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Florida’s defense is still talented, but the glitches are much bigger this year

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The Gators’ depth has been tested this year and hasn’t completely passed.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Florida
David Reese (33)
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You never know when depth is truly going to be an issue. Every year, you head into a season with certain units more questionable than others, from either a depth or talent perspective. But if the starters stay healthy, or a random freshman or sophomore is a little bit more ready than the normal freshman or sophomore, maybe you skate by just fine.

The Florida defense has not skated by in 2017.

Mind you, it still hasn’t been terrible. It’s easily behind the offense when it comes to facing blame for the Gators’ 3-4 start. The Gators have only allowed more than 5.8 yards per play once in seven games and had allowed only 20 points per game in the three contests before Georgia laid waste to every Gator unit.

Still, it hasn’t been great. We knew there would have to be a drop-off — the Gators had to replace safety Marcus Maye, stud corners Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson, their two best linebackers (Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone), and tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie. That’s quite a bit, especially in the back.

Then the hits began to come. Leading returning safety Marcell Harris was lost in the preseason. End Jordan Sherit went down. So did linebacker Kylan Johnson.

Now, of the 12 defensive backs listed below, six are true freshmen, one is a redshirt freshman, and two are sophomores. The Gators still have talent, of course: senior corner Duke Dawson is excellent, and one of those sophomores, blue-chipper Chauncey Gardner is, too.

But with youth come breakdowns. Florida ranks a reasonable 40th in success rate allowed but 117th in passing IsoPPP, a measure of the magnitude of the successful plays. Opponents are completing only 50 percent of their passes but are averaging over 15 yards per completion. And after allowing just eight touchdown passes all of last year, the Gators have allowed 10 in just seven games.

The run defense has struggled with big play-itis as well, but it’s still strong. Only Georgia has really been able to bring the pain to the Gators’ run front, and Georgia brings the pain to everyone. Florida can still render non-Georgia offenses one-dimensional and inefficient. Of course, Missouri doesn’t mind being inefficient if it can land some haymakers in the process.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Florida
Cece Jefferson
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

DE

  • Jabari Zuniga (6’3, 246, So.) — 15.0 tackles, 6 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 6 run stuffs, 9% success rate allowed
  • Jachai Polite (6’2, 260, So.) — 16.5 tackles, 5.5 TFLs (2 sacks), 5 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 25% success rate (questionable with shoulder injury)
  • Out: Jordan Sherit (6’4, 254, Sr.) — 16.5 tackles, 5 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 6 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 4% success rate

NT

  • Khairi Clark (6’1, 315, Jr.) — 5.0 tackles, 1 TFL (0.5 sacks), 3 run stuffs, 11% success rate
  • Tedarrell Slaton (6’4, 358, Fr.) — 6.0 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 13% success rate
  • Kyree Campbell (6’3, 305, Fr.) — 4.0 tackles, 1 TFL (0.5 sacks), 1 run stuff, 14% success rate

DT

  • Taven Bryan (6’4, 291, Jr.) — 17.5 tackles, 4 TFLs (3 sacks), 2 run stuffs, 22% success rate
  • Luke Ancrum (6’5, 263, So.)
  • Elijah Conliffe (6’4, 317, Fr.)

DE

  • Cece Jefferson (6’1, 242, Jr.) — 17.0 tackles, 7 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 5 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 25% success rate
  • Antonneous Clayton (6’2, 254, So.) — 2.0 tackles, 0% success rate
  • Zachary Carter (6’4, 270, Fr.)

Missouri did great in its first two games since Damarea Crockett’s shoulder injury. Against Idaho and UConn, Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III rushed 37 times for 271 yards (7.3 per carry).

Florida is not Idaho or UConn. At least, not defensively. There is both girth and talent up front. Against Georgia and Auburn, a.k.a. the other two most talented run fronts Missouri has faced, Mizzou backs managed just 173 yards in 44 carries (3.9 per carry). And that was with Crockett.

If Mizzou backs can hit the 4.5 yards per carry mark, I’ll be pretty happy. That might be all it takes to open the big-play spigot in the passing game. But some amount of run success will be a requirement.

Linebackers

SLB

  • Jeremiah Moon (6’6, 228, RSFr.) — 10.0 tackles, 1 run stuff, 40% success rate
  • Cristian Garcia (6’1, 234, Sr.) — 9.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 29% success rate
  • Out: Kylan Johnson (6’2, 236, So.) — 12.0 tackles, 1 run stuff, 27% success rate

MLB

  • David Reese (6’1, 239, So.) — 41.5 tackles, 4 TFLs (1.5 sacks), 8 run stuffs, 1 INT, 36% success rate
  • Rayshad Jackson (6’0, 217, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 1 run stuff, 0% success rate

WLB

  • Vosean Joseph (6’1, 227, So.) — 19.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 run stuffs, 37% success rate
  • Lacedrick Brunson (6’1, 229, Fr.)

