GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When coach Jim McElwain took over at Florida, he inherited one of the Southeastern Conference’s stingiest defenses.
The unit got even better during McElwain’s first two seasons in Gainesville. The Gators finished eighth in yards allowed in 2015 and fifth last year, no question the main reason they played for back-to-back conference championships.
Keeping the defense at that level could be Florida’s biggest challenge heading into this season.
The Gators lost seven starters as well as secondary coach Torrian Gray to the NFL and said goodbye to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who took the head coaching job at Temple. Adding to those departures, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, senior safety Marcell Harris, tore his right Achilles tendon working out last month and had season-ending surgery.
Now, McElwain and new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon are dealing with a sizable rebuilding project that probably would make Florida grad Bob Vila cringe.
“You have an opportunity for some guys to step up,” Shannon said. “We’re not the NFL. We can’t go find somebody off the waiver wire. We can’t go trade for somebody or pick somebody up. We have to coach whoever we have, and we’ve got a bunch of guys that we feel like have an opportunity to come in and help us out and play.
“I can’t tell you who those guys will be.”
This much is certain: Florida has to find a way to replace the core of its defense if it’s going to finish in the top 10 in yards for the ninth time in 10 years.
The Gators lost safety Marcus Maye, linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, and defensive linemen Caleb Brantley and Joey Ivie to the draft; Gray, who coached a secondary that allowed the lowest passer rating and fewest touchdown passes in the country last season, took a job with the Washington Redskins.
Now, Florida has its most unknowns on that side of the ball in more than a decade.
There’s talent in place, though. Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson look poised to become the program’s next standout edge rushers, and defensive backs Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner have enough versatility to play anywhere in the back end.
Throw in Shannon’s pedigree — he has three national titles as a player and coach — and the fact that Florida’s 10th-ranked recruiting class included several of the country’s top high school defenders, and the Gators seem at least somewhat prepared for what could be a not-so-smooth transition.
“Each year, you’ve got to find out what your talent is on defense,” Shannon said. “But you have to always have them guys playing fast. If guys can play fast without thinking a lot, then you’re going to be very successful.”
Here are some other things to know about Florida:
QUARTERBACK QUANDARY: Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is the popular pick to be McElwain’s fifth starting quarterback in three seasons. But McElwain insists Zaire, journeyman Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks all have a shot at getting the bulk of the snaps. Zaire missed most of the 2015 season because of a broken ankle and lost his starting job to DeShone Kizer in the 2016 season opener. Zaire threw for 816 yards and six touchdowns in three seasons in South Bend, Indiana. Del Rio started six games last season before sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury. Franks ended spring practice as the team’s No. 1 QB, but his inexperience could cost him in the race.
No matter who gets the nod, he will be tasked with improving a unit that ranked 116th in the nation and last in the SEC in total offense in 2016.
HOME COOKING: The Gators have their best home schedule in years, with rivals Tennessee, LSU and Florida State all visiting The Swamp this fall. Florida should be playing the Tigers on the road, but gets the game at home as part of last year’s acrimonious rescheduling agreement.
SPECIAL TEAMERS? Florida believes it could have the top special teams units in the country thanks to punter Johnny Townsend and kicker Eddy Pineiro. Townsend led the nation with 29 punts of 50 or more yards in 2016 and landed 27 inside the 20-yard line. Pineiro made 21 of 25 field goals and all 16 extra points. He also made headlines in May by hitting an 81-yarder in full pads in practice.
SEASON OPENER: Florida opens the season Sept. 2 against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. It will mark the first time Florida has opened a season away from home since a 31-4 loss at Miami in 1987.