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How Florida’s defense keyed the Gators’ unlikely rise

Dan Mullen ran to one corner of the Swamp after a stadium-rattling win over Auburn last weekend, high-fiving fans, pumping his arms and lifting his visor, only to reverse course and run to another corner and then another.

Mullen vowed to make Florida nationally relevant again when he took the head coaching job 22 months ago, and on a humid night in early October, his off-the-cuff celebration and unscripted, zigzagging path across the field spoke directly to that promise.

In 19 games as Florida head coach, Mullen is 16-3. Just as impressive, he is winning with players that former coach Jim McElwain signed, including a backup quarterback nobody else recruited. Fifteen current starters were in Gainesville when Mullen arrived, laying waste to the idea that coaches can win only with their hand-picked players.

The work he and his staff have done transforming a losing team into a winning one has No. 7 Florida (6-0) back in the top 10. But rather than the offense setting the tone, the defense remains the stalwart after another statement game — holding Bo Nix and Auburn to 13 points.

Though last week served as a big win, we will know more about whether Florida is ready enough to compete for championships at No. 5 LSU (5-0) on Saturday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN).

The Gators are 13.5-point underdogs. But they were underdogs last week against Auburn, and they were underdogs last year against then-No. 5 LSU before winning 27-19, the first bit of proof both those inside and outside the football facility needed that Mullen could get the job done sooner rather than later.

The second came in its first win over Michigan, a dominant victory in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Now the third: a win over Auburn, and Florida now in consecutive games with College Football Playoff implications on the line.

“We want to play in these, we want to win these big games,” Mullen said. “You have to learn, you have to get that mindset that you know what, winning a big time game means you gotta show up and get ready to win an even bigger one next week. That’s what life is like in the SEC.”

Such quick turnarounds are difficult to engineer and often hard to sustain. In this case, Florida has gone about it in a way that runs counter to what Mullen offered during his introductory news conference. Mullen sold his offensive vision, invoking his time as offensive coordinator coaching Tim Tebow and his admiration of Steve Spurrier. “I love scoring points!” he said at the time.

Mullen sounded all the right notes, because he knew he had to — given what had happened in the decade after he left Florida. The Gators morphed from an offensive juggernaut to defensive stalwart, and calls to return to the high-flying times under Spurrier and Tebow only intensified as the Florida offense continued to rank in the bottom half of the country.

Offense is what Mullen knows and does best, and indeed, the Gators are vastly improved in that department. Just to illustrate that point, it is worth noting the Gators have scored 76 touchdowns in 19 games under Mullen. It took 34 games between Oct. 3, 2015 and the end of 2017 for the Gators to reach the same total. Since taking over for Feleipe Franks, out for the season because of an ankle injury, Kyle Trask is 66-of-92 for 841 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions.

“You can see it throughout the team, guys expect to win, expect to make plays, expect to dominate,” receiver Josh Hammond said. “In the offseason, we took that step knowing we finished as a top-10 team and we can prepare like one and act like one.”

But it is also true the offense remains a work in progress. The Florida defense continues to set the tone, a physical, relentless, aggressive unit with two cover cornerbacks in CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson that might just be the envy of the entire SEC.

Florida leads the nation in takeaways (19) and red zone defense, and is tied for third in sacks (26), tied for fourth in tackles for loss (50) and ranked in the top 10 in total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense.

Because defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has the confidence in his defensive backs to cover one-on-one, the front seven is able to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. When they call blitzes, the players have executed them well, too. For example, Grantham pointed to a sack-fumble James Houston IV had last week.

“He read it perfectly on what he needed to do, so it gets down to execution of the calls, relentless effort of the players both from a front standpoint and also in the back end of staying with your guys and covering guys in tight coverage,” Grantham said. “A lot of times, quarterbacks won’t throw the ball when it’s tight coverage. They’re afraid to make a mistake or throw a pick.”

As the players have grown more accustomed to what Grantham wants, their confidence has grown and their production has increased. Linebacker David Reese II, who leads the Gators with 49 tackles, says he believes everyone is playing faster because they are now experts in the aggressive scheme.

Add in transfer Jonathan Greenard, who played under Grantham when they were both at Louisville, and the defense essentially has a coach on the field. Nobody knows the defense or Grantham better than Greenard, who has excelled playing both on and off the line and leads the team with four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.

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