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Previewing Alabama versus Florida: The Gator defense

In his second year at Florida, injuries have led defensive coordinator Geoff Collins to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear of late, as an injury-depleted roster has been ferocious to end the season.

NCAA Football:  Florida at Louisiana State
Jalem “Teez” Tabor is a legitimate early round pick, and he already has four interceptions this season.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A battered and bruised Florida team squeaks out an SEC East title despite numerous offensive problems, myriad injuries to key playmakers, and an early season loss to a team that crashed down the stretch. The Gators then have the unenviable task of facing a primed, peaking Alabama squad for all the SEC marbles in Atlanta. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

For the second year in a row, the Gators have won the SEC East, only to glean the prize of playing the football powerhouse that is Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. This year’s match-up seems to be a repeat of what transpired last December: two great defenses, a prolific Alabama rushing attack, and a Gator offense that struggles mightily in moving the ball.

While many will forecast an outcome to last year’s drubbing of Florida, there’s always reason to be concerned with what the Gators bring to the table defensively. Sure, they are banged up. But defensive coordinator Geoff Collins is one of the best in the business at coaching up his talent (he spent several years at Mississippi State, after all) and getting the best effort out of the best 11 players he can put on the field. Will it be enough to stop an Alabama offense that, to date, still hasn’t unlocked its full potential? Probably not. But one can believe the Gators will be ready for the challenge at hand, and with Collins rather unique style of defense, they can cause problems for a Tide offense that struggled early on to get the wheels churning against a salty Auburn defense last week.

The Gators consistently have one of the nation’s better secondaries, and the same can be said this year. Some of the big names left the program in 2015, such as Vernon Hargreaves, but the Gators still sport talented defensive backs such as future NFL draft pick Jalen Tabor (6-0, 201 pounds). The Gators can shut opposing pass offenses down, as Collins uses a lot of nickel looks and zone blitzes to confuse quarterbacks, slow decision-making, and create hesitation that allows the pass rush to hit home. It’s a beast of a defense overall when healthy, and Alabama will be challenged (even if to a lesser degree due to the injuries) in attempting to navigate what Florida can do at a high level defensively.

But can this defense give the Gators a chance to pull a shocking upset? After all, this is the same wounded defense that gave up a ton of yards and points to a decent (but not spectacular) Florida State team last week. Florida State has a similar run-first philosophy with stellar back talent and a mobile, dual-threat signal caller under center not unlike the package Alabama brings to the table. Why would anyone think that the outcome for the Gators will be any different than last week’s contest with FSU, or last year’s SEC Championship Game, for that matter?

In short, that uncertainty is the reason the game is played. If Alabama puts on a turnover show the likes of which was performed against Auburn, the Gator offense may not need that much firepower for Florida to gain a toe-hold. If Alabama stumbles early and finds itself out of synch against Florida’s stingy defense, then Tide fans can expect the same kind of edge-of-seat first-half opening stanza that they experienced in games against LSU, and to a degree, Auburn.

Can the Gator offense limit the Tide offense enough to keep the score close heading into the fourth quarter? Will the Gators be able to deal with the new-fangled Tide offense and a mobile quarterback who has injected himself into the late-season Heisman conversation? Can the Gator defense, beaten and battered as it is, really hem up the Tide and give the offense a chance to steal a historic upset?

We will know before too long. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

The team in orange and blue that began the 2016 campaign in September would be barely recognizable to recent observers of the Gators, as once again, Florida has had some of the worst personnel luck of any team in history. Against Alabama, the Gators will be without their two best defensive linemen (end CeCe Jefferson and Bryan Cox Jr.), one of their two best defensive backs (Marquis Maye is out for the season), and possibly starting junior safety Nick Washington (6-0, 197 pounds). Add in that starting linebacker Daniel McMillan (6-1, 223 pounds) and starting nickel back Duke Dawson (5-10, 208 pounds) are questionable, and the Gators will be down to untested freshmen at some positions heading into the SECCG.

