In addition to covering Florida, I also cover USF. I’ve covered both teams now for about four seasons. Covering two teams at differing levels gives me exposure to a lot of different types of football and a lot of different coaches. I also have gotten to see both programs go through different parts of coaching cycles. For instance, last season Florida was in their first year under a new head coach, while USF was in the last year of a failing one. USF fired their coach after last season and hired Alex Golesh, who was the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. I only bring this up because Golesh gave a really interesting answer about the early parts of a coach’s tenure this week during his press availability. Golesh spoke about the fine line that coaches have to walk early in their tenures between installing schemes for quick success versus laying the foundation for sustained success. It’s a real issue that coaches have to deal with.
We saw Florida wrestle with this last season. Is it better for Florida to try to maximize the one year of Anthony Richardson with a ton of quarterback run game or a bunch of things that they may not use again or is it best to get your base schemes in and lay a foundation for the future?
I think we have seen how Billy Napier‘s choosing to address the situation. Florida, for the past two years, has been laying the foundation of how they want to play in the future. There have been some tweaks here or there, but for the most part, you can see what the scheme they want to run going forward looks like. On offense, they’ve been able to have success with a variety of personnel and that is because offense is a little more scheme dependent than personnel dependent. However, we have not seen anywhere near the same success on the defensive side of the ball. It has been proven that defensive performance is more closely tied with recruiting ranking than offensive performance, but the Florida defense the past two years has performed at a level that belies even those findings.
Youth at important spots
You are seeing a few issues rear their ugly heads for the Florida defense. The biggest factor explaining the performance in my opinion is the youth at some important spots. In modern defenses, safeties and linebackers are asked to do a lot more than they have in the past. In previous eras of football a safety may have had to learn where to drop to in a few zone coverages and how to fit the run out of those. Modern offenses are so diverse that you have to have a large toolbox to counter what they do. Safeties are asked to carry a lot. And when you play elite players, even the slightest hesitation will be punished.
We saw this play out against LSU. On Jayden Daniels’ 85 yard touchdown run, the weak safety was supposed to be part of the run fit. A QB like Daniels presents a lot of issues. You can try to play to make him hand off every read, but if you consistently present the same look to an offense they will kill you. You have to mix up your looks. So if you are going to present a look that could make Daniels keep the ball, who do you want in space against him? It has to be somebody with enough athleticism to not get totally blown by. Florida chose to include the weak safety in the run fit and have him play the quarterback. If the safety does his job, maintains eye discipline and leverage he should be alright.
Unfortunately for Florida, the safety has eyes in the backfield a little too much and he loses leverage. The corner also loses leverage. Neither of these players has to make the tackle in this look, but if they maintain their outside leverage they can turn the ball back inside to the rest of the defense. However, if you lose your leverage then it becomes a foot race. And Florida doesn’t have anybody on defense that can win a race against LSU’s QB.
I think the youth comes into play a little bit in the tackling issues as well. You can be ready for the speed of the game at a young age but it’s difficult to be ready for the physicality of the game. Florida is young and smaller at some key tackling positions.Time in a legit college strength and conditioning program will help there.
The personnel issues do make it difficult on the scheme side, particularly against good offenses. You aren’t explosive and twitchy enough to rush the passer with four and play zone behind it. You aren’t explosive and twitchy enough on the backend to play a ton of man to man coverage and bring pressure. Then, when you do bring pressure and make people throw the ball short, you don’t tackle well enough to get off the field. These missed tackles can often lead to explosive plays. The Florida defense is actually improved on a down to down basis but has gone backwards in the explosives department. The increase in explosives allowed is basically wiping out all the improvement the defense has made.
Scheme isn’t perfect
All that isn’t to say the scheme is perfect. I have my gripes with some of the designs. For example, Creepers are great in theory but it seems like a lot of the time it’s making you drop your best pass rusher back into coverage. This doesn’t just hurt your pass rush but also seems to cause some issues in the run game. I think they want the end reading run or pass first on these designs. There have been times when the read is a little murky, the end drops and then he has to quickly adjust to a pulling blocker and the play is by him. Maybe the defense would be better suited just letting that guy put his hand in the dirt and go.
However, this same scheme is working at different places across the country. No matter what you call, you won’t get stops if you consistently lose one on one battles. The Florida defensive staff will have to figure out the right mix of what they want to do versus what their guys can consistently execute. If they don’t then you likely miss a bowl game and are looking at an extremely long and loud offseason.