressing them every single day and they know. They know. Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything. They know.”

How Florida’s defense has stacked up nationally each season since 2007

Year Total defense (national rank/YPG) Scoring defense (national rank/PPG)
2017 55th/373.2 53rd/24.2
2016 5th/293.0 6th/16.8
2015 8th/310.2 11th/18.3
2014 15th/329.8 20th/21.1
2013 8th/314.3 15th/21.1
2012 5th/287.5 5th/14.5
2011 8th/299.5 20th/20.3
2010 9th/306.5 29th/21.3
2009 4th/252.6 4th/12.4
2008 9th/285.3 4th/12.9
2007 41st/361.9 46th/25.5

*2017 stats through five games

This was expected to a degree, a drop-off from the last two seasons, in particular, when a slew of future NFL players led Florida’s defense to finish eighth nationally in 2015 (310.2 yards per game) and 5th last season (293.0).

That 2015 defense sent cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and safety Keanu Neal into the NFL as first-round draft picks. Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive end Alex McCalister followed later in the draft. Nickel Brian Poole latched on as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, helping them to the Super Bowl.

After last season the Gators had eight more defensive players move on and get shots in NFL: linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, safety Marcus Maye, defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie, and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr.

The defense endured another loss when safety Marcell Harris, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, tore his right Achilles tendon in the preseason.

Some fans are already questioning new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, but that’s a mass exodus of experience and talent in two years. There was going to be a drop-off.

Perhaps, though, the sheer consistency of success on that side of the ball for so long inflated expectations that the difference might be less pronounced.

Florida is not without talent on the defensive side, though. The line has had some very impressive moments and remains packed with playmakers, particularly with a stacked set of disruptive ends in Jordan Sherit, Jachai Polite, Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson.

Sophomore middle linebacker David Reese is a steady player in the middle, and freshman cornerbacks Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson could be a dynamic duo in future seasons. Meanwhile, senior corner Duke Dawson didn’t have his best game against LSU, dropping two potential interceptions and getting beat for a key 47-yard completion. But he’s contributed some big plays this fall.

In general, though, this is just a young defense that is going to have ups and downs.

“[They’re] still communicating with some of the old heads. Bullard and all those guys are still in contact with all these guys. They ask, ‘Hey what’s going on?’ Q and all that stuff. I’m getting text messages from those guys every Sunday. Sometimes Saturday night,” Rumph said. “Q or Teez [Tabor] or Bullard or somebody’s texting me, ‘Hey coach, what’s going on?’ and all that kind of stuff. … We’ll get there, man. We’ll get there. Trust me. Trust me.”

The issue for the Gators, though, is they don’t have time to be patient.

Not with the offense looking one-dimensional and limited. Not with a veritable must-win game ahead against Texas A&M, as it relates to the standings and Florida’s hopes to remain in contention in the SEC East with a mighty impressive and unbeaten Georgia team.

This week is a particular tough matchup.

Texas A&M ranks third in the SEC in total offense (424.8 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (34.3). The Aggies boast two impressive running backs in Trayveon Williams (422 yards, 5 TDs, 5.2 yards per carry) and Keith Ford (321 yards, 7 TDs, 4.7 YPC), a productive dual-threat quarterback in Kellen Mond (1,045 passing yards, 7 TDs, 3 INTs; 266 rushing yards, 2 TDs), and one of the best wide receivers in the conference in Christian Kirk (27 catches for 316 yards and 5 TDs).

“They’re explosive. They just fought a hard fight with Alabama. That just tells you what type of team they are,” Reese said. “They’ve got great players, great running back, and you know, Christian Kirk. You know, they’ve got good guys. We know what we’re up against and we know their talent.”

“In my mind, I would say it’s a must-win game because I feel like the game last week, we shouldn’t have lost,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “I feel like we’ve got to get back on top of our thing and just handle us.”

“Coach has put an added emphasis this week, and just in our room amongst the players we’ve talked about it,” Sherit said, specifically in regard to needing to create more turnovers. “We need to impact the game more, especially when teams are starting to chip us and screen us and kind of take away from our pass rush that we love to do.

“But we got to find a way to change the game.”

As Rumph said, the defensive players know the onus remains on them to carry this team. The question is can they find a way to do it, like their predecessors did time and again.

The post Gators needs statement game from young defense against Texas A&M appeared first on SEC Country.

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