Such is not a recipe for success against a diverse, churning Alabama offense, to be sure. However, don’t sleep on the talent the Gators will put on the field Saturday, as they have picked up several key wins this season with a similarly-depleted roster on the field.

Up front, the Gators will be without the aforementioned Cox and Jefferson most likely, though both players are listed on the depth chart in the second- and third-strings (respectively) and could be called upon if necessary. One player who has filled in admirably for Cox at end is sophomore Keivonnis Davis (6-4, 241 pounds), a solid edge rusher who has done a decent job of keeping pressure on opposing offenses. Davis has 21 tackles on the season to go along with a sack and four quarterback hurries. Of course, given his druthers, Collins would much rather have the proven playmaker Cox on the field, but Davis has proven himself a worthy back-up. Depth at the position is otherwise thin, as though injured, Cox is still listed as the reserve player should he be needed.

At the other end position is junior Jordan Sherit (6-4, 254 pounds), another reserve player who has been called up to the front in the absence of Jefferson. Despite his relative inexperience, Sherit is having a nice season, recording 38 tackles, five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries. Depth is a little better behind Sherit, as able freshman Jabari Zuniga (6-3, 245 pounds) has seen a good bit of playing time despite his relative youth. To date, Zuniga has accounted for 22 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Again, Jefferson is the third option after Zuniga if he is needed, but if the Gators reach those levels of desperation, the game may well be unwinnable anyway.

In Collins’ system (like any other 4-3 scheme), the interior is extremely important, particularly in run defense. Fortunately for the Gators, they have two standouts at the tackle positions. Sophomore nose Khairi Clark (6-2, 319 pounds) may not have much of a stat line this year, with only 13 tackles and a sack on his ledger. However, he does exactly what a good nose tackle does in Collins’ defense, and that is seal the interior spaces and take on double-teams. Behind Clark is senior Joey Ivie (6-3, 304 pounds), a veteran who provides quality depth. Ivie has 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks for the season.

One of the Gators’ pro prospects on the field this Saturday will be junior Caleb Brantley (6-2, 297 pounds), an athletic big man who has explosiveness and technique in the heart of the Florida defense. Brantley has been outstanding this year despite the battle-damaged cast around him, as he has accounted for 28 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Brantley is spelled by sophomore Tavan Bryan (6-5, 293 pounds), who has been active in relief with 14 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

The linebacking corps, a pivotal piece of Collins’ run defense scheme, may be in flux this weekend, as starting senior Sam linebacker Daniel McMillan (6-1, 223 pounds) may be unable to go after getting dinged up over the last two weeks. On Tuesday, his status was listed as questionable, and given that prognosis, even if he does play it is certain he won’t be at 100 percent. Linebacker is the position that has probably taken the hardest hit due to injury, as starting freshman Will linebacker Kaylan Johnson (6-1, 231 pounds) is listed on the depth chart as the second-stringer behind both McMillan and freshman Mike linebacker David Reese (6-0, 244 pounds). The only other linebacker in the mix on the depth chart is yet another freshman, Vosean Joseph (6-1, 226 pounds). Therefore, if McMillan can’t go, Johnson will likely start at Sam, while Joseph will get the call on the weakside. There is no room for further injury at linebacker, and even if the Gators run the early gauntlet against Alabama unscathed, they will have no depth to spell the starters in the fourth quarter, setting up a tough situation for the Gator defense.

McMillan was a replacement player himself, only recording 15 tackles and a tackle for loss in limited time this season. Reese and Johnson have been spectacular as freshmen who stepped up to take on heavier roles in the Gator defense, with Reese accounting for 48 tackles and two tackles for loss, while Johnson has 34 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack on the season. Joseph hasn’t seen the field much, and as a result, only has seven tackles to his credit.

