Best Defense of the Past Decade
The University of Florida has been known for outstanding defense throughout the years. Different monikers such as DBU and DLU have been associated with some of the great Gator defenses of the past. Going back to 2012 and 2015, the Gators fielded some of their best defenses to date. Both squads were littered with All-SEC and NFL talent and had the production to show for it. Countless household names played for each team, from Matt Elam to Vernon Hargreaves III and Shariff Floyd and Jarrad Davis. This begs the question; which group was better?
The 2012 season was probably my favorite season as a Gator fan. There were many memorable moments like the 14-6 defensive slugfest of a win over LSU or the high octane 44-11 blowout over a Steve Spurrier led South Carolina Gamecocks team. That season had a different feel to it. Every game was exciting, and it felt as if the Gators were the favorites, largely due to the defense.
Starting in the backend of the defense, you had two hard-hitting, athletic safeties in Josh Evans and Matt Elam. Both would go on to play in the NFL, Evans a sixth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Elam a first-round pick with the Baltimore Ravens. You had standouts Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, and Jaylen Watkins at corner, each splitting time. At linebacker, Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic were impact players, with Bostic going 50th overall in the 2013 draft to the Chicago Bears, and Jenkins going in the third-round to the Miami Dolphins. Lastly, there was the defensive line, which was arguably the strongest unit on the whole team. Shariff Floyd and Dominique Easley led that group, two Gator greats who later became first-round picks in the 2013 and 2014 NFL drafts, respectively. A young Dante Fowler was also in the mix, although he wasn’t yet the player who would become the third overall pick in the 2015 draft.
That defense would finish the season ranked eighth in total defense, surrendering just under 300 yards of offense per game. In total that defense produced 12 NFL draft picks in their 2-deep (13 including Jonathan Bullard) with four players being picked in the first round. That season the defense was one of the top passing defenses as well, finishing the year ranked seventh in the country. They only allowed more than 17 points in a game four times that season and held opponents under 14 points an impressive six times. Florida finished the year 11-2 and second in the SEC East, which was an overall solid season led by a great defense.
During the 2014 season Florida had a talented defense but was inconsistent. They had some very good moments like the Florida State game where they picked of Jameis Winston and the defending champs four times, but then there were other moments like when they let Amari Cooper go for 201 yards receiving and three touchdowns, with 156 of those yards coming in the first quarter. Alabama finished that game with 42 points and 672 yards of total offense.
Going into the 2015 season, the defense had moderate expectations. With a new coaching staff and scheme, you wouldn’t expect too much right off the bat, but the talent was there for them to be a successful unit, and that is what they would become. Now, the 2012 defense boasted one of the best secondary’s in the nation that year and one of the best groups to ever play at Florida. Still, the 2015 defense might have the best group top to bottom in the history of Florida Gators football.
You had Vernon Hargreaves III starting at corner, with Jalen tabor and Quincy Wilson sharing time at the other corner spot. Hargreaves enjoyed a prolific junior season that year as he finished with four interceptions and would be named a first team All-American. He would later become the 11th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wilson and Tabor each had really good seasons as they combined for six interceptions and Tabor was voted first team All-SEC. At safety, Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal created one of the best safety tandems in the country that season. Neal was picked in the first round (17th overall) in the 2016 draft by the Atlanta Falcons and Maye a year later in the second round by the New York Jets.
Manning the middle at linebacker were Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison. Davis was the more athletic, and faster of the two, while Morrison was more of a thumper. Both would be selected in the NFL draft after finishing their Gator careers. Morrison was selected by Green Bay with the 125th overall pick in 2016, and Davis going 21st overall in 2017 to Detroit. Just like in 2012 the defensive line was once again a strong part of the team, with multiple NFL draft picks and overall really solid players. Jonathan Bullard (now a senior) was a first team All-SEC selection, and third-round pick by the bears in the 2016 draft. Also on that line, you had Joey Ivie, and Bryan Cox Jr., Caleb Brantley, and Taven Bryan just to name a few. All of the players would become NFL draft picks, and had solid careers as Gators as well.
In total, the defense produced 14 NFL draft picks in their 2-deep with 4 first-round picks. The defense finished the season ranked eighth in total defense, the same as the 2012 squad. A very good finish for a defense that was the epitome of inconsistency the year prior.
Which Unit was Better?
While both defenses had their highs and lows, the 2012 defense takes the cake in my opinion. The 2015 defense had more talent top to bottom, more NFL draft picks, and more household names, but they also had their fair share of struggles. They allowed teams to score 24+ points six times, with LSU and Michigan scoring 35 and 41 respectively. The 2012 defense only allowed two teams to score more than 24 points, with both games coming the last two weeks of the season.
Now both defenses did carry their teams to 10+ wins while having two of the worst offenses in the sport in those seasons. But with the 2012 team, we’re talking about a team that finished with an NY6 bowl, only two losses, and is probably in the playoff if it were conceived just two years prior. As for the 2015 team, they finished the season with a trip to the citrus bowl, blowout losses to Florida State and Michigan (although they played Alabama pretty well), four losses, and absolutely no shot at a playoff berth. Both defenses deserve their flowers, as they had great seasons by just about every metric, but I believe the 2012 defense was the better unit.