The 2013 pass rush: Be optimistic, but not TOO optimistic

tl;dr Alert.

Throughout August, one of the key storylines coming out of the Gators fall camp was the expected emergence of an excellent pass rush -- something Florida has lacked for the past three seasons. FlaGators and Andy covered this topic last week, but the hype reached a new level today when Ronald Powell, one of the men expected to lead the resurgence, weighed in with his opinion:

That’s a bold statement, and it immediately elicited strong reactions from the Palmetto State. Last year, the South Carolina pass rush was the best the SEC had seen in the past six seasons, led by the best defensive end in the college game… ever? Gamecock fans, I must admit, are justifiably incredulous.

But just how good can we reasonably expect Florida’s pass rush to be? I went to the data from in an attempt to find out.

I focused primarily on a statistic called "sack rate." That is the number of sacks a defense records divided by the number of opponent dropbacks -- passing attempts plus sacks. That’s a simplified version of Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, and it’s not perfect for reasons I won’t enumerate here. But given time and resource constraints, it’s good enough. I calculated a sack rate for each team in the "Big 5" conferences -- the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC -- and Notre Dame (sorry, I’m a traditionalist) between 2007 and 2012.

In 2012, Florida had a near-average sack rate despite having a sterling defense that performed well both against the pass and on passing downs. The Gators had a sack rate of 6.33 percent, just barely above the average of 6.22 percent for all Big 5 teams over the past six years. Florida’s performance was not totally without precedent. Several top flight defenses of recent vintage have thrived despite middling pass rushes. Of the teams that finished a season ranked in the top 5 of Defensive F/+ since 2007, six have had sack rates below 7.00. One of them was the 2008 version of Florida, which had Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham coming off the edges. So, like, view this in the proper context and stuff.

But Florida has lost some important parts of last year’s defense, including both safeties and a pair of linebackers who were excellent in pass coverage -- all of whom are now in the NFL. If the Gators are to remain among the nation’s defensive elite, it seems almost certain that a nasty pass rush will have to step in to take some pressure off of new players at these positions.

Defining a "nasty" pass rush in numerical terms is itself a squishy exercise. Looking through the data, some teams with fearsome defensive lines didn’t fare nearly as well as I expected, and given the relative rarity of sacks (the best teams average fewer than four per game, generally), a difference of a few sacks per season can account for dozens of places in the sack rate standings. But for this analysis, I decided to call a "great" pass rush anything one standard deviation above the mean, or a sack rate of about 8.00. I also created an "elite" category at two standard deviations above the mean, roughly 9.80.

Among all Big 5 teams, there are about 10 great pass rushes a year, an average of 2.5 of which are in the SEC. Elite pass rushes are rare. They exist at a rate of fewer than two per season, and just two SEC teams have accomplished the feat since 2007 -- Arkansas in 2010 and South Carolina last year.

Getting to a sack rate of 8.00 seems attainable. Since 2007, 10 SEC teams have increased their sack rate by at least 1.67 in one year. Exactly how many sacks would be required for a 8.00 rate is dependent on how much Florida’s opponents pass. But if we use the Big 5 average of 34.4 dropbacks faced per game, that works out to about 33 sacks over a 12 game season. That would be an increase of eight over last year’s regular season total of 25.

Entering the ranks of the elite would be much more difficult. Last season, South Carolina had a sack rate of 10.19. It would take about 42 sacks for the Gators to match that total -- an increase of nearly one-and-a-half per game. That seems… less likely. It would require a sack rate jump of 3.86. Just two SEC schools (LSU in 2010 and Ole Miss in 2012) have made a one-year improvement that large.

If Florida is to make even a modest improvement in its pass rush, it will almost certainly need more production from its defensive line, which at times might include SAM linebacker if Powell is manning the position. Including the bowl game, the Gators’ defensive line (counting the BUCK position) was responsible for 17.5 sacks in 2012. South Carolina’s had nearly twice that many with 34.0, 13.0 of which came from Clowney alone. More than 42 percent of Florida’s sacks in 2012 came from linebackers or defensive backs, as opposed to about 20 percent for South Carolina.

One thing that could help the Gators is the presence of new defensive line coach Brad Lawing. While in the same position at South Carolina, he coached four separate units that notched sack rates of 8.00 or higher, and half of these came before Clowney. He also presided over the third-largest year-over-year sack rate jump in recent conference history - +3.34 in 2008.

The talent is certainly there for Lawing to mold. Dominique Easley and his team-high 4.0 sacks in 2012 returns, and he has a chance to be even more disruptive playing from the interior of the line. Powell averaged six sacks per game in 2011, and if he’s as healthy as he seems to be, I think we can reasonably expect him to equal or exceed that total in 2013.

The big movement could come from the sophomore ends -- Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler, Jr. This pair combined for four sacks last season. While a significant improvement is likely in order, Gator fans might want to scale back their most optimistic expectations. Between 2007 and 2012, just eight SEC sophomores recorded at least 8.0 sacks in a season, and all are among the most fearsome pass rushers in recent conference history: Antonio Coleman, Corey Lemonier, Carlos Dunlap, Jarvis Jones, Jeremy Jarmon, Sam Montgomery, Greg Hardy, and Clowney.

Even elite talents rarely make a big jump in year two. Among the defensive ends rated as 4- or 5-stars by Rivals since 2007, 53 played immediately at Big 5 schools. Just six improved their sack total by at least 6.0 between their freshman and sophomore seasons: Dunlap, Lemonier, Montgomery, Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame), Derrick Morgan (Georgia Tech), and Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas). Fowler, in particular, appears capable of joining this exclusive company, but the assumption that he will automatically make this leap is, in my opinion, a poor one.

So while there is definite cause to be excited about Florida’s pass rush in 2013, I think it’s best to temper expectations just a little bit. This almost certainly won’t be the best pass rush around, and a leap to a truly elite season, while not unprecedented, would require just about everything to go right. But Florida’s pass rush could still be very good. A front four of Fowler, Bullard, Easley, and Powell on passing downs might be as good as it gets in the SEC this year among teams without Clowney. Overall, I’m looking for a marked improvement in the sack rate to somewhere north of 8.00. If that happens, the less experienced defenders should have more latitude to make mistakes, and Florida could again have one of the nation’s best defenses.

Please be kind and use good grammar.

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