GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While new Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon is moving back into the spotlight a little more this year, he’s trying to deflect that attention as well as Gators defensive backs batted away passes last season.
Shannon became a big name in the college football ranks while directing elite defenses at Miami from 2001-06. After then spending five seasons as the Hurricanes head coach before being dismissed, he’s been climbing his way back up the ladder.
First as a linebackers coach at TCU and Arkansas and then the past two seasons as Florida’s linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator under Geoff Collins. With Collins taking the head coaching job at Temple this offseason, Shannon is back in charge again.
But this isn’t about him, he says, and he’s not necessarily looking to prove anything.
“You know what it is, it’s having fun. I had fun last year. We had a great time working with Geoff over the last couple of years we worked together. A lot of chemistry in the room was awesome. It’s just like anything else, it’s our defense — it’s not my defense,” Shannon said after a recent spring practice. “It’s Coach Rumph’s, it’s Coach Bell’s, it’s our defense. It’s Coach Skipper. It’s the defense that we have, that we developed. So that’s the (kind) of chemistry that Geoff did a great job of last year. We all felt like it was (ours). It wasn’t like one individual.”
Somebody has to be the loudest voice in the room, though, or least the one setting the tone.
That’s now Shannon, who takes control of a Gators defense that lost a lot of star power and proven personnel with the departures of cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, safety Marcus Maye, linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, defensive tackles Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie and defensive end Bryan Cox Jr.
Again, though, Shannon says it’s not about him putting his stamp on this defense. It’s simply about filling those voids and getting better.
“I don’t know if it’s a stamp, I just think it’s a stamp of what we want to get done,” he said. “There’s a lot of big standards at the University of Florida, and we’ve got standards that we have set for what we need to get done in the spring. We’re achieving those goals, but sometimes we go backwards. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Florida rebuilding blocks
The Gators have good depth and still some veteran experience on the defensive line as redshirt juniors Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark take over on the interior while redshirt senior Jordan Sherit and junior Keivonnis Davis will be back in the mix at defensive end, junior standout CeCe Jefferson will be used a little bit all over the line and young players, such as sophomore Jabari Zuniga, will look to elevate their performance.
Florida looks set at linebacker too with sophomore David Reese replacing Davis at middle linebacker and redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson replacing Anzalone. Sophomore Vosean Joseph will also be pushing to get on the field.
The secondary is where the most work needs to be done.
Senior Duke Dawson moves from nickel to a full-time cornerback role and fifth-year safeties Marcell Harris and Nick Washington provide further stability. But the rest of that group is young. Sophomore Chauncey Gardner, the Outback Bowl MVP, is moving throughout the secondary this spring, while an influx of six freshmen defensive backs will arrive this summer as the Gators sort through their options.
In the meanwhile, Shannon said one thing he has looked to change or tweak is making the communication and calls on the field a little easier.
“What I did was just make things more simple. We haven’t changed anything, just more simple in what we do so guys can understand and play fast,” he said. “Because I think the most important thing is that when you play fast there’s a lot of things that you can cover up. …
“(There’s) a little bit of inexperience, but like anything else you’ve got to play for what you have on your team at that particular time. We’re trying to get everybody knowing strengths and weaknesses with certain calls, certain fronts, certain coverages, certain blitzes. If they know the strengths and weaknesses, then we can get better.”
Joseph said part of those changes involve more guys being involved in making the pre-snap calls for the defense.
“The way Shannon’s got it this year, everybody has to call the defense from the D-line to the secondary,” he said. “Pretty different than last year. Everybody is more vocal, from the D-line like when they see a formation — we’re going over formations and everything — when they see a formation they call it out and communicate it to us, so we communicate to the secondary and stuff and everybody just talks to each other and makes it way easier (to) play faster.”
To that point, Shannon said that relying too heavily on the middle linebacker or whomever to set everything can be problematic if that guy makes a mistake. He’d prefer everybody on the field be confident in their knowledge of the defense and the calls and get involved in that process.
“We always (say) if everybody’s wrong, everybody’s right. So if everybody’s on the same page no matter what we call, we’re all going to play the same defense and we’ll play fast,” Shannon said. “So we may line up in a formation and everybody knows the formation, this is what we’re going to. So everybody will check at the same time. So it’s like, not just the safeties knowing what we’re doing, but the whole defense knows what we’re doing. So everybody makes it easy.”
Where expectations begin
Shannon’s track record during his time as the defensive coordinator at Miami was impressive.
In terms of yards allowed and points allowed, his defenses routinely ranked among the best nationally, as follows: 2001 (6th, 1st), 2002 (7th, 22nd), 2003 (2nd, 4th), 2004 (28th, 13th), 2005 (4th, 4th) and 2006 (7th, 13th).
People point to the incredible wealth of talent the Hurricanes boasted during some of those seasons, but Shannon recalls those defensive standouts weren’t all 5-star, highly coveted prospects when they arrived.
“Here’s the thing people don’t realize. Those guys weren’t highly recruited. People didn’t realize back then,” he said. “Edward Reed was talented, but I think we had Tulane we had to beat (in recruiting). Then you start looking at William Joseph, I recruited him and we had nobody to beat. He was out of Miami Edison. He went first round. You’ve got Jon Vilma, I think it was maybe NC State. It wasn’t a lot of guys highly recruited, but those guys had the mentality. Now we’ve got some guys who have that mentality and mindset here at Florida, but now we’ve just got to take it to the next step.”
Given his track record, it’s somewhat surprising Shannon didn’t return to a defensive coordinator role sooner.
He says he never looked at it like that, though.
“No, I just coached. I always tell everybody, if you’re busy looking for the next job, you’re probably going to lose the job that you have,” he said. “So I just worried about the job that I have and just kept coaching.”
It’s all worked out as he now moves into a high-profile spot with the Gators, taking over a defense that was fifth in total defense last season (293 yards per game allowed) and sixth in scoring defense (16.8 points per game). Albeit one now missing most of the star power that made it so good.
As for Shannon, just like he claims he never worried about when this opportunity would arise, he insists he doesn’t spend time thinking about potentially being a head coach again in the future.
“No, don’t worry about it, don’t think about it at all,” he said.
He’s got plenty of focus on in the present, trying to rebuild this unit in line with the standards he’s inheriting.
Because while Shannon may not feel he has anything to prove this year, this Gators defense certainly does.