CeCe Jefferson and Florida Gators Transition to a 3-4 Defense

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The Florida Gators have experienced better days, as they finished their less than stellar 2017 season at 4-7, which led to the firing of Jim McELwain and subsequently led to the beginning of the Dan Mullen era in Gainesville. Like so many coaches before him, Mullen will look to improve the culture, while instilling smart physical football to the Gator program that allowed 27.3 points per game this past season, which happens to be the most PPG for a Gator defense since 1946.

Bringing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham from Starkville will only help cultivate this desired culture, while inculcating the values of a successful program. Grantham is not only known for his pressure based 3-4 defense or the epic choke sign he made against the Gators, but he is also known for stabilizing volatile defenses. Before arriving at Mississippi State, the 2016 Bulldogs surrendered 459 yards per game, which ranked 110th nationally, while giving up 31 points per game, which ranked 75th nationally. Grantham took over the defense in 2017 and the progress was more than evident; the defense ranked 10th nationally in yards per game, with 306.3, and they gave up 22.7 points per game, which ranked 31st nationally.

Since returning to college football in 2010, Grantham coached defenses have only been out of the top 30 in yards per game twice and that was in 2011/2012 with the Georgia Bulldogs. A three year stint at Louisville, where his defenses ranked in the top 20 of yards per game in all three years, helped lead him to Mississippi State. This is important because the Gators must find a way to get their defense back to their 2015 and 2016 form, when they won 2 straight SEC East titles. This seems like a tall task with a power house program like the Georgia Bulldogs being in the conference, but crazier things have happened.

The Gators have a deep defensive line and they were blessed with the return of the senior EDGE rusher CeCe Jefferson, who has been playing with his hand in the dirt the last few seasons in Gainesville. The undersized EDGE rusher has been playing as a predominate DE in the Gator’s 4-3 defense that they have been employing for several years. The former 5-Star recruit has 9.5 sacks through these 3 seasons as a Gator, but I’ll argue that he may have been playing out of position, which is very convenient with a 3-4 system about to be implemented.

Whether it was the shoulder surgery or the potential ability to thrive in Grantham’s defense, that led to CeCe staying in school, we may not know, but let’s take a look at CeCe’s game film, shall we?

Jefferson’s most intriguing skill is his ability to burst with exceptional short area quickness and speed. He exercises this speed to avoid blockers at the point of attack, while showing good flexibility and a very good low center of gravity to get low and squeeze through tight spaces. While he hasn’t played much in space, due to the fact that he was lined up as an end most of the time, he does show very good backside pursuit, range, and athleticism – all of which project well to a 3-4 OLB role.

In the clip above, you can see the quick hands, excellent location/diagnosing skills, and that quick burst I alluded to above. This ability to process, locate, and make plays on the backside is highly coveted, especially when you have the lateral movement and ability to just avoid down blocks with quickness. It’s not a teachable trait. Obviously, there is much more that goes into playing in space, but this quickness and athleticism that he shows in the trenches will only help with his transition to a 3-4 OLB in Grantham’s system.

He uses that same quickness below, while split wide and slanting inside; he tracks, locates, and attacks, all while displaying an impressive ability to trust his eyes and make the play in the backfield. This first step quickness is a major reason why CeCe had 13.5 tackles for a loss this past season. I expect that number to go up under Grantham’s tutelage.

CeCe won’t be limited to just playing in space. He has shown an ability to wreck havoc from the interior parts of the line, due to his pass rush ability. In the clip below, you’ll see him use his natural leverage, active hands, and flexibility to squeeze the A gap from the 3 technique position, and get free. The athleticism and competitive toughness are shown at the end of the play when he tracks the ball carrier down from behind to make a hard tackle, all while attacking the football. Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham look for players who hustle to the ball. They want 11 hats near the football and CeCe Jefferson will always meet their expectations.

Jefferson has shown the ability to line up wide and use his quickness and natural leverage to his advantage; he is around 6’1” which is short for an EDGE rusher, but his height does give him a natural advantage, if he utilizes his leverage correctly. Through his tape, I have seen him get his hips lower than his opponents, which led to a lower pad level, stronger core, and a more stable platform. This would lead to his opponent over extending and Jefferson would then use his quickness and speed to win the one on one matchup by getting his adversary off balance and/or out of position. This is an invaluable tool for a pass rusher and you can see one instance of it below.

The quickness is used to get hip to hip while taking advantage of a poor pass set. CeCe then rips under the holding attempt of the tackle, which led to the tackle’s hips being turned 360 degrees. An effective rip move is a very valuable tool to have in a pass rusher’s arsenal, but it’s only one of many ways to defeat one on one blocks.

Jefferson will be the kind of player Grantham can do many things with, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. This kind of versatility is coveted in the NFL, he’ll just have to clean up some nuances and start to hone in on certain aspects of playing EDGE. His quickness and athletic ability will only get him so far; he must develop more counter moves and have more of a plan when rushing the passer. I expect and hope he will develop these traits this season, though will be difficult, due to the fact that he is missing time with the shoulder injuries and an entire new system is being introduced to the Gator program.

Jefferson must also improve his strength at the point of attack, especially when it comes to defending the run; he has struggled to take blocks on and shed with any consistency. Too often he lets opponent gain his chest and he doesn’t have the requisite play strength to shed bigger lineman and make a play, which is why his quickness is so valuable to his game. He lacks a strong jolt, when he does make initial contact, and he doesn’t win at the point of attack. He thrives at alluding blocks rather than taking them on and this could be due to the fact that he struggles with the initial strength of taking on blocks, but he must improve this area of his game.

These struggles can be fixed, but they are concerning. CeCe started off wide and goes inside in the video above, just to get flipped and turned inside by the tackle. I could run for a touchdown in that hole and this will be something that Grantham will not allow. In the video below, CeCe cannot set the edge against a TE blocking in a base situation; Jefferson’s hands have very little accuracy and he loses the pad level battle by allowing Ryan Izzo’s hips to be lower than his, while uncoiling his hips through CeCe’s attempt to get outside. Izzo keeps his hands inside the whole time, which allows him to hold some jersey and effectively eliminate Jefferson from his assignment.

These struggles against the run, along with some more development as a pass rusher, will have to be fixed, in order for CeCe to live up to his immense potential. Grantham can help Jefferson reach this potietnal, as he has done it before with much lesser athletes at the same position. Jarvis Jones played the OLB position for Georgia under Grantham, which led to a first round selection, much to the chagrin of Steelers fans. Jones had 44 tackles for a loss and 28 sacks in two seasons at Georgia, while being around the same height and weight as CeCe. The one big difference is CeCe is much quicker and a much better athlete than Jones.

Playing rush end in this 3-4 defense while being coached by an experienced defensive coordinator, can only help CeCe surpass his potential, but he still has a long way to go. I’m very excited to see a healthy CeCe Jefferson in a Todd Grantham defense this fall. He’ll have to improve on his deficiencies and show that he can consistently play in space, but you can’t teach his type of first step quickness. It’s attainable for him to earn more sacks this season than all the sacks he has accumulated in Gainesville. Crazier things have happened, so let’s see what materializes in Gator country this fall and let’s see where we will be talking about CeCe Jefferson in the draft next spring.  

 

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