The Gator secondary will also likely see a lot of youth on the field against Alabama, as starting junior safety Nick Washington (6-0, 197 pounds) and junior nickel Duke Dawson (5-10, 208 pounds) are either questionable (Dawson) or doubtful (Washington) for the SECCG. That is unfortunate for the Gator defense, as both have been critical this season, with Washington recording 45 tackles and an interception this season, while Dawson has 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception, seven passes broken up, and a forced fumble. If Washington is indeed out, he’ll be replaced by fellow starting junior safety Marcell Harris (6-1, 211 pounds), who will move over from the strong safety position, while freshman Jeawon Taylor (6-0, 187 pounds) steps up to fill in for Harris. The depth at safety is thin due to…you guessed it…injury attrition.

The Gators will sorely miss Washington, as he is the third leading active tackler for Florida at the moment. Washington has 45 tackles, an interception, and two quarterback hurries this season, and he provided a veteran presence at an important position. Harris is able in his stead if Washington can’t go, as he leads active defenders with 57 tackles, along with two tackles for loss, two interceptions, and a quarterback hurry. Taylor, if called upon, will be a greenhorn on the field against Alabama, as he’s received limited live-fire playing time and has only recorded seven tackles in his UF career.

If Dawson can’t go, reserve freshman corner Chauncey Gardner (5-11, 204 pounds) will get the call at the important nickel position. Though a freshman, Gardner has worked his way into hefty playing time on the ravaged roster, and as a result he has an impressive stat line for a player who started the season as a back-up, which includes 21 tackles and an interception.

The corner slots are one of few positions on the defense where the Gators are well-stocked…at least in the first-string. At left cornerback, the Tide will face junior Quincy Wilson, who has 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, three interceptions, six passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Wilson has been playing at an elite level this season, and has likely benefitted from playing opposite the Gators’ most explosive defensive back in junior and NFL prospect Jalen Tabor (6-0, 201 pounds). Tabor is a lockdown corner with a big body and excellent speed and instincts for the position. Tabor has 28 tackles, a sack, four interceptions, five passes broken up, and a fumble recovery thus far, as he’s done nothing this season but improve his draft stock should he elect to forgo his senior season in Gainesville.

How the Gator defense can stop the Alabama offense

Collins didn’t come by his nickname “The Minister of Mayhem” by coincidence, as his defenses are extremely difficult to predict, diagnose, and neutralize. What’s not difficult to predict is Collins’ focus on stopping the run, first and foremost. At Florida last season (and Mississippi State previously), the defensive coordinator routinely put together some of the stingiest run defenses in a conference full of stingy run defenses, and with Florida’s talent level, his schemes have been decidedly even more effective.

The Gator strategy under Collins is really simple: stop the run so that the opponent desperately goes to the pass, then allow the pass rush to attack, thus forcing the offense to throw into the teeth of the elite Gator secondary. The pressurizing combination of an aggressive, usually effective pass rush and a physically-gifted secondary playing a unique drop-zone coverage scheme with a lot of nickel personnel packages often brings opposing offenses to their knees. The attacking Gator front will allow short gains on the ground, but they usually lock down and prevent the kinds of long running plays that have been the calling card of Alabama’s zone read offense this year.

The Florida front will obviously be tasked with limiting the Alabama running game, which will more than likely be the mallet with which the Tide will strike the Gator defense first and foremost. Though Jalen Hurts has shown modest improvement in recent weeks as a passer, it would be difficult to believe that Kiffin will choose to attack a damaged-but-still-elite Gator secondary through the air with reckless abandon. Given the strength of the Gator corners in particular, a game plan built on the edge running game and short passes would be wise in the early going. In return, the Gators will attack the Bama front with intelligent aggression, letting the adept linemen occupy blockers and force the action inside, where the linebackers will attempt to fit the run and limit gains as they’ve done all year.

On passing downs, expect to see the Gators try create pressure using lots of stunts and twists while the linebackers blitz from unconventional vectors. The Florida front seven has not been as adept at generating tackles for loss and sacks as they were last season (29th in sacks and 53rd in tfls nationally after finishing in the top-10 in both categories in 2015). However, they may not need to be dynamic to gain penetration against Alabama, as preventing tfls and sacks is something with which the Tide offensive line has struggled this season (Alabama is ranked 105th in tfls allowed this season and 33rd in sacks allowed, for example).

