GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Star cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor was made available to reporters Saturday night for the first time since early in preseason camp, and what better time for Florida’s most quotable defensive standout to offer his perspective.
With an utterly dominant performance in a 32-0 shutout of North Texas, the Gators have now given up just 14 points during their 3-0 start.
That’s the fewest the program has allowed over its first three games since 1966.
“Oh man, that’s what we do,” Tabor said. “I’ve been saying it all along. We’ve got one of the best defenses, if not the best defense in the country. Holding opponents under 100 yards, that’s just what we do. When we get on the field, that’s what we do.”
To be exact, it was only 53 yards for the Mean Green on Saturday night — a school record for Florida.
“That’s even better,” Tabor said with a smile.
Sure, Florida has opened the season against two overmatched opponents in Massachusetts and North Texas, and a lackluster Kentucky team that got off to a miserable start this fall. But it’s time to start having this conversation: Could this Florida defense be even better than the 2015 version that carried the team to a 10-1 start, produced two first-round draft picks and put six players in the NFL overall?
More to the point, can the defense again pull the Gators to an SEC East title and another shot at the SEC championship game?
That could be the question facing Florida in the wake of starting quarterback Luke Del Rio’s injury, which overshadowed that dominant defensive showing a bit Saturday night.
Del Rio was knocked from the game late in the third quarter by a brutal low hit to his planted left leg as he followed through on a pass, and coach Jim McElwain acknowledged afterward that “it doesn’t look great.” Sources told SEC Country’s Zach Abolverdi on Sunday that the injury is not season-ending, but no formal diagnosis or status has been announced.
Nobody outside of the Florida locker room really knows what backup quarterback Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, is capable of doing if thrust into the starting role for any extended length of time. The Gators don’t open practices to the media beyond stretching and the opening individual drills period a couple times a week.
The coaches clearly felt Del Rio gave the team the best chance to win as he beat out Appleby in their preseason competition for the starting job, and if he is indeed going to be sidelined for any period of time, the onus is on the defense as much as ever now to deliver on the Gators’ considerable expectations for this fall.
And with what they’ve shown the first three weeks, well, there aren’t many (any?) units better equipped for that task.
“I go against them every single day and it didn’t take long to realize just how good they were, and obviously we’re seeing that here on Saturdays,” Appleby said. “And they’re only going to get better. There’s a lot of young guys out there that are getting precious experience, and the old guys are continuing to get more and more a handle on what they’re doing. I’m really happy that I only have to go against them Monday through Friday and they’re on our team on Saturday.”
Appleby later called the unit “the best defense in the country,” and that’s a claim that can be better evaluated in a few weeks with the likes of No. 14 Tennessee (this coming Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.) and No. 18 LSU (Oct. 8) looming on the schedule.
But by any metric, it has been an incredible start by the defense. Consider these numbers:
- The Gators’ 7 sacks Saturday night were the most for the program since 1999, and with 16 sacks already this fall they lead the country and have 4 more than any other SEC team.
- Florida has held each of its first three opponents to fewer than 200 yards, and the 1997, 2006, 2009 and 2014 teams are the only other Gator defenses to produce three such games in an entire season over the last 20 years.
- As a result, the Gators lead the country in total defense, giving up an average of 129.7 yards per game. The next closest team on that list, Virginia Tech, is giving up 204.7 yards per contest. (Florida ranked eighth nationally in total defense last year at 310.2 yards allowed per game).
- After holding North Texas to -13 rushing yards, Florida is allowing an average of 42.3 rushing yards per game and 87.3 passing yards per game (both second-best in the country).
- And the Gators really could have had three shutouts to this point. UMass’ lone touchdown was aided by 35 yards of Florida penalties and a fourth-and-14 conversion against a young cornerback filling in for Tabor during his one-game suspension, and the only points Kentucky scored came in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against backups.
“I’ve been saying it all along, we have the best defensive staff in the game, (we’ve) got the best players in the game,” Tabor said. “Like, if we do what we do and the other team can’t score they can’t win. At the end of the day we hold ourselves to a higher standard. It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback, running back, receiver, calling the plays — it don’t matter. When we step out on the field, our job is to not let the opposing team score.”
It’s not just about the numbers, though. It’s the way in which they’ve been attained, the jaw-dropping hits and stunning speed with which the Gators get into the backfield for momentum-shifting plays.
Most of those 16 sacks were not the result of protection gradually breaking down up front. No, on most of those sacks, the opposing quarterback barely had a chance to spin the laces around in his hand before being pummeled.
On North Texas’ second play of the game Saturday, redshirt-junior defensive tackle Caleb Brantley barreled through an overmatched offensive line with barely any resistance and sacked quarterback Mason Fine in the end zone for a safety.
In the third quarter, on what might have been the Mean Green’s best chance at getting on the scoreboard, they had moved to the Florida 30-yard line before promptly being moved backwards 17 yards with back-to-back sacks.
North Texas tried a trick play with wide receiver Tyler Wilson getting the ball on a reverse and looking to uncork a pass down the right sideline, but redshirt-senior defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. read the play perfectly and followed Fine — the intended target on a wheel route — downfield to take away the play. Meanwhile, redshirt-senior safety Marcus Maye hammered Wilson for the sack.
On the next play, senior linebacker Jarrad Davis broke through the line and had Fine on the ground in what seemed like a split-second.
Those same kind of hits seemed to shake Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker’s confidence the previous week, as he looked uncomfortable in the pocket all game while completing just 2-of-10 passes for 10 yards and 3 interceptions.
Tabor and fellow junior cornerback Quincy Wilson, who may be the best pairing of corners in the country, both had highlight-reel interceptions in that game. Maye had one too, and junior safety Marcell Harris joined in with a pick against North Texas.
“I saw a bunch of guys that did a really good job of film study. They’re starting to understand what it takes for the preparation to help you even play faster by the keys that some of these teams give you,” McElwain said Saturday night. “… Our guys are starting to understand, it’s more than just the practice on the field. It’s the cerebral practice that it takes in knowing your opponent, and I think they’ve done a heck of a job in that.”
Now the tests get harder, starting with Tennessee this Saturday. The Vols have not played to the level of their preseason hype to this point, but quarterback Josh Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd are a greater challenge than anything Florida has yet faced.
For that matter, the tests will be harder most weeks the rest of the way.
“I feel like our defense is ready for any team in the country. Tennessee, whoever,” senior defensive tackle Joey Ivie IV said. “Obviously the focus is Tennessee this week, but I feel like we have that type of defense that we’re ready for whoever we play.”
That’s what Gators fans hope. Once again cast with uncertainty at the quarterback spot, the Florida defense may need to keep staking its case as one of the best in the country.
Not that the group was ever short on motivation.
Said Tabor: “We’ve got something to prove every week.”