Florida defense carries holes into the bye

The Florida defense is coming off the worst performance in school history. There’s now two weeks to fix the problems, notably in the secondary, before returning to action at Tennessee on October 4.

SECONDARY HOLES ARE OBVIOUS: There’s no issue more clear on the Florida roster after the first three games. It was a problem against Kentucky, and Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns. The inexperienced secondary blew coverages and allowed Kentucky receivers to run free down the field.

Saturday in Tuscaloosa wasn’t much better. Kenyan Drake beat Antonio Morrison with a double move on the first snap of the game for the Alabama offense, ending with an 81-yard touchdown. Amari Cooper was even more open later for a 79-yard touchdown. Cooper ended with 201 receiving yards, the fourth most a Florida defense has ever allowed. Alabama threw for 449 yards on Saturday, good for the second most ever against a Florida defense.

Going into the bye week, it’s clear the Gators have to find answers.

The only player that seems safe in the secondary is All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators have had issues covering slot receivers, and it might make sense to move Brian Poole back to the nickel position where he excelled the last two years. That would force Florida to trust a freshman outside at cornerback. Whether that’s Jalen Tabor or Quincy Wilson, the Gators need both to improve during the next two weeks of practice.

Safety is the biggest issue in the secondary. Keanu Neal was named a starter early in fall camp, and for weeks it was only him and Hargreaves that had jobs locked up. Neal is tied for fifth on the team in tackles but has made his mark with two interceptions and one fumble return for a touchdown. He still needs to tackle better and has contributed to some of the miscommunications in the secondary.

Jabari Gorman struggled against Alabama after coming off the bench in recent years. Marcus Maye has worked as the nickel this fall and has made plays, like his strip against Alabama. He was also one of the few sure tacklers on Saturday, but his coverage has been below average, making it logical to move Poole back to nickel during the bye week.

PASS RUSH AFTER FOWLER: This was the concern of the defensive line coming into fall camp, and the Florida coaches felt confident in the group at the start of the season. While Dante Fowler has just one of the team’s six sacks at this point, the Gators need more consistency around him. Fowler has recorded six of the team’s 13 quarterback hurries.

Neiron Ball looked like he could be that guy in the season opener. The senior linebacker/defensive end is playing well through the first three games of the year, producing two sacks, one pass breakup, two quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.

Jonathan Bullard is more of a run-stuffing defensive end but can provide pass rush up the middle of the line when he moves to defensive tackle.

Tied with Ball for the team lead in sacks is Alex McCalister. He has the speed off the edge, but the question has always been his strength. When gives chances early this season, he’s showing the ability to impact the quarterback. An uptick in his snaps during the bye week could be a good move for the Florida defense.

The lost man since the season opener is Gerald Willis. He was able to provide pass rush off the edge in fall camp and showed he could handle veteran SEC linemen. These two weeks of practice could be a time to throw him more into the mix and allow him to get on the field more, even if it only comes on third downs. He didn’t see action against Kentucky or Alabama.

THIRD DOWNS: The Gators haven’t had much success on any downs this season, but third down has been a big problem. Florida opponents are 21-46 converting third downs, keeping the defense on the field and forcing them to wear down late in games.

Florida has to find a way to improve in these situations, but the two problems listed above are a big reason they exist. When they do get into third-down situations, the inexperienced Florida secondary is having problems making plays to get the defense off the field and the pass rush is having trouble getting to the quarterback. It’s a recipe for disaster, causing the Florida defense to spend a lot of time on the field.

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