Florida DC challenging Gators to fill defensive void

Geoff Collins (Courtesy of AJC)

Geoff Collins (Courtesy of AJC)

GAINESVILLE — In his first year at Florida, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins inherited a veteran group of players who set a high standard for his unit.

UF finished No. 8 nationally in total defense and ranked highly in several other categories.

As the Gators work to replace five starters this spring, Collins doesn’t anticipate a drop-off in talent.

“No, we’ve stepped right where we left off,” Collins said. “The expectation is to take it even higher than (where) we were, so that’s nothing we’re going to shy away from.”

Florida lost six starters from 2015 in defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister, linebacker Antonio Morrison and defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III, Brian Poole and Keanu Neal.

Collins said the returning players and newcomers on defense are well aware of the void that’s been left by those departures.

“In the first or second meeting in the offseason, what we do is put up a production sheet of what we lost at each position,” Collins said. “We challenge those guys: ‘Here’s what we’re going to miss. Here’s stats that are coming off the board right now.’

“Who’s going to step up? Is it going to one, is it going to be multiple? Either way is fine, but somebody’s got to fill that void for us. And they know that and collectively work to make up for that.”

One thing Collins said he learned last season was how to use the skill level and football IQ of Florida’s defenders to his advantage. He noted that it helped UF have one of the nation’s best third-down defenses.

“The kids that we had last year, very talented. They can make up for things that sometimes scheme can’t fix,” Collins said. “They’re smart enough to figure out splits, backfield sets, formations and then understand how they fit into the defense, and their athletic ability and their speed takes over.

“It doesn’t have to be the right call. Just get them a call and let them figure out and let them play. As the season went on, we would just get calls in faster and faster, let them process it because they’re all highly intelligent kids, and then let them play because they’re really good players.”

Collins believes this year’s group is capable of being just as advanced physically and mentally, which is the standard that was set in 2015.

“Based on last year there’s a high expectation with that group,” Collins said. “The guys that are supposed to step up — Marcus Maye, Bryan Cox, Jarrad Davis, Caleb Brantley — are doing that. They’re talking. Jalen Tabor out there running his mouth like he does, does a great job.

“There’s positive energy, enthusiasm and guys flying around. The four mid-year guys, the older guys are really taking it upon themselves to get them ready. Making sure they know the defense, know the expectation in our room.”