Florida Gators 2021 preview: Defense retools secondary, returns front-seven talent
The Florida football team is set to return to the practice field with fall training camp starting Aug. 6.
The Gators kick off the season a month later with their Sept. 4 home opener against Florida Atlantic. This week The Sun will preview UF’s offensive, defensive and special teams units for 2021.
Mullen previews Gators:Florida has 'better sense of itself' than last year despite 2021 questions marks
Up next is the defense, which is looking to bounce back from last year’s struggles.
Departures: Kyree Campbell, Tedarrell Slaton, Marlon Dunlap Jr.
Returners: Zachary Carter, Gervon Dexter, Jalen Lee, Lamar Goods, Jaelin Humphries, Dante Lang, Princely Umanmielen, Griffin McDowell
Newcomers: Daquan Newkirk (grad transfer), Antonio Valentino (grad transfer), Justus Boone, Chris Thomas Jr., Desmond Watson, *Tyreak Sapp
Overview: The Gators return all of the starters in their defensive front-seven except at tackle, where they graduated three seniors, including NFL fifth-round pick TJ Slaton. With no returning upperclassmen, UF addressed the lack of experience and veteran leadership by adding graduate transfers Daquan Newirk and Antonio Valentino (Shelton). Both went through spring ball and brought “a sense of maturity” to the position, according to Florida coach Dan Mullen. Newkirk and Valentino, along with promising sophomore DTs Gervon Dexter and Jalen Lee, will allow Zach Carter to play his more natural end spot. Carter, who ranked first among SEC D-linemen last season in tackles-for-loss (9.5), was named preseason first-team All-SEC.
Returners: Khris Bogle, Brenton Cox Jr., Andrew Chatfield Jr., Antwaun Powell, David Reese, Lloyd Summerall III
Newcomers: Chief Borders
Overview: Carter also led the Gators with five sacks, and right behind him were Khris Bogle and Brenton Cox Jr. with four apiece. They’re a productive one-two punch at BUCK, one of the deepest positions on the team. The trio of Bogle, Cox and Andrew Chatfield Jr. accounted for 10.5 of Florida’s SEC-leading 35 sacks last year under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who coaches the BUCK position. Cox started all 12 games and was tied with Carter for a team-high 9.5 tackles-for-loss. Cox had offseason foot surgery (Jones fracture), but started running again July 23 and told PFF he’ll be ready for the season opener against FAU.
Departures: James Houston (transfer), Jesiah Pierre (transfer)
Returners: Ventrell Miller, Jeremiah Moon, Amari Burney, Mohamoud Diabate, Ty'Ron Hopper, Lacedrick Brunson, Derek Wingo
Newcomers: Scooby Williams
Overview: UF brings back a ton of experience at linebacker despite losing James Houston, who started three games in 2020. Florida’s top four returners have 56 combined starts, led by seniors Ventrell Miller (21) and Jeremiah Moon (21). Miller led the team with 88 tackles last year and was named preseason second-team All-SEC, while Moon is back for a sixth year after suffering a season-ending injury against UGA. Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate, both with seven career starts, have settled in at linebacker after playing multiple positions early in their careers. And with Houston gone, look for Ty’Ron Hopper to contribute more this fall.
Departures: Marco Wilson, Chester Kimbrough (transfer), Jahari Rogers (transfer)
Returners: Kaiir Elam, Jaydon Hill, Avery Helm, Ethan Pouncey
Newcomers: Jason Marshall Jr., Jadarrius Perkins (transfer), Jordan Young, *Elijah Blades (transfer)
Overview: Defensive back play was the biggest issue on defense last year, but Florida’s corners weren’t the main culprits. Kaiir Elam was the lone bright spot in the secondary and earned first-team All-SEC honors. Jaydon Hill started four of the first five games of 2020, but then backed up senior corner Marco Wilson once Brad Stewart Jr. took over at STAR. Wilson turning pro opens the door for Hill to return to the starting lineup, but he’ll have to beat out five-star freshman Jason Marshall Jr. and transfers Jadarrius Perkins and Elijah Blades, who plans to enroll for the fall semester. The group will be coached by first-year assistant Jules Montinar, who came over from USF.
Departures: Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner, Brad Stewart Jr. (STAR), Quincy Lenton (transfer)
Returners: Trey Dean III, Rashad Torrence II, Tre’Vez Johnson (STAR), Mordecai McDaniel, Kamar Wilcoxson, Fenley Graham
Newcomers: Diwun Black (STAR), Donovan McMillon, Corey Collier Jr., Dakota Mitchell (STAR)
Overview: Veteran secondary coach Wesley McGriff has joined the staff to coach Florida’s safety and STAR positions, two spots that struggled in 2020. The Gators lost all three starters in Stewart and safeties Shawn Davis and Donovan Stiner, but have the potential to upgrade with their replacements. Former cornerback Trey Dean III has found a new home at strong safety, while free safety Rashad Torrence II started three games as a true freshman and now takes over on a full-time basis. Tre’Vez Johnson is expected to get the nod at STAR, but will have to compete with the nation’s No. 1 JUCO transfer Diwun Black.
* — not yet enrolled