The Book Has Changed On Florida's Defense

The book on the Florida defensive unit in 2004 was "too soft, can't finish." Fourth quarter meltdowns that cost the Gators three of their four losses only proved that theory 100 percent correct. Well, that was last year and things have certainly changed as defensive end Jeremy Mincey is quick to point out.

The Gators are ranked second in the nation on total defense, allowing only 199 yards per game. In the most important defensive statistic of all, the Gators rank fourth nationally, holding teams to a meager eight points per game. Last Saturday night in The Swamp, the Gators turned in one of the most memorable defensive performances ever by a Florida team in the modern era of Gator football by holding Tennessee to 213 total yards and a mere seven points.

Mincey is very proud of the way Florida's defense has pumped up the volume this season. Especially after the way they finished the game Saturday night, they erased a lot of doubts about toughness and the ability to close out an opponent in the fourth quarter.

"I am proud of myself, proud of my team, proud of my coaches," Mincey said following the game. "Everybody thought we were a soft fourth quarter team last year … that wasn't true, we were just young. There is a lot more maturity out there and now we know how to handle big game situations.

"It means a lot to me … everybody in America thought we were like quitters when it came to the fourth quarter. We proved a lot of people wrong. I saw something saying Gerald Riggs would run for 300 yards. The whole defense felt disrespected so we felt like we had a lot to prove. We took that to heart because when we played them last year, I personally thought they were soft. That's all we work on is finishing. That is all they preach to us is finish, finish, finish. It took a lot of heart to hold a team to seven points."

A record crowd of 90,716 at The Swamp did its part to help the Gators on the field. The stadium turned into a rowdy zoo that would explode with excitement every time the Gators made a play, and when the Vols had the ball, the noise level was deafening, causing Tennessee to burn several precious time outs.

"That was great … I got chill bumps when I ran out the tunnel," Mincey said. "That's big time football. It's one reason that makes Florida so good. We have a great student body. I love the student body and it's the best in the country. You can't beat it. The crowd was crazy but me and my teammates were still focusing in on what we had to do."

The defensive performance was especially noteworthy because of the loss of end Ray McDonald to a knee injury in the second quarter. Junior Joe Cohen and freshman Derrick Harvey had to step in and step up in McDonald's absence. They proved more than capable Saturday night.

"It's going to be real tough [losing McDonald]," said Mincey. "It just means that Joe Cohen and Derrick Harvey will have to step up. Ray will be back … he isn't gone for good so we are going to have to get it done without him.

"It was tough [Saturday night] but we couldn't stop and had to keep pushing on. Derrick Harvey and Joe Cohen stepped up. I feel good about them. Harvey is young, but the more snaps he gets, the better he gets. Joe Cohen is already experienced. I'm not worried about him.

"Joe Cohen stepped up big time. Ray is a big loss and Joe came in and played his position, his technique correctly and it could have been a disaster, but that's what we practice for. If someone gets hurt, the next man goes in. You have to be ready. You are only one play away.

"Joe is doing really well. He is getting better every game. He is getting mentioned every week as far as productivity. The big difference is his hunger for the game. He didn't like defense too much [last year], now he is taking pride in what he is doing. He used to pass rush like he was running the ball sometimes. Coach Mattison has coached him well and he is getting better. He is starting to become a defensive minded guy."

Florida's Steven Harris, (93) tackles Tennessee's Gerald Riggs, Jr., (21) in the second quarter in Gainesville, Fla. Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005. .(AP Photo/Phelan Ebenhack)

Co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison coaches the defensive line and has had a profound impact the way this unit plays. Coach Urban Meyer has continually heaped praise on the line, noting that great line play equates to great play in the secondary.

According to Mincey, Mattison is a one heck of a teacher.

"I love Coach Mattison," he said. "He teaches us technique, morality, everything. Last year I would say we didn't have as much gap control as we do now. Our gap control is everything now. All he tells us is technique is everything, so we came up big time.

