As we enter a new era of Florida football, the offensive and defensive sides of the ball could not be subject to more divergent expectations.
With the offense, the demands are simple: "Change everything" would work, and "be better" is a mandate. Florida consistently finished near the bottom of college football's total offensive statistics under Will Muschamp, and following Urban Meyer's approach to the game, even Jeremy Foley saw all he could bear when he made the change at head coach.
On defense, the attitude is more like "Don't blow it." Despite his teams' struggles on offense, Muschamp put together among the most talented defensive units not only in the SEC but in the entire country, and did so in all four years in Gainesville. Fans didn't want to see Muschamp roaming the sideline any longer, but certainly don't want any kind of drop-off on defense.
With that, Florida has two pairs of shoes to fill -- both of which belonged to Muschamp, really. Offensively, McElwain likely has the "easier" job of manning the offense -- almost any kind of improvement should keep logical fans at bay for the first year, though offense-starved Florida fans' patience is famously short. But when it comes to the defense, Geoff Collins making his "lateral move" from Starkville to Gainesville sets up a gig where the pressure is all in keeping the prestige.
So what should Florida fans expect and watch for going into the spring game, and into next season? Well, first, let's compare the differences and similarities between a Muschamp defense and a Collins defense.
When it comes to success in football, I'm a firm believer in the phrase "It all starts up front," whether that means the offensive or defensive line. Even with the greatest play-calling and the most explosive playmakers, no offense can succeed without protection in the trenches; on defense, no coverage scheme can win without first establishing pressure up front. So when you look at a new defense and varying defensive styles, that's the first place you should dissect.
Throughout the offseason, Gators fans have heard Collins say things like "Overall it's a very similar style of defense." Now, I'm not calling him a liar, but I'm also not fully agreeing with him. The most important reason I say that is because of how the defensive line sets up in the pre snap.
With Muschamp, you saw a multi-front 3-4 defense, meaning he was basically going to put 8-10 combinations of defensive ends, linebackers and defensive tackles wherever he saw a possible advantage; the positions they were listed as on the roster could be thrown out the window at any time. Personally, I love this type of approach, and it was fun to watch. Instead of the traditional 4-3 set-up, with two DEs, two DTs, two OLB, and one MLB, the Muschamp 3-4 defense was broken up into specialized roles, with BUCK, SAM, WILL and MIKE describing both positions and responsibities. Here's an example of what his front looked like.
What we see here is the "standard" look for a 3-4 Muschamp defense, which actually works like a 4-3 Over. In this scenario, you have one traditional defensive tackle lined up in the B gap (between the guard and the tackle), but the second defensive tackled is shifted to a nose tackle position right in front of the left shoulder of the center. This allows Dante Fowler to freely roam to the strong side of the play as the BUCK linebacker, which, in this, and most cases from Muschamp's defense, operated as a 4-3 Over.
Collins, however, sets up his defense more traditionally.
The main difference is at the defensive tackle positions. Both are either right over or on the outside shoulder of the guard. When you compare this kind of gap control to Muschamp's four-man front, Collins' defenses are more evenly spaced.
This might work out better for the future Florida defense since, for Muschamp, the idea was often to give Fowler (or, before him, Lerentee McCray) as much space as possible to wreak havoc off the edge. Not having Fowler, as Collins obviously won't, would have forced even Muschamp to reconsider how he would set up. (Remember, your offense or defense is really only as good as your players' abilities.)
But a traditional philosophy hasn't stopped Collins from getting creative in how he lines up his defenses. Here's a look at a play that ended up forcing a turnover for Mississippi State in the Auburn game last year.
This look still operated out of the 4-3, but you can see the spacing is much more condensed to the side which poses the highest threat for an option run. From my analysis, Collins isn't afraid to shift his defensive front heavy to one side ... but I just don't think we'll see him throw crazy formations like this next one at teams, at least in his first year.
Here we have only two players with their hands in the ground (both in the 3-4 DE positions), the WILL linebacker is blitzing the center head on, and Fowler is in a stand-up position. Chaotic. Beautiful, but chaotic. There was never a dull moment with Muschamp, I'll give him that.
With Muschamp's 3-4 defense, the emphasis was always on the outside linebackers, but in his defense, those players were the pass rushers. It's true, interior pressure boosts the play of front seven (a reason I believe had much to do with Florida success in 2012, given the abilities of Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd), but a 3-4 without edge pressure is useless in today's college football.
With offenses built the way they are now, pressure from the outside limits a running quarterback in a few ways. It contains most popular option plays, and it forces passers to climb the pocket in hopes the trench hasn't already collapse within itself. Edge pressure is possible to counter, but it's difficult to do. That's an important reason why Florida was able to have consistent success on defense under Muschamp: Consistent edge pressure.
With Collins, things are a bit different. In the 4-3 look, pressure is key, don't get me wrong, but higher on the totem pole is the intelligence, pursuit and tackling abilities of the linebackers. It's not necessarily their job to make pressure; more often, they will be capitalizing on it.
For the last three seasons, Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney finished first, first and second on the team's total tackles list. With Mike Taylor gone, I expect Jarrad Davis to fill that role for Collins at UF. Antonio Morrison accumulates a lot of tackles, but he's not the kind of guy that can go sideline-to-sideline; he's a north-to-south power tackler.
Davis has to be the more reliable option, and I think he can be. From what we've seen of him when healthy, he has the kind of range you (and, more importantly, Collins) would want from a pure MLB. With more zone coverage (we'll get to that), Davis will be called upon, like McKinney was, to keep everything in front of him and be near or on the ball at the end of every play.
Defensive aggression has different faces. With Muschamp, it was typically a stacked front seven with powerful linebackers, who, when contact was made, always had the chance to force a turnover. For him, that required leaving corners in one-on-one man coverage for a good potion of the game. If man-to-man wasn't the specific call, it was usually a form of Cover 3 that split the field into thirds, with corners and a free safety called to make a one-on-one play. That's common in football, and I'm not saying you won't see that with Collins, but with him, I think, again, there's less emphasis on the power of the front seven and more on the range and intelligent play from the guys in the back.
From what I watched, Collins' style of aggression comes from heavy preparation. He likes to run a lot of drop zones where, instead of a safety playing a "last man back" role, they might be the robbers in a soft zone.
Another attacking style I've see from Collins is zone blitzing with disguised drops. This means there will be some kind of additional rusher, usually an outside linebacker paired with either a strong safety or a cornerback, then an unfamiliar coverage scheme used as an illusions with the added pressure. With less time to think, there's less time to figure out what's going on.
In the play above, we see a corner and linebacker blitz, a defensive end drop back, a safety cheat up, and a middle linebacker drop back. Very few quarterbacks, especially ones that run out of an option base, will have the awareness to make the right play in this situation. In this case, the sack might've been less damaging than an errant throw.
To wrap things up, personnel means everything. Despite what I saw from his time at Mississippi State the last few years, I barely even touched on cornerbacks in Collins's defense, something I'm sure he'll emphasize even more at UF because of the talent increase. He likes to give his defensive backs the opportunity to jump routes when the talent allows him that luxury, and I've already heard him talk the incredible athletes he believes he has this season. Something like that could change his style, even more than what I've tried to research.
Muschamp and Collins both run aggressive styles of defense, but the main difference between the two will be this: Muschamp was aggressive by using pressure and power to intimidate and force turnovers, and Collins is aggressive in his combination of pressure up front with speed and disguise in the back. It's more of a chess game with Collins than it is rock versus scissors.
And Gators fans will be hoping he has all the right moves.