It was announced this week that Florida Gators safety Marcell Harris is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
Until last season, this might not have been a big deal. But Harris emerged as a significant contributor for the Gators defense last season, particularly in the run game.
Former Gators defensive coordinator Geoff Collins liked playing nickel defenses. This was partly because his scheme called for it, but the other reason was that his personnel fit what he wanted to do.
Importance of run support in the Gators defensive scheme
With corners as talented as Vernon Hargreaves III, Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Duke Dawson, it just made sense to get them on the field in coverage as much as possible. It’s not a coincidence that opponents of the 2016 Gators defense only completed 45.2 percent of their passes.
But playing that way only leaves you with two linebackers to contribute against the run game. That means the safeties have a critical role in run support. Keanu Neal was that enforcer who allowed the corners on the field together in 2014 and especially 2015. Marcell Harris was that player in 2016.
Nowhere was that more evident than in goal-line situations. You’ve likely heard that in traditional run plays, the defense has one more player than the offense can block because the quarterback is not involved in the play. This means if the running back can break one tackle, he’s in for the touchdown.
The play above against Iowa in the Outback Bowl shows this perfectly. On this play, Harris is unblocked, reads where the running back is headed, and wraps him up perfectly to take him down.
You could also argue that Harris is the player most responsible for the Gators winning the SEC East last year. Thinking they had to beat LSU to secure its spot in Atlanta, the Gators defense played a bend-but-don’t-break style all day. The Tigers put up a ton of yardage, but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone despite multiple trips inside the 20.
Gators fans have spent all offseason taunting Tigers fans with the clip from above. But it isn’t a lineman like Caleb Brantley or CeCe Jefferson or a linebacker like Vosean Joseph or David Reese who makes the tackle to hold LSU running back Derrius Guice short of the end zone. There — on the most important play of the season — in run support is safety Marcell Harris.
Likely change of scheme in 2017
Harris’ run responsibilities were likely to decrease slightly in ’17, partly because of personnel changes. With the departure of Wilson, Tabor and safety Marcus Maye, Florida likely will play more zone and keep its safeties in coverage more.
The other reason is that Randy Shannon is taking over as defensive coordinator. Shannon has always preferred a 4-3 defense with limited nickel packages. Last season Florida’s base defense was a nickel package with Harris a significant player in run support.
This season the base defense is likely going to have starting linebackers Vosean Joseph, David Reese and Kylan Johnson up against the run with the safeties helping in coverage. This exposes Florida to mismatches in the slot, with running backs and against tight ends, but protects against getting beat deep and aids a young and thin defensive tackle corps.
Harris was OK in pass coverage. Nobody was going to mistake him for former Gator Reggie Nelson, who terrorized opposing quarterbacks from single-high-safety alignments that allowed him to maximize his instincts. Harris made the right play most of the time and did what he was asked to do. But he was going to be asked to do more in coverage this season, and that wasn’t necessarily a strength.
The coaches surely will take this schematic change into account when they decide on how to replace Harris. The original plan had been to move Chauncey Gardner — who played a lot of safety last year as a true freshman — to corner with Harris and Nick Washington manning the safety positions.
It makes sense to move Gardner back to safety, both because he has experience there but also because the schematic changes Shannon is going to implement call for more of a coverage safety than one who is strong in run support. Gardner can’t make those two plays Harris made above, but with three linebackers on the field, he won’t often be asked to.
Instead, he’ll be asked to do what he does best: play centerfield. He did this perfectly multiple times against Iowa and Florida State, changing the momentum of the game with key interceptions. The game against the Seminoles could have shifted on the third quarter interception shown above if the Gators offense was remotely competent in the red zone.
Moving Gardner is a trade-off, though. It requires starting a true freshman or little-used Joseph Putu at corner. It also means that the slot corner in the nickel package is going to be another true freshman.
While Florida did bring in a strong recruiting class in the secondary, relying on young players is always dangerous. This was also on display in the FSU game.
Starting nickel corner Duke Dawson went down with an injury with the Seminoles up 10-6 more than halfway through the third quarter. The man circled on the play above is Chauncey Gardner, who commits to the receiver in the middle of the field rather than maintaining his two-deep responsibility. The result of this true freshman mistake is a touchdown that essentially put the game away.
This mistake was just after the interception shown above, and that’s what you get with young players. You get great plays made from their immense talent. But you get plays that reveal a lack of discipline or where they don’t know their responsibilities. Florida is going to have some of those this season.
The importance of experience on defense
Everybody knew coming into the season that the Gators defense would be young with all the starters moving on to the NFL. The loss of Harris only makes them younger.
I examined both the years of experience (based on years played, so a redshirt sophomore is still 2) and talent level (through the 247 composite star rankings) of the starters on top 10 defenses from the ’16 season. The idea was to understand whether talent or experience drives elite defenses.
From this analysis, the average experience level for a top-10 defense is 3.1 and the average star ranking is 3.4. Florida exceeded both of these in ’16 at 3.5 years of experience and 3.7 stars.
However, those averages for Florida in 2017 are significantly lower (2.6 and 3.6, respectively). While the player stepping in for Harris is likely going to be a 4-star player just as he was, they will also be a true freshman. Florida was already below the experience level of all but one elite defense from last season. The loss of Harris makes them dangerously young.
Of the top-1o defenses, only Auburn had less experience than the Gators will run out there this season (2.3 years). But Auburn also had an elite talent level (4.1 stars), second only to Alabama. And perhaps the most striking thing is the rankings of Gators second unit. Not only is that unit incredibly young. It is also not nearly as talented as the starters.
Last season Marcell Harris had a chance to step up because of an injury to starter Nick Washington. Chauncey Gardner was ready to step in when Teez Tabor was suspended for the opener. Harris had both the talent (4-star) and experience (redshirt junior) to step in. And while Gardner was young (true freshman), he was also an elite talent (4-star).
Certainly the linebackers who stepped in for injured starters Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis were young and rated as 3-star talents and played well. Vosean Joseph in particular spent a lot of time in the opposing backfield once he got onto the field. You don’t have to be a 5-star player to contribute. But rarely are 3-star freshman ready to contribute, particularly early in the season. And the first two players on deck to come into the secondary for injuries last season were not 3-star players (Harris and Gardner).
Last year, Anzalone and slot receiver Dre’ Massey suffered season-ending injuries. What if that happens to Duke Dawson, Nick Washington or Gardner? I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to anyone, but two season-ending injuries are not out of the ordinary of what should be expected.
A peer-reviewed study conducted on college football players in 1986 and 1987 showed that 32.1 percent of players were injured per team, with 8.3 percent of those injuries being season-ending. That means that for the 11 defensive starters, we should expect 0.9 season-ending injuries and 3.5 injuries that keep a defensive player out for at least a week.
Florida has already had one major injury now and the season hasn’t even started yet. That should scare people who believe that the offense just has to be average and let the defense do the rest. The reality is that Florida’s defense will suffer injuries that keep players out, even if they aren’t season-enders.
The good news is that the defense doesn’t have to be at a top-10 level to have an excellent season. I still believe the Gators will exceed the 8 wins that Vegas has as the over/under. But the Harris injury reduces the margin for error significantly.
Without Harris, the offense is going to have to improve more than what is historically likely. The defense is going to have to get lucky when it comes to injuries, either avoiding them or experiencing them in games prior to playing less talented opponents.
The defense just doesn’t have the depth to sustain the level of excellence it has established. That’s not something to be ashamed of. The 2015 and 2016 defenses are two of the best to ever play in Gainesville.
But that kind of lock-down defense is not something that Gators fans should expect to see in 2017.