"He coaches technique and our technique was a lot better than last year. It wasn't that they were more physical than us, we just had poor technique. It's the simple things like proper steps you take, reading tackles and knowing what is coming before the play. We knew what we were doing last year but not as well as this year. He just shoves it down our throat so much, we start seeing it before the game now."

The defense in 2004 was much maligned and with good reason. Players were undisciplined, leaving their own assignments to cover for someone else or just trying to be the hero on the play. Gap control requires enough discipline to stay in the gap and rely on teammates. According to Mincey, this was the problem with the defense last year, not the scheme.

"I think the heart of the team is different," he said. "We didn't get enough pass rush last year because we were young and immature. The scheme was fine. It makes me mad because the people are down on the coaches but they aren't on the field.

"It was horrible … we were horrible last year. Marcus (Thomas) and I were watching film of the Tennessee game last year and we were jumping gaps. That is why they had all those big runs. It wasn't the scheme, it was us. We were just undisciplined.

"We weren't really pushed last year the way we should have been. We are older now and no one really had the experience. Marcus was a sophomore, Ray was a sophomore, Steve Harris was a sophomore, Joe Cohen was a freshman really, and we are a lot older and know what is going on."

From the moment spring practice ended, the defensive linemen dedicated themselves to strength and conditioning. They were determined to avoid last year's fourth quarter collapses. Much of the blame for the fourth quarter woes goes to conditioning.

Improving conditioning had to start with improving attitudes and that started one night in the early spring semester.

"Our first midnight workout everyone was working hard." he said. "No one was complaining, getting after it. You could see the hunger in everybody's eyes.

"I really saw it coming, because in the off-season we really worked hard. We believed in each other and believed in the coaches' schemes. We got it done. In the spring, our defense had enough athletes to run the attacking style defense. We were running it and running it. We became real confident in the scheme and it started working."

Now that the season has begun, physical preparation starts with Tuesday's full contact practices. Those sessions are called "Bloody Tuesday" because they are longer and more grueling than any day of the week. The players know that after getting through a Tuesday practice the game is like a downhill run. The physical and mental part of the game become easier after the grueling workouts they go through.

"[Tuesday is] really intense, the hardest day of the week," he said. "That's when you get the real preparation in, more snaps. It's harder than the game. We make sure we practice harder so that the games are easier. This whole season I haven't even been winded. I am really shocked at that. You don't really know how hard we work until the game.

"We knew what the outcome would be because we prepared well. Tennessee had the same players as last year and we walked around since then saying we could have beaten them. We came in with the same attitude and ran the plays correctly. We were happy, I was proud if everyone stepping up and making plays.

"We can be a lot better. We made a lot of mistakes on film. Our effort is there. I can't believe I was chasing the ball with my helmet off. They have instilled so much effort and "go hard" that I didn't realize it. It makes me wonder if everyone else is like that."

Mincey knows he and his teammates can improve by fixing a few mental errors that have occurred. This defense is currently ranked second in the nation and Mincey has his mind set higher.

"I want to be number one," he said. "I want to set our standards higher. We can be number one, the defense and the team. We haven't proved anything yet. We will have to see in the outcome of the season. It all goes down to preparation … the man that prepares the best will win."

The transformation from last season has been remarkable. The offense last year was the tops in the conference while the defense struggled mightily each week to produce at a high level. The change, according to Mincey, started happening last season and it has been magnified by significant changes in maturity and confidence.

"The confidence started coming around the South Carolina game [2004]," he said. "We knew if we pulled together we could get the job done, and that's what we did. [Saturday night] we did prove it, we came to play. In the locker room before the game I saw the confidence in everyone's eyes. I felt the victory, so we came out there and played and won."

The Tennessee game will go a long way in making the defense even stronger. That confidence has been turned up a notch or two.

"Big time … this is an extremely big confidence builder," he said. "I really feel like our team's confidence is boosted. Not too arrogant or cocky … we just know we are a pretty good team. We still made mistakes and that's the thing. We know we can be that much better."

And so it seems the young guys have grown up. Maybe it's their experience or maybe it's a new staff that needed to bring it out of them. Whatever it is, the Gator defense has evolved and changed dramatically from last season, and for the better.

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