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Florida’s defense enters 2021 blessed and cursed by its potential

Last season’s defensive woes were Florida’s well-known weakness. Will 2021 see a revival of a once-dominant defense?

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t need to tell you how bad the Florida Gators defense was in 2020.

The sheer volume — quantity, yes, but also, like, decibel level — of people calling for Todd Grantham’s head last year is a good sign of where things were defensively. Some of that came from the same people who make bad-faith calls for firings all the time, too — but Grantham’s unit was nowhere near Florida’s standard, ranking near the bottom in the SEC for points and yards allowed.

To its credit, the defense was top ten in the country and second in the conference for sacks, but the big plays don’t matter as much when you’re bleeding yardage and points. Especially against elite competition, the defense capitulated and cost the Gators a shot at an SEC title or College Football Playoff berth. In Florida’s last three games, arguably the three biggest of the season, the Gators gave up 37, 52, and 55 points. Offensive turnovers played a role in that as well, especially against LSU, but when the season was on the line, a once-menacing defense became a turnstile.

Fortunately for us, that’s all in the past. Now, we can and should look to the future.

Will the Gators defense get better?

For better and worse, it has the potential to be.

This is going to be a different defensive group, at least when it comes to personnel. About half of last year’s starters are gone, but when you look at who’s coming back, there’s talent to be excited about. Kaiir Elam, Zach Carter, and Brenton Cox were probably Florida’s three best defensive players in 2020 and they’re all back. Between that group, the Gators bring back 8.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, and two interceptions of production; a year’s seasoning for those players should help them generate more production. Throw in Ventrell Miller and Trey Dean, and this team returns a good bit of experience and leadership from last year, even if some of those experienced players have made magic and mistakes in relatively similar measure.

The real excitement comes courtesy of younger stars, particularly sophomore Gervon Dexter. The former five-star recruit has been talked about at length this offseason as a potential breakout performer on the Gators’ defensive line. As a freshman, Dexter registered half a sack, two tackles for loss, and an interception in 10 appearances, a decent return for a player still learning and refining the technical side of the game.

There are personnel questions for sure, especially in the young and inexperienced secondary, but talent isn’t likely to be the primary issue for this defense. The players are in place for Florida to be at the very least a good defensive team, so it comes down to what Grantham and his staff can get out of them.

There are few assistant coaches in the country on a hotter seat than Grantham after last season. I’m not here to argue whether he should’ve gotten the axe after 2020, but if things don’t improve rapidly, there’s just no way Dan Mullen doesn’t once again feel immense pressure from fans to replace him. How could Grantham fix things and avoid that?

It sounds promising that Florida seems to have identified that the most glaring issue last year was communication, especially in the secondary. A recent piece from The Independent Florida Alligator highlighted how new coaches Wesley McGriff and Jules Monitar are working to change those struggles on the back end. I don’t know if any of this will work in the season, but if the secondary communicates even a little better on Saturdays this fall after seeming like it descended from the Tower of Babel in 2020, that could be a huge plus.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic that things will click and that this Florida defense plays something like great Gator defenses past — but after last year, I know my expectations should be tempered. I trust the players, and I do have at least faith in the staff, but we’ll see if that trust is warranted come September.

I’m just one guy with one perspective, though. What do you all think this defense needs to get over the top? Is the talent there? Is Todd Grantham the guy to put the pieces together? Does the system need to change entirely?

The comments are yours to debate all this.