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Florida vs. Kentucky, Theater of Operations: How Florida's defensive line stopped an upset

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The Gators were able to bring pressure and create negative plays.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Any conference road win is a good win in college football, right, even if it's ugly? Well, at then end of the day, sometimes that's what you have to tell yourself, especially in the SEC.

Florida's 14-9 win over the Wildcats wasn't pretty, but it was a win. The Gators followed up their 12-penalty outing versus East Carolina with a 10-penalty game. They had another fumble (which they recovered), and some poor finishes on plays they needed to make. Will Grier threw an interception in the end zone.

But, on the defensive end, even head coach Jim McElwain knows there's a time for corrections, and there's time for recognition. And coming out of Lexington with no touchdowns given up was worth a little praise.

"The defense obviously stepped up and played really good. ... These guys were into this game and played their hearts out. I'm awfully proud of them."

It seems like, even if the games as a whole remain closer than we want them to be, there are noticeable building blocks each week. Three weeks in, the Gators rank second in the SEC in total defense, and 11th in the entire country. We've already highlighted players like SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Jonathan Bullard and Quincy Wilson, as well as talked about certain looks and sets Florida likes to use to throw opposing offenses off-kilter. This week we have a new player to highlight, a new formation to discuss, and some ways to get better, too.

Let's start off with the man who, on defense, stole the show last Saturday: defensive end Alex McCalister.

Making of McCalister

Coming off his suspension for the first game of the season, McCalister has already made his presence known by brining a certain style of pass rush not seen down the rest of the depth chart. He recorded two tackles for loss against ECU and two sacks versus Kentucky with many more pressure plays that don't get recorded in the stat book. Bullard will continue to be the focus of Florida's defense in the middle, and Florida's emphasis will still be blowing up plays from the inside out, but when you have a guy coming off the edge like McCalister, it can really condense a pocket.

I'm highlighting three types of disruption plays from last Saturday's game, two of which came from McCalister himself, and another that was a result of his notable night.

Speed rush

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The screen shot above shows Florida's defense in their standard 4-3 nickel set. Four down lineman, two linebackers, and the nickel corner starting where you'd see a linebacker due to the two running backs in the backfield. This tells you Florida's more concerned about stopping an option run or a short pass to either running back in the flat.

Instead of engaging the tackle right away, McCalister puts his head down and tries to beat his man to the turn. The tackle, knowing he's naturally slower off the edge, tries to get his hands up and into McCalister to knock him off, but the shoulder dip by McCalister allows him to get right by.

It may not be your classic spin or swim move off the edge, but McCalister's lean, long frame doesn't allow him to play that kind of game; he'll get tangled up if he tries. Instead, he knows beating his blocker around the pocket with burst and quickness off the line are his best bet. This is what makes McCalister a true speed rusher, something Florida doesn't have without him.

The threat of speed rushers coming around the edge forces the diameter of the pocket to widen pre-snap, and with offensive linemen spaced out, it gets harder to double team. That sets up more one-on-one match ups and makes blitzes up the middle with Antonio Morrison or Jarrad Davis (or Keanu Neal) more effective.

Can't teach length

The Gators don't have another speed rusher like McCalister, but one reason for that is because no one else off the edge is 6"6" with what I assume is a 6'9"-6'10" wingspan.

Now, if you're any kind of NFL Draft follower, you hear experts emphasize height as a positive for defensive ends. But why? Just because "the bigger, the better?" Well, not quite. It actually has more to do with their arm length than it does their actual height. To understand why a longer wingspan is key to an outside pass rush, you have to know what it counters.

The best offensive linemen use good balance and a strong punch to defend the pocket (punch just means the initial contact with a rusher, not actually punching them). They like to get their hands right around a rusher's arm pits to push, which negates any kind of arm wiggle and gives them a thick base to push away from the QB.

If you're McCalister, you know that if an offensive lineman can get both hands on you, it's going to be tough to throw them off. His counter for that: Creating separation with arm length to ensure the lineman can't get his hand up and into his chest.

Here's what that looks like:

The video's a bit choppy, but if you watch it a few times you'll notice that coming off the edge McCalister fully extends one arm right into the chest of the offensive lineman. As the play goes on you'll realize the lineman never had a chance to get both hands on McCalister with any kind of blocking strength; he simply can't reach him when McCalister's arm is fully extended.

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That's why wingspan can be such a coveted asset, and why McCalister was coveted by Florida's previous staff despite his downright skinny body in high school; it's something you just can't teach. It's also something that's hard to counter when a defensive end really knows how to utilize his length.

Stunt 101

The final play wasn't made by McCalister, but it was made possible due to his consistent pressure off the edge all night.

For the play above, McCalister isn't even on the field, but at this point in the game he'd already recorded two sacks. This play was successful, though, because the right tackle had been dealing with a speed rush all night. When Cox Jr. flew to the inside on a stunt blitz, the right tackle was already too far out of position, expecting an edge rush, to take Bullard stunting to the gap on his inside shoulder. The guard was then forced to pick up Bullard, even though he was moving away. And that allows Cox to run free, which in turn causes more confusion as the guard tries to stop him, and eventually led to Bullard getting free for a sack.

When a defensive coordinator knows his speed rushers are constantly burning tackles to the outside, he knows they'll start to overcommit to get in front of them. That leaves too much space for any kind of help, and opens up the defensive playbook for some complex blitzes.

A New Look

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I love it when defenses try to get as creative as they can with how they line up. College football isn't about traditional formations anymore; it's about getting the most talent out of each player by finding out what location on the field helps his skills translate to production, even if it's not a common one.

Here, we see Kentucky start to run their triple threat with just one yard to go on second down. Florida counters that with a 3-4 that shows three down linemen, McCalister as a stand-up outside linebacker on the top of the front ... and cornerback Brian Poole as the second stand-up outside linebacker.

This play does end up being successful for Kentucky, but it was a success for Florida, too, even though the first down was given up.

The point of this lineup is to contain and just not give up a broken play, which we've already seen happen for UK running back Boom Williams a few times this season. The defensive linemen take the gaps, McCalister takes the receiver in motion, Poole steps up into the backfield to engage his block, and all of that leaves Jarrad David free to make the tackle, which he does.

Any time an opposing team goes to a speed option with multiple backs, this is the formation to run. Utilizing Poole's speed at a 3-4 OLB position is a great way to get creative, and I fully support it.

Finish What You Start

You know what I'm about to do...

That was third and seven.

That was third and 14.

That was third and nine.

Sigh...

It is very hard to win football games when missing tackles on third down. McElwain referenced a lack of discipline so far this year, and that's evident with penalties on offense and with missed tackles on defense. It's something I didn't see much improvement on from last week's film — though the addition of Neal helped.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the return of Neal, the continued flash of McCalister, and defensive coordinator Geoff Collins's ability to counter Kentucky's big-play threats with some creative formations and assignments.

Our offensive breakdown is up next, so make sure you're checking back in on the home page and following us at @AlligatorArmy on Twitter.