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Tales from the Swamp: Previewing the Florida Gators defense

Have ya ever heard of 3rd and Grantham?

Florida v Michigan Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

In Part 1 of this series, I took a look at Florida’s weapons on offense. I’m spending today filling you all in on Florida’s defense.

The Gators play about as aggressive as the Wolverines do, though their talent has different skill sets. They’re led by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who is famous for blitzing whenever, wherever and against whoever. With a pair of stud defensive ends though, Grantham has been able to dial back, particularly when at full strength — which the Gators are believed to be close to going into this game.

Any discussion about Florida’s defense needs to begin with the defensive front and, in particular, its two defensive ends. Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga have combined for 17.5 sacks on the year, split 11 and 6.5 respectively. They’re speed-first rushers, though both have an array of counter moves to get to the quarterback.

Polite is a projected first round pick that will likely shoot even further up draft boards after the combine and pre-draft work outs. The Gators’ signature victory came against LSU early in the year, and Polite completely took over. This was a rare game where Grantham laid off the blitz late, and it paid off with two interceptions to ice the game. This move by Polite is still one of the filthiest moves I’ve seen on an offensive tackle in a long time.

If the Gators have a defensive wildcard, it’s their linebackers. David Reese is the anchor of the team and is in charge of leading the defense from the middle. He’s a bit like Mike McCray where his tough tackling, smarts and instincts are his best attributes, but he’s capable of stepping up in coverage as well. Vosean Joseph is another guy who can make a significant impact, though he struggles with consistency.

Michigan doesn’t really have a similar microwave type roller coaster of a player, but maybe you can find some similarities in the way Josh Metellus played at the start of the year. Joseph is very athletic and one of the hardest hitters in the country. He’s also prone to missed tackles and mental mistakes. At his best, he can play like Devin Bush, but he’s equally likely to act as an agent of chaos.

Star (that’s what the position is called) Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will be entering the NFL Draft after the game. Gardner-Johnson plays corner, nickel, safety and some linebacker in smaller personnel groupings. He’s not a viper, but the Gators use him in a lot of the same ways Michigan used Jabrill Peppers. He’s got more than 60 tackles this year to go along with three sacks and a pair of interceptions. Chauncey can be an agitator at times, so it’ll be important for whoever is lined up across from him to keep their composure.

The rest of the Gators’ secondary has dealt with a wave of injuries. Against Georgia, they basically started their fourth and fifth corners because of injuries and suspensions. Currently, they’re leaning on a pair of very young, yet very talented corners.

C.J. Henderson is a sophomore who will be one of the highest rated DBs in the country next year, as he’s good at mostly everything. He has two picks, two sacks, seven pass break-ups and 30 tackles.

On the other side is Trey Dean, a freshman who was thrown into a heavier load than was expected at the season’s start. As a whole, Florida’s secondary struggled against the size of both Missouri and Georgia, so Michigan may have some opportunities to attack down field if the offensive line can hold up. Donovan Peoples-Jones, Tarik Black, and especially Nico Collins will all enjoy large size advantages.

Keeping everything in front of them, Florida will mostly lean on a trio of young safeties (catching on here?) in sophomores Brad Stewart and Donovan Stiner, along with freshman Jaewon Taylor. Continuing the trend, all three are very talented and capable of doing some “wow” things on the field while not always maintaining a high level of consistency. In some ways, they’re a notch-down version of last year’s Wolverines defense.

Michigan is going to have its work cut out for them against the Gators. They’re a much improved team from Jim McElwain’s tenure on both sides of the ball. Doug Nussmeier’s play calling has been replaced by Dan Mullen’s and Randy Shannon’s passive meh-ness with Grantham’s Brown-level aggression.

Jim Harbaugh and Pep Hamilton’s offense is improved since the 2017 opener, but without Karan Higdon, I’m not sure exactly what to expect. Personally, I would like to see the Wolverines spread the Gators out and try to test their depth. If the game plan is continuously running at David Reese and defensive tackle Adam Shuler with Chris Evans and Tru Wilson, I don’t know if Michigan will get good results.

Going into the game, the keys will be keeping Polite and Zuniga at bay, forcing the linebackers on their heels instead of playing downhill, and stretching out Florida’s secondary depth. I believe Michigan has the skill position guys and offensive line talent to do this, but as usual, it’ll be up to Michigan’s play-calling to give them the opportunities.