Florida touts itself as DBU — Defensive Back University — but the Gators’ heralded secondary has been schooled so far early in 2015.
After an offseason squabbling with fans and players from LSU, Ohio State and Texas, UF ranks 88th nationally in pass defense, prompting a players-only meeting Sunday during the team’s day off.
“It’s not acceptable with the amount of yards we’ve given up,” safety Marcus Maye said.
The Gators were torched for 346 passing yards — including 148 yards in the fourth quarter — in last Saturday’s close win over East Carolina as the Pirates feasted on shallow crossing routes and quick-hitters against UF’s shorthanded secondary.
Coverage lapses and tackling have both been issues, so the defensive backs had a heart-to-heart about needing to step up.
“You heard all the Twitter talk and social media talk about us being DBU and the best in the country. Well, in the first two games we didn’t show that,” junior safety Keanu Neal said.
“That meeting was to come back to a platform where we need to be, start from the ground up and work our way up, instead of having this pedestal. Just going back and figuring what we need to do better.”
Having their full compliment of players should help. Neal is set to make his 2015 debut at Kentucky (7:30 p.m., SEC Network) after missing the first two games with a hamstring injury. All-American cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who also didn’t play against ECU, practiced Wednesday and is probable with a leg ailment.
Due to a suspension (Maye) and injuries (Neal and Hargreaves), Florida’s starting unit hasn’t played a single snap together this season.
That should change against the Wildcats (2-0), and it couldn’t come at a better time.
Kentucky has lost 28 straight to UF, but it nearly sprung the upset last season as burly quarterback Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in a triple-overtime defeat.
The 6-5, 240-pound junior has a live arm and is among the more underrated passers in the SEC. UF did intercept Towles three times last year, including twice by Neal, but the secondary is wary of the challenge he presents.
“He’s pretty good. He has a good arm. He can move. He can see over the pocket,” Maye said.
“Going and playing against him, we just have to send a lot of pressure, keep him in the pocket, make him be one-dimensional. We can shorten him up and have him not be able to use his feet and throw the ball down the field. We just have to play him the right way, and I’m pretty sure coach will have a plan for that.”
Communication busts have contributed to some early season struggles, too, so having Neal back in the fold is a huge boost for UF’s secondary.
While Hargreaves is the unit’s star and centerpiece, Neal, a 6-1, 209-pound eraser at safety, is the group’s vocal leader.
“It was killing me. It was killing me inside [missing the first two weeks],” he said.
“I’ve got so much built up in me. I was telling [Brian] Poole this earlier, like I can’t wait until Saturday. I’ve got so much anger and just energy built up in me. I’m just ready to go. I just can’t wait.”
Neal was the one who initiated the players-only meeting, and he’s determined to make sure Florida lives up to its DBU moniker.
“We want that. We want to be the best in the country and best defense in the nation,” Neal said.
“That’s what we preach and what we want to do, and we’ve got to do it.”
McELWAIN: TEAM’S FOCUS BETTER
As Florida prepares for its first road trip of the season, Gators coach Jim McElwain is pleased with his team’s focus and commitment for Saturday’s SEC showdown at Kentucky.
After UF’s nailbiting win over East Carolina, McElwain lamented his team’s preparation. Upward of 30 players weren’t tapped before practice last Monday, with McElwain saying there were “indicators” and “foreshadowing” of an ensuing shaky performance. Not this week.
“We’ve had a good week from the get-go,” he said. “It started Monday, guys were focused and had a good sense as to what’s at hand, which is a very, very talented and good Kentucky team.”
▪ Hargreaves was upgraded to probable for Saturday, as was freshman offensive tackle Martez Ivey, who should make his collegiate debut after having knee surgery on Aug. 28.
“He’s good to go,” McElwain said of Ivey.
However, the rest of UF’s injury report is rather grim.
▪ Starting linebacker Alex Anzalone is still out with a shoulder injury, and starting tight end C’yontai Lewis injured his hand Tuesday and could be unavailable. Special teams aces Case Harrison (thumb) and Josh Grady (leg) are out.