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From Boy Wonder to boy blunder, UF’s Austin Armstrong haunted by Gators’ defensive collapse

GAINESVILLE — Florida defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong can look back on the rapid decline of his D with a healthy dose of humility and even a touch of humor.

“When you’re young and you’re successful, you’re Boy Wonder,” he said following Tuesday’s practice. “When you’re not, you’re boy blunder.”

The Gators’ fall from a top-10 unit in September to a sieve by season’s end still haunts the 30-year-old.

“It makes me sick that we couldn’t finish for these players,” he said. “I think about it a lot.”

UF held Arkansas in check until the fourth quarter of an overtime loss in the Swamp, limited Missouri to seven first-half points during a 33-31 loss on a last-second field goal and even contained LSU’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels for a spell until the Tigers turned on the afterburners to gain 701 yards — the most ever gained against the Gators.

“You can just name them off,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s my responsibility.”

Entering the second week of spring practices, Armstrong has reasons for optimism, beginning with an overhauled staff. The late addition of veteran coach Ron Roberts to join new secondary coach Will Harris and defensive line coach Gerald Chatman reunites Armstrong with one of his mentors.

Armstrong was a graduate assistant at Louisiana under current Gators coach Billy Napier when Roberts was the Ragin’ Cajuns defensive coordinator in 2018. The two kept in close touch as each moved around to different schools and roles.

“We had a unique relationship; he was kind of like a football dad a little bit,” Armstrong said Tuesday. “You couldn’t imagine this is where we’d be sitting this time of the year, sitting with us and collaborating with us.”

The two men will share the role of coordinator, responsibilities and a single-minded approach to elevate a defense among the SEC’s worst in 2023.

The Gators finished the season allowing 6.44 yards per play, 122nd of 133 teams nationally, and 20 pass plays of 40 yards or longer — more than any team but UNLV. UF managed just 3 interceptions, tied with Temple for the fewest in FBS.

All this occurred after UF ascended into the top-10 in total defense after four games in 2023.

“I don’t think we have enough time to say what we learned,” Armstrong said of the experience.

He wasn’t the only one to experience on-the-job training during his first season in Gainesville. A lack of playmakers left the Gators to rely on a host of promising first-year defenders.

Among them was safety Jordan Castell, a former standout at West Orange High who led UF with 60 tackles in 12 games, and cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson, who starred at Kissimmee Osceola and was the top-rated member of the 2023 class.

Highly touted edge defenders Kelby Collins, who also can move inside, and T.J. Searcy also flashed plenty of potential and are poised for breakout seasons. Castell, Collins and Searcy each made the SEC’s All-Freshman Team.

“Kelby can be as good as anybody in this conference,” Armstrong said. “His position flex is really impressive.”

Among veteran returners, fourth-year starting cornerback Jason Marshall Jr.’s decision to come back was a boost for the secondary.

“Jason was probably as good of a Christmas gift that I got,” Armstrong said. “Jason can be as good as he wants to be.”

Similarly critical is junior linebacker Shemar James’ return to health. His season-ending knee surgery coincided with the Gators’ season-ending five-game skid, a stretch when opponents averaged 38.2 points and scored at least 39 in four consecutive games for the first time since the 1940s.

The two established veterans will be joined by experienced transfers, including safeties Asa Turner (Washington) and DJ Douglas (Tulane), cornerback Trikweze Bridges (Oregon), linemen Joey Slackman (Penn) and Brien Taylor Jr. (Blinn CC). Sophomore linebacker Pup Howard (South Carolina) is a former Gators’ recruit with star potential.

“I can’t say enough about that group of guys and what they’ll contribute to a young group who has played a bunch of football,” Armstrong said. “One is the respect of the league and the quality of the coaches and players in this league. I have a deep appreciation for the week-in and week-out grind.”

Armstrong arrived less than two weeks ahead of spring practices in 2023 after defensive coordinator Patrick Toney left for the NFL following a forgettable season himself in 2022.

Early success a year ago spurred hope of a turnaround after a string of subpar seasons by Florida’s D.

Defense dominated the spring game with 9 sacks, including 3 on the first two series. But the Gators’ strong defensive start in September came to a screeching halt at Kentucky, where the Wildcats rushed for 329 yards.

“We can make all the excuses about having a young team and such, and that’s true,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day, it’s a results-driven business.”

After a season of growing pains and offseason soul-searching, Armstrong is determined to get a much better outcome in 2024. He’s not joking around.

“It made me want to work harder for our players,” he said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com