Florida’s Patrick Toney hopes ‘creepers’ can help Gators rediscover lost defensive dominance

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 28, 2022
Florida’s Patrick Toney hopes ‘creepers’ can help Gators rediscover lost defensive dominance
Football

Image Credit: Hannah White, UAA

For a program that has boasted one of the most dominant defenses in college football over the last 15 seasons, the Florida Gators have lost their way. It is now incumbent upon head coach Billy Napier and co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney to right the ship.

The Gators enter the 2022 campaign having posted their two worst defensive campaigns this century over as many seasons. Ranked 74th (2020) and 73rd (2021) in team defense, the backbone of the program withered away under Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham, quickly making a distant memory of what used to be one of the most unstoppable forces in the sport.

From 2000-19, Florida produced 18 top-32 defenses with eight of those units ranked among the top 10 in the nation. The Gators were ballhawks on the back end and snarling beasts up front with top-tier prospects littered across the entire unit on a near-annual basis. There were hiccups along the way (notably the rebuilding years in 2007 and 2017), but even when the offense was not as explosive as the faithful expected, they could still count on the defense to keep winning hopes alive.

Mixing a lacking recruiting effort with an inability to adapt to the modern game, Florida’s last coaching staff was unwilling to do what was necessary to create success or retain its jobs.

Napier’s new staff fills both of those tenets. The concerted recruiting endeavors are obvious, and Toney’s relative youth not only keeps his defense on the cutting edge, it allows him to remain flexible while not entrenching himself in bad habits like those that plagued his predecessor.

The 32-year-old defensive boss technically splits coordinator responsibilities with defensive line coach Sean Spencer, but it is Toney — also the safeties coach — who will call the plays on Saturdays. And when it comes to his game day philosophy, it’s rather simple to understand: play physical football, create pressure and force takeaways.

“We don’t look at it as ‘turnovers;’ we look at it as ‘takeaways,'” said senior safety Trey Dean III, one of Toney’s key pupils. “They got the ball; we take it away.”

Dean is as bought in to Toney’s philosophy as anyone on the team, and it’s easy to understand why. Defensive players want to be active, not reactive. They want to impact a game just as frequently as their offensive counterparts. Toney’s defense allows that to be the case.

“We create a practice environment that is conducive for improvement,” Toney said. “… First and foremost, we’re going to play physically. That’s what you’re going to be known for.”

Beyond that physicality, Toney’s signature defensive trait is creeper pressure: players attacking the line of scrimmage and offensive backfield at all three levels with both linebackers and defensive backs engaging (or “creeping”) into the pass rush. While that may sound like simulated pressure, the difference is that creepers do not show their cards before the snap. As such, creeper and simulated pressure can be mixed on any given play, creating havoc as opposing offenses attempt to diagnose the defense they are facing.

“When you say that word [creeper], you really are just talking about simulated pressure, and really all you’re saying is you are blitzing an unknown rusher and dropping a known rusher to replace him, right? It’s still a four-man rush. Just a different way to create pressure,” explained Toney at the start of fall camp.

“… You can create the same amount of pressure by blitzing a second-level, third-level defender [and] replace him with a first-level defender. When you say a ‘creeper,’ that’s really what you are talking about. Still a four-man rush. You haven’t sacrificed anything in coverage, and you are just doing something to affect the protection by sending someone they may not be prepared for or asking the running back to have to block in protection rather than the five-down.”

Senior linebacker Amari Burney, who primarily plays on the inside, noted that he’s spent a significant portion of practice developing pass rush moves that were never required under his prior coaches.

“We really wasn’t doing that in the [past] as stand-up linebackers,” he said. “… And the safeties, we got some fast guys coming off the edge. We’re all trying to work together on different pass rush moves.”

Toney has placed an emphasis on each player learning their specific jobs on the field, even as those get more complicated with creeper aspects. Equally important to him is development both of the players individually and his playbook holistically.

“P.T., every time I see him, he’s thinking of new plays to come up with. Every time I see him in the hallway, he wants to pull me to the side, talk to me about what I see on the field,” Burney said. “… He’s just trying to see, from our view, what he can do better as a coach. His mind is always running. … He’s always putting new plays together to try and make us the best defense in the country.”

There’s no doubt that Toney is Napier’s key lieutenant, to the point that the play callers have a long-standing gentlemen’s agreement during practice: there’s neither a winner nor loser on a given practice day. After five years coaching together, one knows when he’s one-upped the other.

“He knows when he’s got me. I know when I’ve got him,” Napier said. “We’re both smart enough to understand that. The key here is that we get our team ready to play.”

As for how the Gators will play defensively, the pressure aspect is obviously key. So is play calling on third and fourth down, a bane of fans’ existence over the last few seasons. With a chuckle, Toney shared his simple goal on the so-called money downs: “Get off the field.”

He expanded: “Philosophically, we want to contest every route. We want to make it hard for the quarterback. We want to affect the quarterback. He is, obviously, the guy with the hardest job. He has to deliver it on third down. So, how can we contest him, make him throw in tight windows? … How can we affect the quarterback directly, get the ball out of his hand, hopefully not in rhythm?

“The other thing we have to do a good job of is anticipating four-down territory in today’s game and all those aspects. When is it really third down, and when is it four downs? … Philosophically, we want to play close and tight to the receivers. Don’t want to let them have free access, and then we want to affect the quarterback with our rush or pressure.”

Florida’s defensive front has been a source of pride for Napier and Toney this offseason with both coaches fond of how the veterans have led and the younger players have developed. Where Gators everywhere want to see a return to glory is the secondary where Toney and cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond are tasked with reclaiming the “DBU” crown.

“You’ll see five defensive backs on the field a good amount for us, on some situations six. We’re going to find roles [for our best players] and put them in the position they’re most capable of playing,” Toney explained. “You may see guys that are featured in certain packages, and you may see every-down starters.”

Toney’s philosophy and his defense will be put to a test right away in Week 1 as Florida welcomes No. 7 Utah to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The reigning Pac-12 champion Utes, who are projected to defend their title, scored 35+ points in eight of their final 10 games of the 2021 season. That included a high-powered dual with Ohio State and the 2022 Heisman Trophy favorite, quarterback C.J. Stroud, in the Rose Bowl (a 48-45 loss for Utah).

The Swamp is sold out. The game is at night. While the opponent looks to present an exceedingly tough test, if there’s any environment conducive to getting a new defense off on the right foot, it will be the one the Gators create on Saturday evening.

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