Florida enjoying defensive turnaround after early loss
The Gators defensive end who grew up about an hour’s drive north of Gainesville was suspended the first two games of the season for academic reasons, helpless to stop the Wildcats from running for 303 yards in a 27-16 victory in the Swamp.
“I wanted to sneak and put my uniform on, get back out there that night,” Jefferson said. “It definitely hurt me knowing that I could’ve went out there and made a difference. Not saying I would’ve. … It’s just knowing I could’ve made a difference in that game, just my presence. Not being out there really killed me, and I let my teammates down. That’s what hurt me the most.”
Jefferson is trying to make amends.
The senior returned the following week and has been part of a defensive turnaround for No. 22 Florida (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference), which hosts fifth-ranked LSU (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday. The Gators have played considerably better the last three games, looking much more like the kind of defense that defined the program in recent years than the one that stumbled down the stretch in 2017 and flopped against the Wildcats in its SEC opener.
Florida credits having Jefferson and linebacker David Reese (ankle) on the field, more physical practices and increased confidence in coordinator Todd Grantham’s system as the main reasons for the improvement.
“Anytime you get that familiarity with it and you have a comfort level, it allows you to play fast,” Grantham said. “It’s honestly a cumulative effect of all of that that’s allowed us to play” better.
After consecutive road wins against Tennessee and Mississippi State, the Gators return home for arguably their toughest test of the season. The Tigers have won six of the last eight in the series, including the last two in Gainesville.
“It could be a statement game for us,” Florida safety Brad Stewart said. “Really we just want to come out and show that we can be one of the top programs and we are one of the top programs still. We want to show everybody, all the doubters, we hear all the words, all the talk and we want to show everybody that we for real.”
The defense has made strides since losing to Kentucky, forcing two key turnovers early against the Volunteers and allowing just 202 yards against the Bulldogs. Throw in Colorado State, and the Gators have given up 2.59 yards a carry during their three-game winning streak.
And they have 12 sacks over the same span.
“We just have to get to the quarterback,” defensive tackle T.J. Slaton said. “You have to make him a true quarterback. You can’t let him run. We have to make him throw bad balls. We have to keep pressure on him. We have to get hits, not illegal hits, but we have to get hits on the quarterback and we have to get sacks.”
Kentucky handled Florida on both lines of scrimmage, and no one was more surprised than the Gators’ defenders.
Grantham and coach Dan Mullen responded with more intense practice designed to make Florida tougher in the trenches. Jefferson and Reese, who have played a combined 65 games at Florida, returned. They solidified holes and made Florida deep enough to rotate as many as 22 guys on defense. That depth hand more experience in Grantham’s 3-4 scheme also helped.
“All we need is seven points,” Stewart said. “The defense is going to come out and do our thing. We’re going to come out and we’re going to ball. We’re going to play hard, run to the ball and be physical. All we need is seven points and our offense to manage the game and get good field position. The defense, we should do the rest.”
No one would be more pleased with that than Jefferson, especially after being unable to play early.
“You’ve got to be accountable in every situation,” Jefferson said. “That’s just a part of being a man, and that’s what this game teaches you. You got to be accountable. You got to take care of your business. You got to be where you’re supposed to be at. And if you don’t, the results I got are some of the things that can happen to you.
“I definitely think the guys, especially the younger guys and some of the older guys, will learn from my mistakes.”