Gators’ defensive game plan: pressure Perkins and make him win with his arm

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Bryce Perkins poses with Orange Bowl mascot “Obie” upon the team’s arrival in South Florida (Photo courtesy UVA Media Relations).

Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is one of the best in the business, and so it comes to no surprise that the Gators’ defensive guru has spent much of his Orange Bowl practice time focused on slowing down Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins.

It’s certainly no secret that how Perkins goes, so goes Virginia. Planning to stop him is one thing. Easier said than done. Just ask Clemson.

While the Tigers blew out the Cavaliers in the ACC Championship game, 62-17, Perkins and his UVA offense was the first team this season to gain more than 300 total yards against Clemson. Perkins accounted for 324 of those yards.

Grantham, who grew up in southwestern Virginia (full admission here, yours truly once coached Grantham in pee-wee football, age 10-12), played for Virginia Tech and pursued coaching as a career. He’s had numerous successful stops with the Dallas Cowboys, Georgia, Louisville, Mississippi State (where he hooked up with Dan Mullen), and on to Florida.

Grantham has been around greatness at quarterback, having been Louisville’s defensive coordinator when Lamar Jackson won the Heisman. When Grantham says you’re special, it means something.

“I think [Perkins] is really special in the sense that, one, if you watch from the continuity tape, I think he’s gotten better every game this year. The end of the year probably averaging 300 yards a game passing. 

“He’s obviously athletic and can make things happen. I mean, he’s carried the ball 100 more times than their tailback. You’ve got to understand that.”

Grantham points out that Perkins is the type of elusive mobile quarterback that creates an 11-on-11 game. In other words, the Virginia signal caller creates an extra gap that defenses have to worry about.

“When the quarterback is a non-runner or a non-factor, then it’s really 11-on-10 (defense’s favor) and you can play with an extra guy in coverage,” Grantham said. “Whereas when it’s 11-on-11, you have an extra gap to fill, so you’ve got to play it a little differently. You’ve also got to understand relative to the call, how you rush, because there’s six rush lanes. If you have four guys rushing, you’ve got to collapse the pocket outside-in to keep the guy in the pocket.

“And then the thing on the pass plays is as you distribute because the guys are going down the field, a guy that is athletic like that, if he makes a guy miss and can get out in space, now you have an athlete with the ball in his hand in space. So that becomes an issue.”

What has really impressed Grantham about the UVA QB is that he has completed some vertical throws down the field to excellent receiving targets Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Terrell Jana, among others.

“Honestly, against Clemson, they really could have scored the first two possessions of the game and maybe could have changed it a little bit there,” Grantham said. “[Virginia] is a talented team and we understand that we’ve got to play, and he’s a good player.”

Florida’s coaching staff has been driving that fact home to their players. The Gators are two-touchdown favorites and the coaches want to make sure their team doesn’t take their ACC opponent for granted.

Linebacker Jonathan Greenard understands that aspect of the Orange Bowl matchup, and he also has paid particular attention to film of Perkins.

“He’s a dynamic athlete, and I’ve watched a good amount of film on him,” Greenard said. “He’s really fast, makes some good decisions and knows when to tuck and run with it. He’s their guy, so he’s going to make plays when he needs to — even times when it might not be called for, he’s going to make something happen.

“We’ve just got to execute on the pass rush and try to contain him. That’s a goal and the game plan.”

Florida is ranked No. 4 in the country in quarterback sacks with one more than No. 7 Virginia (46 to 45), so part of that plan is to blitz the heck out of Perkins. Sometimes that’s a gamble, because Perkins has become more adept at anticipating the blitz and getting the ball out to his talented receiving corps.

Then there’s the fact that when things do break down, Perkins is at his best when he has to ad lib and go what he calls “off script,” and just run the ball.

That’s what Florida is going to try to make happen.

“Yeah, we’re definitely going to try to do the same thing [blitz],” Greenard said. “Any time you’ve got a running quarterback, if you hit him a couple times, it’s definitely going to change him.

“They understand that he’s going to feel our pressure a lot more. We definitely have to make sure that we still contain him at the end of the day. Even if we get one sack on him, we’ve still got to stay the same and be persistent on our pass rush. Overall it’s going to be a tough challenge and we’ve got our work cut out for us, but overall we still know what we’ve got to do.”

Greenard is no stranger to running quarterbacks and has gone up against Jackson at Louisville, Houston’s Greg Ward, and former Clemson and Missouri QB Kelly Bryant, so he has seen elusiveness.

Gators’ defensive back Marco Wilson said the defense has been going up against a scout-team quarterback that has attempted to simulate Perkins in practice. Still, that’s much different than the real thing. 

Perkins runs more like a running back playing quarterback. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s athletic. He’s also tough, so even if he’s hit a few times as Greenard suggested, he’s just going to come back for more.

Perkins has also become efficient at scrambling long enough to allow one of his receivers to get in the clear and launch the pigskin down field, which has to be worrisome for any defensive coordinator.

“He’s pretty dynamic,” Wilson said of Perkins. “He can run it and throw it, so we have to be ready. It’s a challenge when you get a quarterback like that.”

Another Gators’ DB, David Reese II, wasn’t shying away from what his defense has to do in order to contain Perkins.

“You put pressure on him and make him beat us with his arm, not his feet, that’s the biggest thing,” Reese said. “Just put pressure on him, blitz. We’ve got great pass rushers. That’s what we’re going to do.”

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