GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — As the music gets louder, so does Austin Armstrong. Florida’s new defensive coordinator starts screaming, bouncing around and slamming into players just before 11-on-11 drills.
“Get your hardhats ready,” Armstrong shouts. “This is a construction zone!”
And part of a massive rebuild in Gainesville
The Gators (6-7) set several defensive records last season — none of them good. They allowed the most points (375) and the most rushing touchdowns (29) in school history and surrendered more yards than ever on the ground (175.2 per game).
They gave up 30 or more points in six games and ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert more than 49% of the time. It was the worst third-down defense in the program’s 100-plus seasons.
Talent, depth, scheme, coaching? Maybe a combination of everything.
Second-year coach Billy Napier tasked the 30-year-old Armstrong with cleaning it up. Napier plucked the energetic, visor-wearing assistant from Alabama’s staff in February to replace Patrick Toney, who bolted for the NFL less than two weeks before spring practice.
While Napier’s offense — with Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz at quarterback — will get much of the attention this season, the defense seemingly has more room for growth. And Armstrong will be calling the shots when the Gators begin Aug. 31 at No. 14 Utah.
“He’s a good one,” Napier said.
So good that Napier recommended him to Georgia coach Kirby Smart for a quality control job. Armstrong spent the 2019 season with the Bulldogs before Napier brought him back to coach linebackers at Louisiana. The following year, Southern Miss made Armstrong the youngest defensive coordinator in the country.
Now, at age 30, Armstrong is the youngest in the SEC. Although he hasn’t tweaked Florida’s scheme very much, he has changed the approach and the intensity.
“A lot of energy,” Gators defensive tackle Tyreak Sapp said. “You don’t want a low-energy DC. You need somebody that can be that every day because you’re not going to be like that every day, but you have a little firecracker as a DC. He’s always ready to pop.”
Southern Miss’s defense popped under Armstrong. The Eagles forced 45 turnovers in his two seasons and ranked sixth nationally in red-zone defense in 2022 and seventh in touchdowns allowed.
“We have to play with physicality and we’ve got to play with a relentless effort,” Armstrong said. “Those are all controllable. That has nothing to do with scheme, it has nothing to do with talent. I know that sounds like a bunch of coach-speak, but every great defense, regardless of if it’s the ’85 Bears, it’s Georgia last year, it’s the Ravens, they ran and they hit.
“We’re going to mess up. But you erase that by playing your (butt) off and punishing the ball carrier.”
DEFENDERS TO WATCH
Edge rusher Princely Umanmielen, cornerback Jason Marshall and linebacker Shemar James will anchor a rebuilt defense that’s replacing eight starters. James is recovering from a left knee injury sustained during camp.
Former Michigan safety R.J. Moten and former Memphis defensive tackle Cam Jackson are among the newcomers to watch.
Depth remains an issue for the unit, especially after losing edge rusher Justus Boone to a torn knee ligament last week. The Gators are considering moving Tyreak Sapp and Jack Pyburn to the position in hopes of adding depth.
MERTZ TO START
Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz won the starting quarterback competition and will take over a job most recently held by Anthony Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft.
Mertz is a fourth-year junior who started 32 games over four seasons with the Badgers. He has 5,405 career yards passing, with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, and is widely considered a one-year placeholder while blue-chip QB commitment DJ Lagway finishes high school.
The over/under betting line on Florida’s win total is at 5 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. It’s surely the lowest preseason expectations in decades for a program that boasts three national titles.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll