Last year was year one on defense under a new staff. Coordinator Geoff Collins still used an attacking style, but it had its differences from his predecessor a year earlier. For Collins and his first year on campus at Florida, he figured out that he just needed to let the players play and their talent could take over games at times.
“One of the big things is the kids we had last year were very talented and they could make up for things that sometimes schemes can’t fix.,” Collins said late last week. “They just want a call early. Just get them a defense. They are smart enough to figure out splits, figure out backfield sets, figure out formations, and then figure out how they fit into the defense and their athletic ability and their speed takes over. As the season went on, we would get calls in faster and faster, let them process it, because they are all highly intelligent kids, and then let them play. You saw as the season went on the more confident and at a higher level they played.”
Year two poses some challenges, like the aforementioned losses to the professional ranks. But Collins believes he has the talent on hand to even be better than a year ago. We’ll discuss what we’ve seen and heard from this group for the first half of spring, here.
There are a couple things from a year ago that we know about defensive line coach Chris Rumph and what he was able to do. Sure he got all-star play from Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister, but he was able to play every single scholarship player that wasn’t being redshirted and most in important roles and times on the field that mattered.
That means two things. They have experience this year maybe where they weren’t expected to, and look for the guys that were redshirted to get in the mix this year.
Probably the biggest talk up front this spring has been the emergence of RUSH end Keivonnis Davis. In the 240 pound range now, Davis lost his redshirt in the last three games of 2015 and with an injury to Jordan Sherit for a bit of this spring, he jumped right up into the starting spot as the main pass rusher, at least until Sherit gets back 100%.
This is significant with the loss of McCalister who was a force off the edge in the limited amount of time he was on the field a year ago. Sherit is just about back to full strength now, so having a second guy that can add to the rush is big time.
The next storyline has been the placement of CeCe Jefferson up front. As an end in his freshman season a year ago, Jefferson played well and was able to really cause chaos up front for the Florida defense. Now, he will be spending time at the 3-technique tackle position as well, much like Bullard did. That position is handled by redshirt junior Caleb Brantley right now who is having a tremendous spring, but in long yardage situations, I can imagine having both Brantley and Jefferson in at defensive tackle will be tremendously tough on the opposition.
“I think CeCe has embraced that,” Collins said. “We’ve moved him around, trying to find the best four, slash, the best eight, whoever that is, whatever position they need to play for us, the mixture of those guys is huge and the unselfish nature of CeCe and that group. The best thing about CC Jefferson is that he is one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever been around, he’s very unselfish, he’s a team first guy, ‘whatever you want me to do coach, I’m going to do’.”
It isn’t an easy move for a guy that has been used to playing on the outside.
“The first challenge is the double teams,” Collins said. “When you’re inside there’s six hundred to six hundred and fifty pounds of SEC offensive linemen trying to get after you. Getting down in there, Caleb last year, Caleb Brantley took a lot of double teams, Khairi Clark same thing, so we just move stress around. Sometimes the stress is going to be on CC getting doubled, sometimes it’s going to be on Caleb Brantley, they understand that, and unselfishly know that sometimes I’m going to be singled, and that is when the magic happens.”
And yet another great story line this spring on the defensive line is that of Thomas Holley. The former 320 pound defensive tackle has lost 60 pounds because playing at the former weight was too much on an injured him that has been operated on and still hurting.
Not wanting to give up football, which the doctors suggested, Holley set out to get on the field in some way, shape, or form and now is playing at defensive end. He looks like a body builder now, but he has a ways to go to learn the position.
“He’s got a hip that is like mine,” Florida head coach Jim McElwain said last week of Holley. “It only has so many more movements in it. To take the weight off for him is huge for him, just long range. He’s not out of the woodworks yet by any stretch of the imagination. He wants to play so badly and this is the one opportunity he had… to slim down and see if he could sustain a little bit.
“I’m excited for him. We obviously monitor his pitch count, but to see him out there he is a guy that can really help this football team.
“His evolution… it’s like he is a new guy. I think that shows the discipline that he has. He just wants to be able to help the Gators.
Redshirt freshman Luke Ancrum has also moved inside to defensive tackle. He’s a little undersized, but when he signed out of high school it was a question where he would line up. He’s a project at this point that they may get a few plays form here and there, but look for him to continue to add weight and muscle.
Clark is a guy that is coming on as well. The biggest of the defensive linemen, if he continues to work to take on double teams. He can be a real threat this year. He and Taven Bryan are coming on strong as defensive tackles.
True freshman Jordan Smith has been impressive at times. Long and lean, he doesn’t have the body types as some of his fellow linemen, but he’s up to 240 pounds now and has some ability that may be able to be utilized in year one.
“Jordan Smith, I don’t know if you’ve seen him out there,” Collins stated. “He’s 6-foot-6 and knocking balls down just standing there.”
We know that Rumph will utilize every bit of talent he has, so expect another year of a lot of people up front playing for these Gators.
There are two real stories among the linebackers right now. One is a macro story involving the class of 2013 linebackers that are still all around and contributing more and more. We all know of starter Jarrad Davis and injured Alex Anzalone, both figure prominently in the plans in the fall. But Matt Rolin and Daniel McMillian are also having good springs and the position looks to be a strength of the team if the progression continues.