Turning the linebacking corps over to freshmen and sophomores probably hasn’t helped from a big-play perspective. Plus, while there are countless former four- and five-stars on the roster, there aren’t many here. Moon was just barely a four-star per 247, but he’s also a redshirt freshman. From a recruiting perspective, this unit isn’t much more talented than Missouri’s; it’s younger, too.

Reese can still make plays, though. He’s been a key part of the run defense.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Florida vs Iowa
Vosean Joseph
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Secondary

CB

  • Duke Dawson (5’10, 202, Sr.) — 20.0 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 run stuff, 3 INT, 7 PBU, 79% success rate
  • CJ Henderson (6’1, 186, Fr.) — 10.5 tackles, 1 run stuff, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 73% success rate

S

  • Jeawon Taylor (6’0, 206, So.) — 10.5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 1 INT, 54% success rate
  • Shawn Davis (5’11, 205, Fr.) — 4.0 tackles, 67% success rate
  • Nick Washington (6’0, 198, Sr.) — 22.5 tackles, 83% success rate (questionable with shoulder injury)

S

  • Chauncey Gardner (6’0, 207, So.) — 31.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 5 run stuffs, 3 PBU, 63% success rate
  • Brad Stewart (6’0, 191, Fr.) — 6.5 tackles, 80% success rate

CB

  • Marco Wilson (6’0, 177, Fr.) — 14.5 tackles, 7 PBU, 85% success rate; also primary nickel back
  • Joseph Putu (6’0, 194, Sr.)
  • Brian Edwards (6’2, 183, Fr.)

NB

  • Donovan Stiner (6’1, 198, Fr.) — 2.0 tackles
  • C.J. McWilliams (5’11, 179, RSFr.)

Gardner was a former high-four-star recruit. Dawson, Wilson, Henderson, and Stewart were four-stars, too. There is talent and athleticism here, but the breakdowns have been immense.

It will be interesting to see how this secondary aligns itself. Wilson is listed as the primary nickel and No. 2corner, and he can get hands on passes. But assuming Dawson is matched up against J’Mon Moore (not a guaranteed assumption there), do you put Wilson on Emanuel Hall and expose a little-used freshman nickel (Stiner) to Johnathon Johnson?

And how do you use Chauncey Gardner? He’s great against the run and is frequently used close to the line of scrimmage. But knowing how Mizzou loves to use that tight end seam pass, does he have to play it a little bit more safe?

Mizzou has homed in on a pretty exciting four-man receiving corps of Moore, Hall, Johnson, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. They seem custom-built to punish a glitchy young secondary. But Mizzou’s receiving corps (Moore in particular) hasn’t always responded well to physicality like what Florida wants to bring to the table. This feels like an all-or-nothing matchup here. And since Missouri probably won’t be able to run the ball all that well, it’s a matchup that could decide the game.

NCAA Football: Florida at Michigan
Duke Dawson
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

K

  • Eddy Pineiro (5’11, 178, Jr.) — 17-18 PAT, 4-4 FG under 40, 2-3 FG over 40; 30 kickoffs, 93% touchback rate, 10th in kickoff success rate
  • Jorge Powell (5’9, 176, Jr.)

P

  • Johnny Townsend (6’1, 202, Sr.) — 41 punts, 49.5 average, 34th in punt success rate

KR

  • Dre Massey (5’9, 186, Jr.) — 4 KR, 17.5 average
  • Adarius Lemons (6’0, 201, Fr.) — 7 returns, 21.4 average

PR

  • Brandon Powell (5’8, 189, Sr.) — 7 PR, 3.4 average
  • Dre Massey (5’9, 186, Jr.)

I have no idea how Powell still has eligibility left. It feels like the senior from Deerfield Beach (Fla.) has been in Gainesville for about nine years. But there he is, still flashing potential in the return game. He hasn’t actually produced, though, especially this year. Florida is 127th in punt return success rate and 125th in kick returns.

There might not be returns in either direction. Mizzou doesn’t allow many, Florida doesn’t succeed at many, and Florida’s own kickers are pretty stingy as well. Almost every Eddy Pineiro kickoff is a touchback, and the incredible Johnny Townsend, another ninth-year senior, is averaging nearly half a football field per punt. Granted, he occasionally outkicks his coverage — opponents are averaging 12.4 yards per return — but the dude can boom them.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Florida
Johnny Townsend
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports