The Florida Gators defense took a huge step back in 2017.
Under defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, the Gators defense dropped from 6th to 61st in points per game against FBS opponents (16.8 to 27.3 ppg). This was caused by a slightly worse run defense (4.2 yards per carry in 2017 vs. 3.8 in 2016) and a significantly worse pass defense (8.0 yards per attempt in 2017 vs. 5.9 in 2016).
This is an amazing statistic considering how good I thought freshman cornerbacks Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson were in 2017. But the stats don’t lie. The Gators were terrible (ranked 105th in yards per attempt against FBS opponents) against the pass.
Shannon didn’t help things by relying on a cover-2 scheme early in the year that isolated his linebackers on running backs in space. Once that didn’t work, he shifted to cover-1 looks that did have some success, but isolated his young corners on the outside. The torching the Gators received from Missouri and Georgia was directly related to this defensive scheme.
Enter Todd Grantham as Dan Mullen’s new defensive coordinator for 2018. Grantham has NFL experience with the Colts, Texans, Browns and Cowboys. He also has experience as a college defensive coordinator at Georgia, Louisville and Mississippi State.
Gators fans probably remember him best for making a choking gesture towards Florida kicker Chas Henry prior to a winning field goal attempt at the Cocktail Party in 2010. He also had to account for a confrontation with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin in 2011 and there were rumors that he left Louisville not because of performance, but an inability to get along with head coach Bobby Petrino.
Aside from the extracurriculars, there is one thing about Grantham that nags at me. For someone with his resume, how has he not received a shot as a head coach? After all, he was the defensive coordinator for the 2012 Georgia team that finished ranked 5th and just missed out on playing Notre Dame for the title.
I wanted to take the same kind of look at Grantham. He has a reputation as an aggressive coach who blitzes a lot, creates turnovers and is a solid defensive coordinator. But I wanted to know what the underlying statistics say about his abilities as a defensive coordinator.
Comparison of Grantham to his predecessors
One way to look at Grantham is to compare his results to those who came before him. He took over for Willie Martinez at Georgia, who was fired following the 2009 season. At Louisville, he took over for Vance Bedford, who followed Charlie Strong to Texas. At Mississippi State, he followed Peter Sirmon, who interestingly left Mississippi State and took the spot made vacant by Grantham at Louisville.
The chart below shows an average of defensive performance for three years at each program prior to Grantham’s arrival and then during his time there. I was hopeful that the statistics would allow for a determination one way or another, but that just isn’t really the case.
Overall, the statistics before Grantham and during Grantham’s tenure are virtual identical. At Georgia, you could probably say that the defense was slightly better except that they allowed slightly less points per game due to an increase in turnovers.
At Louisville, the defense was significantly better under Bedford than under Grantham. This was mostly because Grantham took over a defense that had been dominant in 2013, giving up 12.6 points per game. The 2014 version of that defense gave up 21.8 points per game.
This is a bit of an unfair comparison though because Louisville switched from the American Athletic Conference to the ACC from 2012 to 2013 and so the level of competition for Grantham was much higher. But again, if you look at the underlying statistics, Grantham didn’t really improve the defense or make it worse. It just really stayed the same, with perhaps a small uptick in turnovers.
The only place where Grantham really made a mark was Mississippi State. Of course, the caveat is that he was only there for one year. His performance is also being compared against three different defensive coordinators as Mississippi State had Geoff Collins in 2014 (who left for Florida), Manny Diaz in 2015 (who left for Miami) and Sirmon in 2016.
The above chart shows the rankings of each of the statistical categories against FBS teams by year. Grantham ranks very similarly to Collins and Diaz, but much better than Sirmon. Yes, the Bulldog’s defense improved significantly from 2016 to 2017. But I find it really interesting that the Louisville defense regressed almost the same amount under Sirmon.
I think this may suggest that the Mississippi State defense improved not necessarily because of any magic touch from Grantham, but because he isn’t Peter Sirmon. Indeed, halfway through the season Louisville fans were fed up with the swap.
I don’t think this says Grantham is a bad defensive coordinator. But I do think it suggests that he is not a great one. He is going to replicate the results of coaches in a similar situation with a similar talent level. That isn’t a bad thing, particularly if he can help bring in elite talent.