For the Gators to be able to do what few other teams have done in 2016 (namely, bottle up Hurts and the zone read running game), that penetration will be key. There are two ways to defend against Alabama’s running game, in a nutshell. A defense can either attempt to penetrate from the edges into the backfield to attack the mesh point and disrupt the lateral nature of the Tide’s offensive attack (as LSU did), or a defense can try to string the Bama offense out wide on the zone read by confusing the QB and obfuscating his keys to causing hesitation (as Auburn did in the first half of the Iron Bowl). Because Florida has had trouble with beating offenses at the point of attack this year (as evidence by the lackluster sack and tfl numbers), one can expect the latter approach may be more in keeping with the personnel on the field Saturday. Given the role of the linebackers in Collins’ defense, one can also expect to see them charged with running down the plays to the edges, though the ability of the available talent to do that is questionable.

Collins likes to use his defensive linemen in traditional spacing for a 4-3, unlike the exotic alignments used by his defensive predecessor at Florida (Muschamp). In Collins’ version of the 4-3, the coach will typically line his tackles up on, or outside the outside shoulder of the offensive guards. This gives the defense even spacing, and creates room for the linemen to use their athleticism as well as simplicity of assignments in controlling gaps. That said, sometimes Collins shrinks the spacing on the play side to create the impression of a “heavy” alignment on running downs, if doing so will give his defense an advantage when the offense is obviously setting up for a run.

In a perfect world with a full, healthy roster, Collins would use his linebackers as the ultimate, versatile pivot points upon which his defense turns. The linebackers don’t create pressure on their own, per se, but rather take advantage of the pressure created by the defensive line and defensive back blitzes. Collins demands that the linebackers be intelligent, excellent at tackling and tenacious in pursuit. Inside linebackers are counted upon to play north and south, hawking towards the ball, blowing up the gaps, and crushing running backs. The outside LBs are expected to roam sideline-to-sideline, stringing out runs to the edge while maintaining containment, and slicing across the hashes against outside zone runs.

Despite the physical nature of his defensive backs and their pure ability, Collins doesn’t often ask his secondary to play pure man coverage. Not that the Gators never go to a man look with a Cover 1, for example, but Collins seems to prefer a lot of drop zones that mix up coverage and force quarterbacks to make unfamiliar reads on the fly. For example, instead of having a safety simply play over the top to provide help to corners in man, he’ll employ a drop zone and keep the safety in the middle of the defense as a soft zone robber who can sneakily slide between zones of coverage to catch quarterbacks off guard.

If Kiffin turns Hurts loose with the passing game, it’s the kind of trickery that could give the freshman quarterback trouble as he attempts to work through his reads. Also, Hurts has not been immune to turning the ball over through the air (he has nine interceptions on the season), and against a sneaky coverage scheme like the one described above, it’s not hard to imagine that the young quarterback could be lured into a Gator trap.

Collins is a master of the zone blitz, using designed drops to create mayhem for opposing quarterbacks. Whereas a passer may become accustomed to seeing certain players in coverage, Collins keeps offensive coordinators and quarterbacks guessing with his drops, thus creating hesitation. When paired with the use of an additional rusher (such as an athletic outside linebacker or safety/ corner), this tactic provides a deadly recipe for quarterbacks trying to quickly run through progressions against the Gator defense. Again, quick reads and progressions have not been Hurts’ strength this season, and any Gator attempt to disrupt his usual decision-making process could pay dividends for UF in the form of turnovers.

Once the offense becomes confused and/ or tentative in the passing game, Collins gives those stellar future NFL defensive backs the leeway to jump routes when opportunities present themselves. He trusts his corners and safeties to take calculated risks to create big plays (it’s no coincidence that Tabor and Wilson have seven interceptions between them this year.)

One could sum up the Collins attack with a comparison to his predecessor at Florida: while former UF head coach Will Muschamp was aggressive in using pressure and power to overwhelm offenses, Collins is aggressive in using his pressure combos up front as well as the speed and illusion in the secondary.

