GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins arrived for his appearance on “Gator Talk” on Thursday night inside Piesanos Pints & Pies, he was introduced on the live radio show and let the crowd and those listening at home know the luster of that title hasn’t worn off one bit for him.
“Driving over listening to Coach Mac on the radio, you guys said that and that just got me excited — University of Florida defensive coordinator. It’s a dream come true,” Collins said.
Especially this week.
“I grew up, the Florida-Georgia game was a national holiday in my house growing up,” he said.
Collins, who is from Conyers, Ga., had a memorable debut in the annual rivalry game last year, helping coach the Gators to a dominant 27-3 win as his defense held the Bulldogs to 69 rushing yards and 223 total offensive yards.
The challenge is a little more interesting this time with the addition of Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason — whom Gators head coach Jim McElwain proclaimed as “the future of the SEC” — and the return of star running back Nick Chubb, who missed the game last season after tearing several ligaments in his knee.
Eason, rated the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in his recruiting class according to the 247sports composite, has been up and down in his rookie season. He has a pair of 300-yard passing games, including 346 his last time out against Vanderbilt, but in the previous game he was held to 5-of-17 passing for just 29 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception at South Carolina.
“The big thing they do is they get the ball out of his hand quick, they do a great job in protection, they’ve got fast receivers and they’ve got a quick guy at the slot so they make the package very accessible for him to have some success,” Collins said. “But for them it all starts with the running game, so we’ve got to do a great job stopping that.”
Chubb, though, hasn’t quite looked like his pre-injury self. After rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2014 and 747 yards and 7 touchdowns in six games last season before getting hurt, he has tallied 586 yards and 5 touchdowns in seven games so far this fall. And 222 of those yards came in the season opener against North Carolina.
Chubb has only topped 80 rushing yards in one game since, though he was limited by an ankle injury for part of that stretch. Meanwhile, Georgia has also gotten production from fellow junior Sony Michel (358 rushing yards, 1 TD) and freshman Brian Herrien (341-3).
“Coach Mac and the rest of the staff all week has been emphasizing it starts up front,” Collins said. “The d-line that we’ve been talking about, it starts with them, fitting their gaps, using great technique, effort, pad level, and then our skill guys running to the ball the way they do. But there’s no doubt (the Bulldogs) are very talented.”
There’s also no doubt about Florida’s defensive talent.
Collins and his stable of playmakers have the Gators ranked second nationally in fewest yards allowed (252.5 per game) and points allowed (12.0 per game).
So far that’s better than the 2015 team, which finished the season ranked eighth nationally in allowing 310.2 yards per game and 11th in scoring defense at 18.3 points per game.
During their joint appearance on “Gator Talk” on Thursday night, McElwain said Collins had gotten on his radar a few years earlier as a potential defensive coordinator hire for him at some point. And he was happy to lure him away from Mississippi State when he got the Gators’ head coaching job before last season.
“Geoff’s one of those guys that we crossed paths at one of our stops and from that moment on I knew when I had that opportunity he was a guy I was going to try to get,” McElwain said. “I can remember making that phone call to him and he said, ‘Coach, I’ll be there.’ I said, ‘Hold on now, I’m not even there yet.'”
That drew a laugh from the dais and the crowd.
As for the task at hand, Collins said he doesn’t think his players get caught up in those numbers. It’s a daily process and focus that has served them well, and Georgia is the next step.
“I think that the focus that Coach Mac has instilled in our entire program is just winning the now, staying in the moment and I don’t think our guys talk about it,” Collins said. “They talk about high expectations, they talk about playing great defense, they talk about running to the ball, tackling, all those things are part of playing great defense. The end result is whatever, but it’s the process that we take daily, running to the football, tackling, improving our fundamentals and just the mindset that we don’t worry about scoreboard, we don’t really worry about (the) opponent — we just worry about taking care of our business on a daily basis and that kind of filters throughout the entire program.”