Defense wins championships.
That was the mantra in Gainesville when Will Muschamp patrolled the sidelines for Florida, and it held true through Jim McElwain’s first season.
On multiple occasions, the defense alone won games for the Gators in 2015. It was probably the only reason they were competing for an SEC championship last season, to be honest.
Being an offensive-minded coach, however, can McElwain maintain that high level of defensive play that’s become customary at the University of Florida?
It certainly won’t be easy to do so in 2016, especially considering how much talent the Gators lost to the NFL from last season’s stout defense.
Gone are Jonathan Bullard, Antonio Morrison, Keanu Neal, Alex McCalister, Vernon Hargreaves III and Brian Poole, leaving some pretty big shoes to fill at multiple positions. It could have been worse, though. Linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Marcus Maye could have chosen to enter the NFL Draft too, which would have made the Gators’ situation on that side of the ball far more concerning. Instead, they opted to come back for their senior seasons in hopes of taking this team further than a year ago.
Some position groups took more of a hit from so many departures than others. With that said, the defensive line looks to be in good shape heading into the season.
Jordan Sherit and Bryan Cox Jr. are proven effective pass rushers on the outside, while CeCe Jefferson can play both inside and out. Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Khairi Clark and Taven Bryan all have valuable game experience as well, with Brantley emerging as the definitive leader of this unit. Also likely to contribute on the line are youngsters Jabari Zuniga, Keivonnis Davis, Thomas Holley, Andrew Ivie and Luke Ancrum. Combined, the Gators are poised to field one of the best defensive fronts in the SEC, if not the country. ESPN’s Booger McFarland agrees.
Florida would also possess one of the more intimidating linebacker units if it weren’t so thin.
Davis deciding to stay was huge as it gave the Gators leadership and stability at the position. Behind him is Matt Rolin and Alex Anzalone — two extremely talented linebackers that have fought injuries all throughout their collegiate careers — followed by David Reese and Daniel McMillian, who will both be counted on to provide depth. Getting at least one of the younger guys up to speed would help, but Florida is still a ways away from having a consistent backup. The talent is there, that much is obvious. The health of the veterans and how quickly the newcomers develop will determine just how strong this position will be.
Another strong, but thin group is the secondary.
Vernon Hargreaves III was one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the Swamp, but he was consistently overshadowed by teammates Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson last season.
Tabor was an absolute beast in coverage, totaling four interceptions (two pick-sixes), 14 pass breakups and 40 tackles (four for a loss, one sack). He’ll almost certainly be a first rounder in next year’s NFL Draft. Wilson showed flashes of brilliance himself and could play his way into a first-round pick as well. The sophomore had five pass breakups, two interceptions and 29 tackles last season. Beyond the starters are where the problems lie, with a list of inexperienced guys — Chris Williamson, McArthur Burnett, Chauncey Gardner and Joseph Putu — who will be expected to provide the depth at corner.
As for safety, the return of Marcus Maye is just as important as the return of Davis to the linebacker unit. Marcell Harris and Nick Washington need to improve and probably become as versatile Gardner, who’s expected to see some time at safety as well as corner. Developing secondary depth will be key, too, especially if injuries strike the linebacker corps and the Gators are forced to use five defensive backs as a result.
While there are some depth issues across the board, this Florida defense is more than capable of not just being as good as it was last year, but better.
The Gators boast arguably the best defensive front seven in the country and they have three potential first-round picks in the NFL Draft within the starting secondary.
The main concern at this point is on the other side of the ball.
If Florida’s offense can consistently be effective, however, this team could easily find itself back in Atlanta competing for another conference title. Sustained drives and fewer three-and-outs allows defenses time to rest, and we’ve seen what this defense can do when it’s energized.
Overall, the Gators have a legitimate opportunity to surpass last season’s accomplishments. Once again, it will be the defense that leads the way.