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Gators secondary still looking to reach internal expectations

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller, left, and defensive back Rashad Torrence (22) close in on Missouri wide receiver Damon Hazelton during their game earlier this season at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Although the No. 5-ranked Florida Gators are in the driver’s seat in the SEC Eastern Division, they aren't shying away from the fact there’s much to improve upon as the final stretch of the regular season gets underway. 

Namely in the secondary, where UF has yet to yield results on par with recent expectations after allowing Feleipe Franks to complete 15-of-19 passing attempts for 250 yards in last week's win over Arkansas. 

Heading into a match-up with winless Vanderbilt, the Gators are allowing 260.5 passing yards per game, entrenching them in the bottom half of the conference when it comes to defending the pass. UF is one of five SEC teams that’s yet to record a pick-six this season, and Florida’s four interceptions puts the secondary tied with Ole Miss as the fourth-fewest in the conference. The lack of production is even more jarring when considering Florida’s pass rush leads the SEC in sacks; the secondary, despite the near-constant pressure, isn’t finding itself consistently in position to make the play, let alone force a turnover. 

Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said it’s easier for the viewing public to scrutinize and nitpick a cornerback as opposed to a defensive tackle, due to the fact one’s play is more noticeable to the untrained eye. 

“The thing that happens with (media) and a lot of people is when you watch the game, those guys are on islands. So, it's obviously easy to see when things happen. Whereas, there could be just as many things happening inside, but they get covered up because of the amount of people around. So those guys are on an island and they can get isolated and easily viewed. So therefore when they get viewed, they get an opinion of that play from people,” Grantham said. “I think you gotta have thick skin to play that position. And I think that when you look, the plays that they've given up at times ... You know, people in this league are always going to try to attack the things that hurt you, so you're going to see those plays throughout the rest of the year. And those guys have done a good job of working hard to improve themselves and they've ended up making some plays that we've needed them to as we have continued to improve throughout the last few games."

Much of the disappointment may be attributed to varying availability of the personnel, however. The Gators have seen starters Shawn Davis, Donovan Stiner and Marco Wilson miss games this season, and reserves Trey Dean and Brad Stewart have also been sidelined at times, too, resulting in freshmen defensive backs Rashad Torrence and Tre’Vez Johnson appearing in all six contests thus far. 

But the absences aren’t the sole cause of UF’s tendency to allow explosive plays this season, after all, the prospects shouldn’t change with the rotation. 

“Everybody on defense has to do their job — all 11 men doing their job as one, I feel, and we can stop anybody,” Torrence, who’s registered 23 tackles through six games this season, said. “We have simple breakdowns in the games and those help the offense create big plays. Just eliminating those plays, I feel like we can correct small details that can be fixed in practice.”

Torrence has been on the field for several of them this season, including the 75-yard touchdown run the Gators allowed to Georgia on the first play of the game. And against the Razorbacks, Torrence had a chance to prevent what would be an 82-yard touchdown from Franks to Mike Woods, but Torrence couldn’t make the open-field tackle. 

While it’s not an excuse for the mistakes, Torrence admitted his inaugural season of collegiate action has been anything but ordinary, though he cited his comfortability with the speed of the game as to why he’s been able to see the field in each contest as a true freshman. 

“It’s definitely not been my ideal year, not the year I pictured coming out of high school. But the circumstances are here and you really kinda deal with it, or you don’t, and I chose to deal with it. Just simple adjustments that you have to make with COVID and not being able to do certain things, and not being able to have a lot of fans. Those are the kinds of things you wish that you had, and those are things you have to adapt to,” Torrence said. “It’s a different level. Knowing that it’s not the same speed and getting better, I feel like that’s been my best adjustment in college.”

Fortunately for Florida, there aren’t many better units to face than Vanderbilt’s offense, ranked No. 10 in the SEC in passing yards, when it comes to potential opportunities for the secondary to elevate its play and record the takeaways that led to UF claiming the “Defensive Back University” moniker in recent history.

But if there’s anything Torrence and Co. should know, it’s that the risk of disappointment increases when one drops their guard and allows complacency to settle in, meaning Florida’s secondary won’t be anticipating picks galore in Nashville — falling in line with the mantra this season, they know nothing’s a given. 

“Any play is a big deal. As a defense you don't want to give up any play over a yard, really. Those big plays, as a defense, and especially this defense, we don’t accept those plays, and it does frustrate us. It just makes us want to go out there and play better and eliminate those plays,” Torrrence said. “You’ve got to treat every game the same. You can’t take one team lighter than you take any other team. Everybody’s on the same scale to us. We’ve got to practice like they’re No. 1 and go out there and handle business.”

Saturday

Who: No. 5 Florida (5-1) vs. Vanderbilt (0-6)

When: 12 p.m. 

Where: Vanderbilt Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850