Chauncey Gardner-Johnson spoke to reporters not with the attitude of someone who had just suffered a heartbreaking loss at the hands of an SEC foe.
The junior defensive back communicated in his signature confident manner Monday as he stressed the importance of keeping an attitude of mental toughness.
That mentality is something that the Gators needed a lot more of in their 27-16 home loss to Kentucky on Saturday night.
And Gardner-Johnson held his defense accountable, saying that it lacked the mental preparation needed to be successful in that game.
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“We didn’t prepare ourselves properly going into the game,” he said. “We practiced good, but mentally we didn’t prepare ourselves good to do the defensive tasks.”
But Gardner-Johnson didn’t dwell on what could’ve happened in last Saturday’s game. He displayed little concern about his team one loss into the season.
“I spoke to the team. I spoke the defense at halftime and at the end of the game, they came and slapped us in the mouth. We got to respond,” he said. “As leaders of this team, we got to go in and we got to dial in and practice and do what we need to do because we can’t change the outcome.”
Gardner-Johnson isn’t one to mince words. It’s a trait that’s beneficial when the Gators need someone to rally the team in times of adversity, but it’s something that can backfire in the wrong situations.
The junior didn’t mince words when he prematurely guaranteed that Florida would extend its winning streak to 32 games against the Wildcats.
He was forced to deal with the consequences after the Gators lost and fans turned to social media to urge him to “let his play speak for itself.”
Still, Gardner-Johnson reiterated the need for mental toughness and turned his focus to the next target.
“I don’t worry about it. [The Wildcats] got their win, they got in and out, it’s still early,” he said. “So, we aren’t focused on that no more. Colorado State this week.”
Then came another guarantee from the Cocoa, Florida, native.
“We’re going to respond,” he ensured. “Trust me, we’re going to respond.”
Florida will have to respond in a big way to correct what went wrong in Saturday’s game. Coach Dan Mullen told reporters that he counted 20 missed tackles from the defense for 168 yards against Kentucky.
“That is something we need to address as a team,” Gardner-Johnson said.
He and other members of the Gators’ defense were surprised at how much of an issue tackling has been, and he mentioned that it’s also tough to pinpoint what exactly went wrong.
“As a whole, you can’t just single in on one tackle because you don’t know what tackle could have changed the game. So you have to dial in on all 20 of them and do what you got to do and go into practice and focus up,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Because if you go into practice with that same mentality as last week you’re going to have 20 more missed tackles next game.”
But correcting those on-the-field miscues is the easy part. Altering the way the Gators mentally approach each game is a much harder correction. One that will take longer to change.
“Change takes time,” Mullen said. “Change is uncomfortable for people. If you don’t like how things are you gotta change.”
That change could start with the addition of veterans like linebacker David Reese and defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson, who both missed the first two games of the season. Reese has been out due to injury, and Jefferson has missed playing time for academic reasons.
The Gators hope to have the back in the lineup as well as defensive back C.J. McWilliams when they take on Colorado State.
“They’re leaders, too. CeCe is and C.J. He’s a guy that plays behind me but he’s going to have to step up this week. His number is going to get called,” Gardner-Johnson said. “Like Coach Mullen said, we don’t want to hold back.”