They are who we thought they were…

“They are who we thought they were…” the now famous press conference meltdown from Dennis Green has been used in commercials, on fan signs at games, and immortalized on youtube.  It can be used to describe the Florida Gators yeomanlike effort on defense this year.  Last year the defense finished 8th nationally in total defense at 299.5 yards per game yet in the big SEC games they struggled to stop teams when they absolutely needed to especially in the 2nd half.  A young talented defense coming off year one of a new defensive system showed flashes of promise and left Gator fans hoping to see them take the leap to top tier dominance showed by other teams such as Alabama, LSU, and South Carolina.

Lerentee McCray sacks LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (photo credit  MATT STAMEY/THE GAINESVILLE SUN)

To start the season, Gator fans and message board posters were dismayed by the amount of yardage and points the defense yielded to MAC opponent Bowling Green. Then came the first half gashing by Texas A&M freshman qb Johnny Manziel and the multitude of defensive penalties in the first half against Tennessee.  Fans began to worry that the level of defensive talent in Gainesville may have been overrated.  They might not be who we thought they were.  Penalties, some agressive, many mental and undisciplined, piled up in the first three games.   QB draws, zone stretch runs, and short passing offenses created havoc in those games.  Where were the sacks and the turnovers Muschamp stressed in the offseason? Message board posters groused, complained, and pulled their hair out.

The Gator coaches, on the other hand, made adjustments, Gator players executed those adjustments.  The message: stay calm, remain focused, and do your job.  On the pass rush, hold your man and maintain gap containment.  Defensive ends stay home.  Defensive backs stay aggressive.  The result: since giving up a td at the 7:33 mark of the third quarter against Tennessee the Gator D has yielded exactly 6 points.  9 quarters, two field goals.  They have led the team to 2nd half comebacks in every game this season.  When the offense struggled in the 1st half against LSU gaining a total of 47 yards, the Gator D was busy shutting down the Tiger offense.  When Jeff Driskel fumbled the ball to LSU on their 7 yard line at the end of the second quarter, the defense held them to three yards, two timeouts, and three points.  They are who we thought they were.

Last year the talent was there, but the depth and experience were not.   First year in a new system guys think too much.  They worry about where they’re supposed to be on the play and they play slow.  Lack of depth meant guys had to play too many snaps and as a result they were tired in the second half of games and it showed.  In the offseason they recruited talent, got some guys back from injury, and went to work under the direction of a new Strength Coordinator Jeff Dillman, Muschamp’s guy.  This year returning players came back stronger, faster, more explosive, and better conditioned.   New players  like Bullard, Fowler, and JC transfer Jacobs have provided valuable minutes and depth spelling the veterans allowing them to be fresher in the 4th quarter and even more importantly not leaving a drop off in performance.  Guys like Purifoy,  Neiron Ball, and Lerentee McCray have moved into the starting lineup and excelled.  Returning starters have improved with coaching and experience.  The result is a defense with no superstars but a bunch of guys who do their jobs and play together.  They are who we thought they were.

In addition to increased strength and conditioning and improved depth, this season’s defense is playing faster and looser.  Year two means less thinking and more letting athletic ability take over.  Recognize and react.  Fly to the ball, make the play.  The best thing is each player knows it is not on him specifically to make the play, just do your job, handle your man, and trust your teammates.  In the first half against Texas A&M, lineman in a haste to get to the quarterback lost containment leaving huge running lanes for the freshman qb to make first downs.  Halftime the defensive coaches settled them down, reminded them to hold their man, maintain control, and shut down the running lanes forcing the freshman qb to try to beat them with his arm.  He didn’t and they didn’t score again.  Against the Vols, the defensive backs were getting owned by taller receivers and the referees who called a tight game in the first half.  At halftime, the coaches told the corners to remain calm and continue their aggressiveness and they would be alright.  They did, and the Gators came back to win.  They are who we thought they were.

Matt Elam forces fumble by LSU receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. (photo credit Matt Stamey/Staff Gainesville Sun)

Five games into the season, while the offense is still a work in progress, the defense is a known quantity and may end up being one of the best in the nation.  They’ve shut down prolific offenses in TAMU, Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU.  Most importantly, they’ve owned the fourth quarter.  The old saying is that offense wins games, but defense wins championships.  This defense may just lead them to one this year.

They are who we they thought were.

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