Florida co-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney took a job in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals on Wednesday, but Gators head coach Billy Napier quickly filled the opening by raiding Alabama’s staff for Tide inside linebackers coach Austin Armstrong.
While the rest of UF’s defensive staff remains intact, the Gators will have their third different coordinator (and play-caller) in as many seasons.
Armstrong spent less than a month in Tuscaloosa after leaving Southern Miss, jumping at that chance to reunite with Napier and coordinate an SEC defense. Armstrong spent a season as a GA for Napier in 2018 and returned to Louisiana to serve as Toney’s inside linebackers coach.
At 29 years old, Austin Armstrong is considered a rising star in the industry and becomes the youngest coordinator in the Power 5 — a familiar note for recent Florida DCs.
Perhaps Armstrong will have more success, though. Florida fans sure hope so.
A year ago, Napier brought Patrick Toney will him from Louisiana, where he’d been the Ragin’ Cajuns’ coordinator for three years. Like Armstrong, Toney was a heralded football brainiac, and at 32, was the youngest Power 5 DCs in the country in 2022 and considered a rising star.
But Toney did not fare well in his lone season in Gainesville, as Florida’s defense was atrocious last fall.
The Gators regressed defensively the final few seasons under the much-maligned Todd Grantham, but they might’ve hit their nadir in 2022 under Toney.
Florida finished 10th or worst in the SEC in scoring defense, pass defense, sacks and explosive pass plays allowed. The Gators were last in the conference in third-down defense and yielded the most rushing touchdowns of any team in the league.
Florida definitely had personnel problems, mostly depth related. The Gators were super thin at linebacker and the defensive line lacked SEC bodies, too. They weren’t completely bereft of talent, though — as evidenced by five defensive players invited to 2023 NFL Combine.
Still, Toney did little to halt Florida’s recent defensive struggles. It was never going to be a one-year turnaround, but it wasn’t supposed to get worse than the “Third & Grantham” units.
Florida fans grew frustrated with a leaky scheme that was shredded (500+ yards allowed, at least 6.7 yards per play) by their biggest rivals (Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and FSU). They were a poor tackling team, a bad situational unit and a group constantly plagued by mis-assignments.
The lack of in-game adjustments was galling to some, too.
So Austin Armstrong is tasked with fixing a whole host of issues in 2023.
WHAT MIGHT FLORIDA’S DEFENSE LOOK LIKE IN 2023?
The timing isn’t ideal less than two weeks before the start of a critical month of spring practices in Gainesville. But there won’t be any sort of philosophical or scheme change under Armstrong, who coached under Toney and has experience working as a defensive assistant for Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning at Georgia in 2019.
The Gators will continue to run a hybrid three and four linemen scheme, with a JACK/edge, two linebackers and five defensive backs. They’ll probably blitz more (Southern Miss had a Top 10 blitz rate last season), and play more aggressive coverage on the back end.
Austin Armstrong will have to replace seven starters off the 2022 group, but he does have a couple of new defensive pieces to tinker with thanks to Billy Napier’s work in the transfer portal.
Memphis transfer tackle CamRon Jackson projects as a plug-and-play starter — although he’s replacing Gervon Dexter, a likely Top 50 NFL Draft pick. Teradja Mitchell couldn’t crack the lineup at Ohio State in 2022, but the grad transfer linebacker is likely a Day 1 starter for Florida.
But Florida is likely hard-pressed to make major defensive strides in 2023. There are too many holes to patch in a single season.
Armstrong is a strong hire by Napier, but the young coordinator’s reputation as an instant fixer-upper by some in the media has been a tad overblown.
In his first season as DC at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles went from 70th nationally in yards per play allowed (5.76) to 85th (5.78). They improved their scoring, but not dramatically (down around five points per game).
Still, Armstrong set a nice foundation for a Year 2 jump. In 2022, he had a unit that created all sorts of havoc — No. 3 nationally in lacks for loss, No. 5 in sacks and No. 7 in interceptions — and was a Top 20 defense in the country in success rate.
So the potential is there. It simply might take some time.
Florida fans certainly aren’t interested in being asked for more patience, but there’s not really a choice right now.
Toney’s tenure didn’t work out. Napier doubling down with another rising star in the industry — one with the stamp of approval from Nick Saban and Kirby Smart — isn’t a bad bet, though.