This attack could create huge problems for Alabama, if the Tide cannot establish a significant running attack. While a shell of their former selves from earlier in the season, the Gators still have the talent and scheme to be disruptive to the Tide running game. If the Gators can string out the Tide’s lateral running game and seal off the inside zone, they will cause problems for an Alabama offense that still (despite the evolution that has taken place with Hurts) lives and dies with the rush. Whether all on his docket or not, Hurts has continued to struggle somewhat with turnovers, which in fairness can be expected of a true freshman quarterback. However, with a ball-hawking secondary, Hurts can’t afford the kind of mistakes he made in the passing game against Auburn last week, as the Gator secondary is a turnover machine that could even the odds for the overmatched Gators with interceptions.

The imperative nature of establishing the run is magnified by the fact that even though the Tide passing attack has improved from game to game, the Gators secondary is the strength of a strong defense. Hurts won’t be able to flip the ball around with the relative inaccuracy and timing issues that have plagued him throughout the season. The Bama receivers won’t see the kind of daylight they saw against Mississippi State or Auburn, as the Gators are on top of their zone coverage P’s and Q’s and will clog the passing routes with an assortment of defensive backs and linebackers.

Alabama will likely struggle mightily in the passing game without a productive ground attack, but as in the past, that won’t matter if the Tide can run the ball at will. If, however, the Alabama running game struggles, they won’t have the luxury of taking chances against the Gator secondary through the air without eventually paying a price.

The Result

As good as the Gator defense has been this season, the front seven probably hasn’t seen as dynamic and multi-dimensional an offensive attack as the one Alabama can wield against them this Saturday. Whether it’s the lateral running attack, the inside zone, the zone read option, or the short-strike passing attack, Florida will have a lot to prepare for when defending Alabama’s hydra of an offense with Hurts at the helm.

The strength of the Gator defense this year is in the Florida secondary, but if Alabama has success in the running game with Hurts and a trio of backs, then that strength may not even be flexed against the Tide. To put it bluntly (again), the Gators (while still stout) are a shell of the team they were in September, with injuries once again ravaging what it is a very talented defensive roster. In fact, of the top four tacklers on the Gator roster in 2016, three of them will not be on the field against Alabama Saturday, which is something that cannot be underestimated. After all, Florida would have a tall task at hand in beating Alabama with a full, healthy roster. But with its personnel scuttled at this point in the season, it is doubtful the Gators will have the defensive experience and talent on the field to manhandle a rampaging Tide offense.

If Alabama can get into an offensive rhythm with bubble screens while running with authority, there’s little doubt that the Tide can use the patented anaconda formula to choke out the Gators this Saturday. Specifically, they can strangle the Florida offense with an impenetrable defense, and let the offense hammer away until the Gator defense tires and lets a long run or play-action pass slip through. From there, Bama’s momentum could be akin to a snowball rolling downhill. Florida simply has little to no depth at most positions defensively, and Alabama will take advantage of that as the game wears on, even if the Gators prove ferocious in the early going. It’s a tactic that has worked well against opponents with arguably better defenses this season (namely LSU and Auburn), and there’s no reason to think Alabama will change its attack at this point.

Florida will make the going tough early, but beneath the weight of a near-constant bludgeoning over four quarters, the Tide will begin to see that rigid Gator wall turn into dust. There simply aren’t many teams built to withstand what Alabama is dishing out offensively this season. It may be flashier than the Tide’s power offense last season, but the result is very similar: a tactical full-nelson that confounds and tires a defense, leaving it vulnerable as time wears on.

There’s little doubt that the Gator offense will struggle against Alabama’s defense, so it will be up to the Gator D to keep Florida in the game until the fourth quarter, when a single big play (on offense or defense) could break a stalemate and lead to a shocking upset. If Alabama struggles to run the ball, the chances of such an outcome increase exponentially. But if Kiffin can find the chinks in the Gators defensive armor and establish a solid foundation with the run, they can easily call their shots while hammering away with the knowledge that the Hurts-led offense will find its way into the end zone.