For three years the Gators defense has heard about the step back they were going to take after losing key players to the NFL Draft and graduation.
Ever since 2008 the Gators have had to replace names like Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins, Vernon Hargreaves, Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Matt Elam and Dante Fowler Jr. Florida has been a NFL factory on the defensive side of the ball, and yet, they’ve never dropped out of the top-15 in total defense since 2008.
Florida is once again facing an uphill battle. The Gators are losing eight starters from the 2016 defense, including two starting linebackers, two starting cornerbacks, a safety and the entire interior defensive line. In addition, Florida loses senior leadership in Bryan Cox Jr., Marcus Maye Jarrad Davis and Joey Ivie. It’s a lot to replace but Ivie, for one, doesn’t see it as a problem.
“I think that they set the tone for next year,” Ivie said after the Outback Bowl. “As of now and as of how they played, I don’t think there’s going to be much of a drop-off. Great coaches, we’ve got some great younger guys and you just continue to develop. I think there’s a lot of great potential for this Florida program.”
The biggest question facing the defense will be how they defend the run. The Gators finished with the fifth-ranked rushing defense in the SEC in 2016. Through the first seven games the Gators were giving up just 105.1 yards-per-game before injures riddled the defense. They gave up an average of 189.8 per game over the last six games of the season.
Those injuries, namely to Ivie, Anzalone and Davis really hurt the Gators when they faced power rushing teams like Arkansas, LSU, FSU and Alabama down the stretch — all four opponents ran for more than 200 yards.
None of those players return in 2017. How can the Gators replace that talent?
Replacing Ivie and Brantley inside are Taven Bryan (3 starts) and Khairi Clark (4 starts). The Gators will need Bryan and Clark to take the next step in their development and assume starter roles. Florida also needs to restock in the 2017 recruiting class. The good news is Florida will get back Jordan Sherit (11 starts), a player who can set the edge as well as CeCe Jefferson (10 starts) and Keivonnis Davis (5 starts) returning to help Florida on the perimeter.
Additionally, the injuries to Anzalone and Davis last season gave the Gators a look at the future at linebacker. David Reese and Kylan Johnson. Reese shined against South Carolina and LSU, posting 23 tackles of the two games. He finished with 49 on the season. Johnson, a redshirt sophomore and converted safety, finished with 39 tackles on the season filling in for the injured starters, while giving the Gators great hope for the future of the position. Vosean Joseph played sparingly with just 13 tackles on the season but his stop of LSU quarterback Danny Etling at the one yard line was one of the most important plays of the season. The Gators are set at linebacker, have a lot returning on the edges of the defensive line and return two seniors at safety.
Cornerback, like defensive tackle, is another weak spot. The Gators get a huge boost with nickel Duke Dawson returning for his senior season. Dawson is one of the top nickelback in the country and he’ll be one of the faces and leaders of the defense moving forward. Florida also has the Outback Bowl MVP, rising sophomore Chauncey Gardner returning.
The Gators are returning a lot of young talent, guys that thrust into action early on and will be better for it this upcoming season. They’ll need to find some help at cornerback to replace Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor. Gardner has played some outside but he thrived at safety. Dawson has played every position in the secondary but should stay at nickel, where he thrives. That means the Gators could turn to McArthur Burnett, Joseph Putu Chris Williamson or C.J. McWilliams. None of those players saw extended playing time when injuries plagued the secondary, so that leaves a door open for one or more of the cornerbacks in the recruiting class.
“I know this, we’ve got a lot of good young players that would have played a lot of football for us this year,” McElwain said after the Outback Bowl. “They’ll teach the guys that are coming in next year the same thing.”