It may be late in the season, but fans could finally see Florida’s defense at full strength. The final regular-season game is a sub-optimal time for one of the nation’s most talented defenses to come together. However, in a testing, trying season for the Gators, the team — and the unit — proved it can overcome the odds.
Now, sitting at 9-2, Florida’s defense is looking to have some fun.
There’s no way around it — the Gators’ defensive depth was hit hard by injuries this season. In the preseason, redshirt freshman linebacker David Reese tore his Achilles tendon. Weeks later, redshirt junior defensive back C.J. McWilliams tore his ACL.
Neither is a meaningful piece to the defense. However, combined with the dismissals of DBs Brian Edwards and John Huggins, depth at the position relied heavily on young players; especially when the injury bug hit CJ Henderson, a projected first-round DB, for a multiple-game stretch.
However, it was the defensive line that arguably missed out the most. Jabari Zuniga‘s redshirt senior return to UF was hardly the outing many expected. The pass rusher, who possesses elite talent off the ball, only logged stats in four games. He came out due to injury in three of those outings. Grad transfer Jonathan Greenard, a midseason All-America pick, although less than Zuniga, also sat out with injuries. Something the unfortunate sidelining of two of Florida’s best players did do was allow younger players to develop, per defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Most notably, redshirt sophomore Zachary Carter and true freshman Khris Bogle got chances to get more comfortable in games. Against Auburn, it was Carter who chased Bo Nix out of field goal range on a crucial third-down. Bogle has put together a nice true-freshman run, logging 17 tackles and two sacks.
The STAR position (a DB/LB hybrid) seems to have some stability late in the season. Sophomore DB Trey Dean took on the position early. But Dean struggled in coverage in the open field, which is a requirement of the position. However, the Gators moved Dean back to the outside corner spot he played as a freshman, rotating with true freshman Kaiir Elam, whose stats speak for themselves.
Kaiir Elam has only played part-time for the Gators, but he has been outstanding as a true freshman. pic.twitter.com/rnAM7e3Lhe
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 13, 2019
Now, Redshirt sophomore Marco Wilson, who used to play corner, assumes the role of STAR. Grantham walked media through the process of why certain players moved around.
Wilson, who is draft-eligible, will play STAR for the remainder of the season.
Sending the Seniors Off
The FSU game will double as senior night. A special year two under Mullen in the Swamp is the cherry on top of a fabulous senior run. The Gators football twitter account left farewell notes for each player running out of eligibility. Defensive lineman Adam Shuler quoted the tweet about him with a sweet message.
I just wanna say Thank You Gator Nation!!! I have gotten nothin but love since transferring into this program. It has been a great 2 seasons with you guys! And a special thanks to coach @CoachDanMullen for giving me the opportunity to compete and further my education!! #beatFSU https://t.co/x3xYs5Eu8W
— Adam Shuler (@Adam_goeshard) November 22, 2019
The list of out-of-eligibility-at-UF players on the defense is as follows: DB Jeawon Taylor, LB David Reese II, DL Jabari Zuniga, DL Adam Shuler and DL Jonathan Greenard.
Leaving it on the Field
Florida’s departing defense has had quite a run in Gainesville. Those who started at UF saw an SEC Championship run, a 4-7 season and back-to-back improvement under Mullen & Co. Those who transferred during the Mullen era only saw the surface scratched of what Florida is gearing up to be in the future. Jonathan Greenard is on his way to a brick outside the stadium after just one season in Gainesville.
There were a lot of defensive question marks this season. But, one thing is nearly for sure — This morale-boosting senior class is sure to leave everything out on the field against FSU.