GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Some days, it can be easy to forget playing football for Todd Grantham is supposed to be fun.

Then Saturday rolls around and all is forgiven.

Game days are when the real fun begins for his Florida Gators defense.

Grantham doesn’t want hard feelings, just hard-nosed players capable of executing a complicated scheme with reckless abandon. To that end, Grantham delivers his share of old-school tongue lashings, but he also devises a cutting-edge game plan that allows players to showcase their talents and stymie offenses.

Grantham’s approach produces performances like the Gators’ 10-sack rampage two weekends ago against Miami — the most sacks by an SEC team since 2008. This player-coach give-and-take also forges a bond built on trust, accountability and even an occasional dose of affection.

“I’ll ask them if they’re still mad at me every now and then,” Grantham said. “I say, ‘Are you still mad at me?’ … And I’ll usually get a smirk from them.”

Grantham’s brand of tough love is not for everyone, until the player begins to see the results.

“Even though he is crazy on the sideline, I understand what he’s doing,” pass rusher Jonathan Greenard said. “Look at his track record. We understand the production that he has and all that helps us, makes it that much easier to understand why he’s yelling at us or why he’s telling us to do this a certain way.

“It’ll all pay off in the end.”

A graduate transfer from Louisville, Greenard came to UF to reunite with Grantham, who coached Greenard for two seasons (2015-16) with the Cardinals. Greenard’s decision paid off with a dominant performance against Miami — six tackles, two for loss (1.5 sacks) — and SEC co-Defensive Lineman of the Week honors.

The week after the Miami win, the longtime defensive coordinator pointed to Greenard and former Georgia All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones as prototypical Grantham players.

“Jarvis and Jon are probably two of the top guys,” Grantham said, “from a sense of accountability, toughness, doing what you ask them to do, having a little bit of freedom to make plays and staying within the program and being a team guy.”

The template is a familiar one to Grantham. Four decades ago, it fit Grantham to a “T” and set the course for a future in coaching.

When Frank Beamer arrived at Virginia Tech in 1987, Grantham, then a Hokies left guard, quickly caught the eye of the new head coach.

“Tough, smart, understood the game, no nonsense,” Beamer recalled. “I knew early I liked what he was all about.”

When Grantham’s career ended a season later, a spot awaited on Beamer’s staff as a graduate assistant on offense. But after the GA on defense left for a head coaching job in high school, Beamer moved Grantham to defense, expecting he would transition seamlessly to the other side of the ball.

“The game made sense to him,” Beamer said. “Sometimes you have smart guys, but the game doesn’t make sense to them.”

Little did either man realize, coaching defense would be Grantham’s life calling.

Having played on offense, Grantham knew how to attack one. Beamer, a former cornerback at Virginia Tech and longtime defensive coordinator, gave Grantham a blueprint that captured his imagination.

The Hokies’ pre-snap disguises, multiple formations and blitz packages eventually would help turn the southwestern Virginia school into a national powerhouse.

“Rather than just sit there and play a base defense, get up there and move it around, stunt a little bit, make it fun for the kids,” Beamer said. “Go get the quarterback, get you some sacks, get tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That’s the way, in my opinion, to play.

“But it’s also a way that keeps players really into it and having fun and enjoying what they’re doing.”

Following six seasons as an assistant on Beamer’s staff, Grantham carried the philosophy forward to get his big break coaching the defensive line under Nick Saban at Michigan State. During his interview, Grantham, then just 30, impressed his future boss by challenging him about a certain defensive technique.

“I was really impressed with Todd’s knowledge of the game,” Saban told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger in 2017 after Grantham was hired by Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. “I was really impressed with the technique that he taught. He’s really one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had on my staff.

“I definitely would have made him the defensive coordinator if he would have stayed.”

After leaving East Lansing in 1998, Grantham would spend 11 seasons with four NFL teams before returning to college football in 2010 with Georgia.

In the NFL, Grantham had to learn to manage egos and coach players making millions of dollars to put aside individual interests for the sake of the team.

“Sometimes you have to work to where you’re funneling them to do something where they think it’s maybe their idea, and then they do it,” Grantham said. “You’re still trying to get to the same result; you just go about it a little different. So, I actually felt like I expanded my coaching when I went there.”

At the college level, Grantham provides direction and enough freedom to let players find their own way.

“I don’t like to coach robots,” Grantham said. “As a parent, you’re not with your kids all the time. So when a player goes on the field, it’s really an indication of what I’ve taught him and the trust he and I have together for him to go make plays.

“I look at coaching like parenting because you have to let them make choices relative to what they see and what the call is.”

Grantham, a father of two children with his wife, Paige, recognizes not all children learn the same way, hear the same thing or follow the same advice.

Kids, and players, also have changed a good bit since Grantham last put on a helmet in 1988, decades before iPhones, Instagram, PlayStation and players’ confidence openly questioning authority figures.

Grantham believes players still want to be coached hard, but maybe just not quite as harshly as when he played at Pulaski High School for Virginia coaching legend Joel Hicks, who won 210 games and 15 district titles.

“I think the biggest thing is as long as players believe that you can make them a better player and allow them to enhance their career, they’ll do anything you ask them,” Grantham said. “I think sometimes, like when I played, if a coach said, run through the wall, you ran through the wall. Nowadays, sometimes you have to tell them why.”

Grantham still tends to yell first and offer answers later. Not that Florida’s players often question the method to their coach’s madness.

“I don’t really think most guys get mad, because we all know that he wants the best from us,” veteran defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “He loves the game so much, so he’s going to be pissed when we do something wrong. But, like after practice, he pulls us aside, he’s going to coach us to get it right.”

The 2018 Gators were right more often than not, allowing 7.3 fewer points a game, producing 14 more sacks and generating nine more turnovers than the 2017 team. Quick buy-in and overnight success have been a pattern during Grantham’s recent stops. In 2017 at Mississippi State, for example, the Bulldogs allowed 11 fewer points per game and produced 11 more sacks than the previous season.

Some wonder where Grantham next will test his formula for success. Last winter, the Cincinnati Bengals tried to lure him back to the NFL. But he returned to UF, where he received a contract extension through 2022 and a salary increase to $1.8 million annually, placing Grantham among the five highest-paid coordinators in college football.

Grantham also returned to a lifestyle that has been a better fit for him and his family.

“That’s one of the reasons we came back (to the college game), because when our kids were young, I felt the pageantry of college football was important,” he said. “When we go to a bowl game, my son and daughter will be in the game room playing video games with the players. Thanksgiving we’ll have guys over.

“Those things don’t happen in pro football. So I enjoy that aspect of it.”

There is no reason to mess with success, either. The Gators’ defense is talented, experienced and increasingly accustomed to a complex scheme that creates confusion and chaos for offenses.

When Grantham’s defense is clicking, the Gators almost feel bad for their opponents.

“The only quarterback I probably ever felt sorry for was last year at Tennessee, because he looked like he had enough by the second half,” linebacker David Reese said.

The Gators do not plan to let up on opponents, just like Grantham never will ease up on his players. He challenges them to be the best, but he also is there to help celebrate their biggest plays.

“When kids understand, wait a minute, he’s upset, we better get it right, they know that you have their interest at heart,” Beamer said. “It’s not like Todd’s bullying them out there. He’s demanding perfection — and that’s not a bad thing.”

These days, it’s a beautiful thing for the Gators.

“He makes us make decisions,” Reese said. “If we execute, we can’t be stopped.”

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©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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