But I have my concerns about that as well. The above chart shows blue-chip recruits who came in the three years prior to and during Grantham’s tenure at each program. What we see is that there was a slight uptick in blue-chip talent at Georgia under Grantham, but a significant decrease at Louisville. While there was also a decrease at Mississippi State, I think it’s even less relevant here than the in-game statistics because recruiting is so relationship-based.
But anybody expecting the Gators to bring in four 5-star defenders immediately just because of Grantham is going to be disappointed. He might increase the talent level slightly, as he did at Georgia. But he might also bring in less talent than his predecessor like he did at Louisville.
What this does indicate is that Grantham was coaching approximately the same level of talent at Georgia and Louisville as his predecessors, and had almost identical results. I think this suggests exactly what Grantham is as a defensive coordinator.
He’s decent, but he isn’t a game changer.
Gators defensive comparison
The problem is that former Gators head coach Jim McElwain really struggled bringing in elite talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. You can really see that if you look at not just the star averages of the defense, but the average national rank of the opening day starters from 2015-2017.
Last season, I expressed that it was difficult to blame defensive coordinator Randy Shannon for the Gators issues on defense. This wasn’t because I thought Shannon was a defensive wizard.
But most of the time in 2015 and 2016, Florida could run out its base defense and hold up against the run and in coverage. That just wasn’t the case in 2017 and it was apparent early on.
Against Tennessee in the second game of the season, Florida had to constantly switch personnel, bringing linebacker Jeremiah Moon onto the field on running downs and bringing in a nickel corner (either Duke Dawson or C.J. Henderson) on passing downs. The result was that once Tennessee started isolating running back John Kelly against the linebackers, the defense got gashed.
It was easy to blame that on the defense being gassed (I did). But the lack of flexibility showed up again and again as the season progressed, especially once injuries started to mount.
That is going to be a problem again in 2018. The projected lineup has the same talent profile as the 2017 defense. And while I’m really excited about the additions of safeties Trey Dean and Amari Burney, the defensive backs are the strength of the defense, particularly from a talent perspective. Chauncey Gardner, Brad Stewart, Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson are all 4-stars who ranked better than 183 nationally. Burney and Dean have that kind of talent as well, but they can’t play linebacker.
That means that while fans may look at offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere or wide receiver Jacob Copeland as the recruits that they want most, I think they need to be paying more attention to linebackers Quay Walker and Xavier Peters or defensive tackles Coynis Miller and Dorian Gerald.
One thing that Grantham does have going his way is that he does have some players who were underutilized under Shannon. Defensive end Antonneous Clayton was ranked 27th nationally in 2016 and defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton was ranked 69th in 2017.
Plug Slaton in for Khairi Clark, Clayton in for Jachai Polite and Quay Walker for Vosean Joseph and the average star ranking of the defense jumps up to 3.9 with an average national ranking of 185.4. That team would have significantly less experience than either the 2015 or 2016 squads, but would likely have the talent to play both the run and the pass consistently.
The question is whether Grantham can get the most out of those players that Shannon did not. I think it’s unlikely. Shannon left a lot to be desired last year, but his track record at Miami suggests he is closer to Manny Diaz and Geoff Collins in ability than Peter Sirmon.
Grantham has shown he’ll put up results similar to his predecessors with similar talent levels. That means the Gators are going to have to up the talent level to get the kind of results fans have become used to in Gainesville, excluding 2017.
If Grantham were a dynamic recruiter, that would be a great thing. But he hasn’t shown much of an impact there either. That means he is going to have to rely on a huge close from some of Florida’s other assistant coaches, or he’s going to have to develop the few blue-chip recruits brought in by McElwain.
Just based on injury luck and increased experience in the secondary, Florida may see some uptick in defensive performance. But major improvement – based on Grantham’s track record – is pretty unlikely.
Dan Mullen has put together a staff with few holes. I think we may look back at Grantham as a miss. That doesn’t mean I think he’ll be terrible. Bring in a blue-chip defensive end, linebacker and defensive tackle and the talent upgrade alone will produce results.
But anybody expecting to see a top-10 defense is going to be disappointed. Grantham’s never had one, and some of those defenses have had significantly more talent. Instead, most of the improvement of the Gators record in 2018 is going to have to come from the offensive side of the ball.
The good news there is that Mullen may actually throw the ball on second down.