“Matt Rolin had nine tackles in the SEC Championship game,” Collins said. “That is as big an event as you can be in. To perform at that level was huge for him. Take that and build some confidence off of it.
“Daniel McMillian went from early in the season playing 8-12 snaps a game to at the end of the season to playing 20-30 on defense. Taking the next step in his development is going to be awesome for us.”
The other story line is the quick emergence of true freshman David Reese, who has emerged as a leader type and someone that really picks things up quickly. They have gotten to the point with Reese where they expect to play him in the fall a good bit. Jarrad Davis has a lot to do with the quick growth of Reese.
“Jarrad Davis is arguably one of the best linebackers in the country coming back,” Collins said. “What a presence he is from a leadership position. He’s taken (Reese) under his wing and really helped him. You’ve seen him out there making calls, doing high level thinking. If we are setting fronts or it needs to be reloaded, he can do that… putting stunts on it. Being here in January has been awesome.”
Probably the biggest storyline this spring at cornerback is the hiring of defensive back coach Torrian Gray from Virginia Tech. He’s loud and into it on the practice field and his players seem to respond well. Collins believes he is fitting in well with the staff too.
“What a great guy,” Collins said of Gray. “(He has) lots of enthusiasm, very disciplined. The expectations for him too are high. And what a great guy to be around every single day, I think him, Coach Shannon obviously, Coach Rumph in that room together, if you can spend 15 hours together you better like each other and he has meshed well with us, so we expect big things.”
Almost every time you step on the field to watch Jalen Tabor he’s making a play. He’s really that good. He also likes to let the guys on the other side know they need to get better. Look for Tabor to have a huge junior year.
“He set the bar very high for himself and I think just the lineage that he is stepping into, going back to Hayden and obviously Vernon and what he did over the last few years, and I think Tabor, and the performance that he did last year, he’s ready to step up and just take that to another level,” Collins said of Tabor’s four interception season in 2015. “Arguably the best corner in college football, I don’t think he shies away from that and the nice thing about him is he’s working on his craft every day, picking Coach Gray’s brain every time I turn around. I think the expectations for him are high, they should be and I don’t think he is shying away from that one bit.
Junior Quincy Wilson has been slowed by a healing hernia injury, but has really made strides in the last week. Wilson is as aggressive as Tabor and having two guys like that on the field at the same time can only lead to chaos for the opposing offense.
Chris Williamson has been coming along as well. The sophomore saw the field in very limited time a year ago as he was a little tentative when out there. He’s brought a new attitude this spring and playing much more aggressively. He has a ways to go but there is a light at the end of the tunnel for him.
There are two freshmen at cornerback / NICKEL right now and both are performing well. McArthur Burnett plays with no worries and is an in your face kid all of the time. Chauncey Gardner has a bit more size to him and brings his physical presence and a little talk to go with it.
Junior Duke Dawson is performing well and moved from safety to NICKEL this spring, he and Gardner are in a fight for the NICKEL spot right now. He also could play safety and a lot of it.
“The thing about Chauncey is that he is very talkative and a great personality, but the thing people don’t see is how much he studies,” Collins said of his freshman. “He is the first one in the building. He’s bugging Marcus Maye, bugging (Jalen Tabor), getting in their heads, staying after meetings. Everyone sees his personality and is flamboyant, but he loves football, he’s a great person, he’s highly intelligent, and football is important to him.
“You see that on the field every day. He’s not on the sideline just talking to guys and kidding around. Whenever he’s not in he is dialed in watching everything that Marcus Maye does and Nick Washington does. I think that’s going to be huge for him moving forward.”
Collins coaches the safeties and has a pretty veteran group to deal with. Senior Marcus Maye is the leader and a guy that turned down a chance to go to the NFL early. Maye will be one of the starters. Juniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington are fighting for that other spot right now,
Harris has the ability to play in the box where he has a chance to utilize his strength and quickness to fight off blockers.
“He’s a big physical kid,” Collins said. “Once he gets downhill and we start to insert him into the box or on the edge, he’s a physical presence. He’s athletic enough to cover slot receivers and tight ends. We trick him with some of the things we do to play MIKE linebacker. He does a great job and embraces it.
“What he’s done with Coach Kent and the strength staff is worked on his speed, his agility, so he can cover the SEC receivers he has to face week in and week out.”
The team has worked on some drills this spring that will help with coverage and return units, but other than working on the kicking battery of snap-hold-kick, they have stayed away from particulars in that area.
If anyone knows the importance of the kicking game by now it is Gator fans. Two of the last three years have been abysmal kicking field goals and even extra points. Jim McElwain brought in junior college kicker Eddy Pineiro for that reason. Still a redshirt freshman Pineiro is expected to make a huge difference in the fall.
Having only kicked in six football games in his life, Pineiro spent last year playing soccer, but he has a leg as good as anyone out there. They just have to work on the timing of things to get where McElwain wants it. He’s excited about Pineiro’s future.
“He’s been good,” McElwain said. “The operation time has steadily been coming down. It is something we’ve needed to work on since the start of practice. We are putting him in situations every day where he doesn’t really know when it’s going to happen. His understanding that you have to be ready throughout the practice, just like a game, you never know when the kick will come.
“He’s getting on the ball a little quicker and it is great to see the ball really get up.”