GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida linebacker David Reese remembers the low point of 2017 as well as any bone-jarring hit or tackle for loss.
It came on a cool day at Missouri in early November.
The Gators allowed 227 yards rushing, 228 yards passing and six touchdowns to the Tigers, who had lost their first four Southeastern Conference games by a combined 85 points.
There were tears and tantrums on Florida’s sideline and in the locker room, the result of a two-week stretch that saw the program’s usually stout defense surrender more than 900 yards and 87 points in consecutive losses to Georgia and Mizzou.
“It wasn’t a good showing,” Reese said.
It was a historically poor performance, exemplifying the team’s worst defensive season in decades. The Gators allowed their most points per game (27.3) since 1946 and their most yards per play (5.7) since at least World War II. Simply put, it was the most stunning nose-dive taken by a Florida team filled with flaws under coach Jim McElwain.
Now, the Gators expect a quick turnaround in head coach Dan Mullen’s first season.
“We just want to get that bad taste out of our mouths,” Reese said.
Florida has reasons to believe the defense will return to normal this fall. The unit returns every starter outside defensive tackle Taven Bryan and cornerback Duke Dawson as well as well as their top four tacklers.
“Everybody played last year,” defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “We know what’s expected. We’ve been in big games. We’ve been in small games. We’ve just got to take advantage of it.”
Florida also is counting on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham making a huge difference. Grantham has a recent history of quick fixes, including at Mississippi State last season. The Bulldogs improved from 93rd in scoring defense in 2016 to 26th in 2017, and jumped from 110th in total defense in 2016 to 10th.
Grantham enjoyed similar improvements at Louisville (2014-16) and at Georgia (2010-13).
“The biggest thing we always talk about on defense is playing to our identity, which we say is fast, physical and aggressive,” said Grantham, who has installed a 3-4 scheme filled with blitzes. “And coaching is a part of developing that identity because really it gets down to habits. We’re not where we need to be yet, but our guys have embraced trying to develop the habits we need to be that kind of defense.
“If you do play to that identity, you have a good chance to win the game.”
Talent helps, and the Gators believe they have plenty.
It starts up front, where pass-rushers CeCe Jefferson, Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga will be counted on the create pressure. Khairi Clark, Elijah Conliffe and T.J. Slaton are expected to be run-stuffers inside.
The secondary features Gardner-Johnson, a senior, and talented sophomore cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Marco Wilson, a duo that got valuable playing time and experience last year.
Reese is the “glue” in the middle, the one holding it all together.
“I’ve got so much talent around me,” Reese said. “Just make sure we’re communicating and everyone’s playing on the same page. We’ve got all the athletes in the world. As long as we’re one, we’re going to be hard to beat. As long as we don’t let big plays happen, it’s going to be hard to score on us.”
Florida ranked in the top 15 nationally in total defense every year between 2008 and 2016, a nine-year run that included eight top-10 finishes in the ultra-tough SEC. Solid defense was the norm, despite coaching and personnel changes.
It deteriorated last year, but Florida wants it to be a one-year hiccup and not a two-year trend.
“That’s extremely motivating,” Jefferson said. “We are used to crystal balls and SEC championships, playing in big games. It’s extremely motivating. … I was part of that defense that let it slip. That just doesn’t sit well, and I find it extremely motivating.”