The Florida Gators, led by new defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong, began their 2023 season with optimism and high expectations. However, as the season has progressed, the Gators’ defense has been struggling with several ongoing problems. These include giving up too many long passing plays, failing to put pressure on the opposing quarterback, and a lack of takeaways.
The Defensive Numbers
Florida’s defense has shown improvement this season, currently ranking sixth in the SEC, 24th in the Power 5, and 34th in the FBS in total defense. They are allowing an average of 334.0 yards per game, which is a significant improvement compared to the previous season’s average of 429.3 yards per game.
However, it is important to note that these statistics can be misleading. While there are some positive aspects to their overall performance, the fact remains that Florida’s defense is still struggling against SEC opponents.
In conference play, Florida’s defense has allowed 416 yards, ranking 10th in the SEC. This defense is not performing any better in SEC play compared to last season’s defense. Teams such as Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina have all achieved their highest yards per play against the Gators defense in SEC games, with averages of 7.2, 6.5, and 7.4 respectively.
The Achilles Heel: Long Passing Plays
Although the Gators have shown improvement under Armstrong, especially in their third-down defense, their vulnerability lies in defending long passing plays. While their overall pass defense ranks fifth in the SEC and 35th nationally, allowing 203.5 yards per game, this statistic alone doesn’t capture the full picture.
Florida has given up 12 passing plays of 40 or more yards this season, placing them at an alarming 132nd out of 133 FBS teams. This disappointing performance is second only to USF.
Identifying the Root Cause
Florida’s head coach, Billy Napier, acknowledges that yards after the catch (YAC) are a significant factor contributing to the high number of long passing plays against them.
“I think there’s definitely yards after catch. I think it’s what happens before the catch. Ultimately, I think that contributes to that. Our ability to affect the quarterback, play better coverage. Once the ball is thrown, we have to break on the ball and get the guy on the ground. I do think that’s one of the areas we can improve for sure,” Napier said Monday.
The Sack Dilemma
One of the reasons for the issue of long passing plays is the lack of sacks. Florida ranks last in the league and a disappointing 116th nationally, with only 11.0 sacks throughout the year.
Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong’s aggressive playcalling, which includes various blitz packages, has created pressure and quarterback hurries. However, they have failed to convert these opportunities into sacks. Princely Umanmielen, the junior EDGE rusher, has been leading this effort and, despite not accumulating sacks, believes that he has made a significant impact on the quarterback.
“It’s been a little frustrating. I’ve seen posts saying I have one of the highest win percentages in college football. I get to the quarterback. As soon as I get there, he just throws the ball away. So many quarterback hits. It’s a little frustrating,” Umanmielen said.
“I still feel like, even though I’m not getting sacks, I’ve been affecting the quarterback throughout the games. I remember I missed one versus Vanderbilt. I was a little frustrated. Armstrong told me, he was like, ‘You stood out on the field more than somebody who would have had two sacks’ because of how much effect I was having on the quarterback.”
Youth and Experience
A significant factor in the defensive struggle is the presence of young players in Florida’s secondary. Having freshman Jordan Castell and sophomore Miguel Mitchell as starting safeties, and including freshman cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson and freshman safety Bryce Thornton in the playing rotation, has posed its challenges. It was expected that the more experienced players could assist in the development of the younger ones. However, even the junior cornerbacks, Jason Marshall Jr. and Jalen Kimber, have been outplayed in coverage during long passing plays.
In Princely Umanmielen’s words, “Experience matters. We have a really young defense. Even when I was a young player, I didn’t realize it until I got older, but experience is a factor.”
The Path Forward
The Gators’ defense needs to improve its effectiveness as the season progresses. This week’s game against Arkansas and QB KJ Jefferson presents a good opportunity for them to “get right.” Jefferson currently ranks 11th in passing among SEC quarterbacks, and the Razorbacks have struggled to generate long passing plays. They also rank 123rd in the country in sacks allowed, with 31 on the season and an average of about four sacks allowed per game.
In the upcoming games, the Florida defense will face tough challenges. They will go up against LSU, the top-ranked total offense in the country, next week. They will then face Missouri (30th) and FSU (22nd) to wrap up the season. The Gators will be tested, and the performance of their defense will be crucial in determining their success.