GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The reflex reaction when Todd Grantham was hired as Florida’s new defensive coordinator was to wonder how the Gators personnel would adjust and fit the needs of a 3-4 scheme.
The program hadn’t recruited for that system, didn’t possess the prototypical 3-4 outside linebackers or defensive linemen, etc.
But as Grantham explained Tuesday in his first meeting with local media, there’s nuance and flexibility within his system that he believes can work with the team he’s inheriting.
“We’re a 3-4 structure, but in reality we play as much four-down [linemen] as three-down. I mean if you look at our tape last year, we’d have looked a lot like your guys looked structurally at times during the game,” he said. “By being a three-down structure, it allows us to play three-down and four-down fronts, give us multiple looks, which I think you need to try to do today in college football to try to put the offense behind the sticks and create negative yardage plays.”
But yes, there will be change. Change in approach, change in positions for some players and, the Gators hope, change in results after an uncharacteristically mediocre season by Florida standards.
The Gators finished the fall 31st in total defense (349.3 yards per game allowed) and 69th in scoring defense (27.3 points per game). For perspective, the program hadn’t finished a season giving up that many points per contest since 1946 (29.3) and gave up more yards in only one season (361.8 in 2007) since 2004.
“I’m not really worried about what happened last year. I’m worried about what’s going to happen moving forward,” Grantham said. “… Really, the biggest thing right now is trying to instill the core values of competitive toughness, mental and physical toughness, understanding that attention to detail matters, exactness matters, playing hard matters. Being able to define that for them.”
Until spring practice starts next month, though, the coaches can’t actually work with the players, who are going through their offseason strength and conditioning program right now.
The spring will bring a fresh evaluation period for the new staff as it starts to assemble the pieces to the puzzle.
Florida would seem to have an entrenched duo at cornerback with rising sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson, a veteran defensive back in junior Chauncey Gardner who needs to be on the field somewhere (be it safety, corner or nickel), a solid middle linebacker in junior David Reese and some proven defensive ends in senior CeCe Jefferson, junior Jachai Polite and redshirt junior Jabari Zuniga. With that is a mix of young players with upside potential and some lingering positional questions.
Grantham already has confirmed that Jefferson will play both defensive end and outside linebacker (in 3-4 alignments), but it’s yet to be seen if any of those other defensive ends will prove as malleable.
“There’s some guys out there who can really, really move and that’s what I get excited about,” new defensive line coach Sal Sunseri said Tuesday. “There’s some guys out there that, hey, they might just be bigger guys that can move inside and rush on guards. So with the speed on the field, making people have to block this speed is going to be pretty, pretty unique.”
But how it all comes together is yet to be determined.
The coaching staff has made some preliminary evaluations of the returning personnel after the team’s graduate assistants put together 25-30-play tapes on each player, but the process is only just beginning.
“We’re really in the early stages of it right now. At the end of the day, it’s really about getting your best 11 players on the field at one time,” Grantham said.
WATCH: New Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham meets with the local media for the first time. Follow along to hear his plans for the Gators’ defense.
Posted by Florida Gators – SEC Country on Tuesday, February 13, 2018
X’s and O’s
As for the defensive philosophy that will shape all of this, Grantham said he’s pulled something from many of the coaches he’s worked under.
As a young coach getting his start at Virginia Tech, he learned from Frank Beamer how to handle players on a personal level. Working under Nick Saban at Michigan State from 1996-98 influenced him from a scheme standpoint. “A lot of the core things that we do are from that,” Grantham said. He then added nuances working under current NFL defensive coordinators such as Dom Capers and Vic Fangio, and learned to “make it fun for the players” while working under Wade Phillips.
“I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of people, taking a little bit of each person and making yourself and who you are. At the end of the day you have to be who you are and what you are to allow you to play to the identity that I would want,” Grantham said. “The identity that I would want is for us to play fast, physical and aggressive. It really gets down to those three words. If we give great effort and we play to our identity, our chances to be successful on that particular down will be pretty good.”
