GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Defense has carried Florida football for most of the last decade.
Florida has had nine first-round draft picks on that side of the ball since 2008— most recently Jarrad Davis in April and Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal in 2016 — and the Gators have finished in the top 10 nationally on defense eight times.
The 2017 defense, while young, has the potential to keep up that streak and set some individual and team records in the process under first-year Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon.
Here are five Florida defensive records that could fall in 2017.
1. Interceptions returned for a touchdown in a season
The school record is two. Eight players share the record, with Jalen Tabor accomplishing the feat most recently in 2015.
Chauncey Gardner has the potential to break it in his first year as a full-time starter. Gardner, a versatile and athletic defensive back who can play anywhere in the secondary, showed off his ball-hawking skills late during his freshman season when he was inserted into the starting lineup. He intercepted 3 passes in the final three games of the season and returned 1 interception for a touchdown in the Outback Bowl. With a full 12-game slate, plus a potential SEC Championship Game and bowl game to work with, Gardner could see those numbers improve as a sophomore.
And as a heads up, Florida’s record for most pick-sixes in a career is 4, set by linebacker Brandon Spikes from 2006-09. Gardner has a fair chance to crack that record, too, before his time with the Gators ends.
2. Fumble recoveries by a senior
The record, surprisingly, is only two, tied most recently by Jabari Gorman in 2014. With Florida having three seniors likely to start on defense, this gives the Gators a prime opportunity to rewrite this record. Marcell Harris, the hard-hitting safety, is the most likely candidate to break this record, but fellow defensive backs Nick Washington and Duke Dawson also could have a chance at it.
3. Fewest yards allowed in a game
The Gators set the record last season when they held North Texas to a total of 53 yards from scrimmage. Florida has two games where they could better that this season: Northern Colorado in Week 2 and Alabama-Birmingham in Week 12. Northern Colorado is an FCS school that hasn’t faced a Power 5 conference opponent since 2012 (a 41-0 loss to Utah). Alabama-Birmingham is just getting back into the football realm after last fielding a team in 2014.
4. Pass breakups by a freshman
Florida is almost guaranteed to start a freshman at cornerback opposite Duke Dawson. Whomever it is — Marco Wilson, CJ Henderson, Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis or Brian Edwards — will have the opportunity to break Vernon Hargreaves’ record of 11 pass breakups as a freshman.
The young corners will be tested early and often in games, especially once the SEC season starts. This gives them all the chances they will need to keep the “DBU” billing and prove they are capable of starting against the top competition.
5. Average yards per punt
No, this isn’t directly related to the defense, but punting and the field-position battle plays a vital role in how a defense performs. And given that Johnny Townsend already owns most of Florida’s punting records — career average yards per punt (45.7), season average yards per punt (47.9 in 2016) and most punts in a season (83 in 2015) — it would only be fitting for him to break or extend his own records.