He also said he feels to be a good defense, a team must stop the run and “make the quarterback play bad” by disguising coverages and pressuring him.
“We play a little bit more what we call zone replacements as opposed to all-out blitzes, and what that means is, yeah, we’re bringing a safety or we’re bringing a nickel or we’re bringing a corner, but in reality we’re still playing a form of zone with that,” he explained.
Not to get too deep into X’s and O’s lingo, but Grantham also said his teams plays a one-gap scheme as opposed to the two-gap scheme common to many 3-4 alignments. The one-gap 3-4 is what Phillips has used so successfully throughout multiple NFL stops ( including his Super Bowl-winning defense with the Denver Broncos a couple years ago). It essentially means each down lineman is responsible for the offensive lineman in front of him and then one gap, rather than in a two-gap scheme having to read and react with responsibility for the gaps on either side of the blocker ahead of them.
The one-gap approach allows a defense to be more in attack mode, to put it simply.
“I think in today’s game, with the kind of players you’re using you want to be more one-gap in that you want to be able to attack the blockers. You want to be able to rush the passer,” Grantham said. “And by being able to rush the passer that means you’re an attacking front. Your front is in attack mode. Because most offenses want to be balanced 50-50 first, second down as far as run-pass, so that means we need to be in a position to play the run as well as rush the passer. So we’re more of an attack-mode defense up front. We’re more one-gap oriented, and from there we’re just going to mix and match our fronts to try to give variation to what we’re doing.”
Grantham made a point to note that when he was the defensive line coach for Phillips in Dallas, the Cowboys ranked near the top of the NFL in sacks (actually first in 2008 and seventh in 2009).
Which is a good way to “make the quarterback play bad.”
Optimism for 2018
Florida’s dip in defensive production last season was partly expected after losing eight key players on that side of the ball to the NFL and another (safety Marcell Harris) to a season-long injury.
The Gators were much younger last fall, and with youth comes growing pains. There were some decent moments (like holding LSU and Texas A&M to 17 and 19 points in back-to-back weeks) and some very humbling and discouraging moments (such as giving up 42 and 45 to Georgia and Missouri in the next two games).
Florida loses standout defensive tackle Taven Bryan, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, veteran cornerback Duke Dawson, and defensive end Jordan Sherit and safety Nick Washington, who both finished their senior seasons on the injury list.
Otherwise, the Gators have the rest back. How improved they can be in 2018 depends both on how those young players mature and develop and how the unit as a whole takes to the new coaching staff and schemes.
Fans searching for reasons for encouragement need look only at Grantham’s most recent coaching stop and the defensive turnaround he led in his lone season at Mississippi State last year.
He took over a Bulldogs defense that had finished ranked 110th in total defense (459.1 YPG) and 93rd in scoring defense (31.8 PPG) in 2016, and led the unit to a stunning one-year surge all the way to 10th in total defense in 2017 (306.3 YPG) and tied for 26th in scoring defense (20.9 PPG).
Todd Grantham’s track record as a college defensive coordinator
Now Grantham is tasked with fixing the Gators defense, and again, that process will take shape as he gets a better sense for his players and their strengths. To make that assessment, Grantham said his staff will have guys practicing at multiple positions — or “cross-training” — while trying to find the right collective fit.
Because going back to the central point, the way this Florida defense looks will ultimately be shaped largely by what the coaching staff thinks it can do.
“I’ve been around and tried to formulate [what I’ve done] into really what best fits the players that I have now,” Grantham said. “Meaning we’ll probably be a little different than we were last year. Just like last year’s defense was different than the one I had the year before that. …
“That’s really the whole thing to me is how can we get our players in position to be successful with what we’re doing? That whole thing about 3-4, 4-3, to me it’s really about we’re a 3-4 structure but we play four-down and three-down and we’re going to find ways to get our best players on the field. And we’re going to change every year relevant to the playmakers. Because defense is about winning your 1-on-1 matchups.”
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