Gators defense has holes to fill in 2013

With the decisions of Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam to forgo their senior seasons and declare for the NFL Draft, along with an already deep graduating class, a young Florida Gators defense will be expected next season.

Florida compiled one of the nation’s top units in 2012.

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn entered his second season with the Gators, which proved to be critical. Given the continuity during the offseason, players were more familiar with their assignments on defense and learned to quickly analyze opposing offenses and make reads.

The results were obvious. Quinn was able to dial up more exotic looks than a year ago, and the Gators looked better prepared throughout the season, not including a 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.

During the regular season, Quinn’s unit — a veteran laden group — finished No. 5 in total defense. More importantly, it was able to create turnovers, something the Gators failed to consistently do in 2012.

In fact, the defense more than doubled the number of turnovers it created in 2011. Florida intercepted 20 passes and recovered 10 fumbles, a total of 30 created turnovers this season. The year before, the Gators recovered just six fumbles and intercepted eight passes, a total of 14 takeaways.

Gators coach Will Muschamp pointed to the increase in turnovers as the best example of an improved defense.

In 2013, Quinn will be challenged to find similar results.

Florida loses Floyd and nose guard Omar Hunter on the defensive line, with a decision from Dominique Easley pending. Earl Okine, who provided depth when Quinn chose to rotate his line, will also be gone.

In the next level, Jon Bostic and Lerentee McCray will need to be replaced. Jelani Jenkins could also leave, though it seems reasonable he would return for his redshirt senior season.

Behind them, Elam and Josh Evans will no longer be patrolling the secondary.

Compared with a year ago when Florida returned essentially its entire defense, there will be a high level of turnover.

Floyd was well aware of the number of key departures the Gators would be dealing with as he spoke in Florida’s locker room following his final game with the team. He explained young guys throughout the defense will need to step up, but he pointed to one leader Florida has returning who could help ease the transition.

“Ronald Powell,” Floyd said. “They’ve got a great leader in Ronald Powell trying to keep this team together and work on the things that need to be worked on to be that dominant defense, which is what they need to be.”

Powell, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, was forced to redshirt this season.

Originally, Powell injured his knee in Florida’s spring game, and Muschamp was optimistic he could return during the season. However, a minor setback required additional surgery, making it necessary for Powell to redshirt.

Coming into the season, Quinn praised Powell for his leadership and development as a pass rusher. Florida’s defensive coordinator said Powell had a similar skill set to some of the Southeastern Conference’s elite pass rushers and could gravitate to their level of productivity.

Powell’s setback was disappointing for the Gators, but his return next season, if fully healthy, could give the unite its best past rusher.

Powell also has taken a mentor role with some of the team’s younger players along the defensive line, particularly Jon Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., two players Okine named as candidates to help replace the numerous losses the Gators will have on defense.

“The younger guys like Jon Bullard and Fowler, I feel like they’re season vets now,” Okine said. “I don’t feel like they even played like freshman toward the middle of the season. They just learned so much from Dan Quinn. It’s easy to soak up stuff from him.”

Muschamp had a similar opinion on the pair of freshman. Prior to the Sugar Bowl, he praised Bullard and Fowler as two of the top freshmen he had ever worked with.

During the season, Bullard and Fowler combined for 53 tackles, 11.5 that went for a loss. Bullard hurried opposing quarterbacks seven times, picking up 1.5 sacks, while Fowler had 2.5 sacks on the season.

“We have a lot of people coming in, stepping in, going to have the same rotation on the [defensive] line,” Okine said. “A very physical team, it’s going to have the same intensity.”

A third player drawing specific mentioning from Okine was freshman Alex McCalister. Out of high school, McCalister, a 6-foot-6, 223-pound defensive end was seen as extremely talented but equally raw.

McCalister was redshirted this season to learn better technique and add strength. Behind the scenes, coaches are pleased with his development.

“He is going to be a freak next year,” Okine said. “With this team, the sky is the limit.”

Certainly, expectations will be elevated next season no matter how many losses the Gators must deal with. The braintrust of Muschamp and Quinn put together a talented, imposing defense in 2012, and fans will expect the same in 2013.

Florida has the pieces to put together another special defense. Along with Bullard, Fowler and McAlister, freshman Brian Poole will likely see an expanded role, as well as many of the high school prospects that helped give Florida the top recruiting class this year.

There are big shoes to fill and big games to win. The Gators came painfully close to playing for a national championship this season, but it wasn’t good enough.

Muschamp wants his team in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. He wants to silence his critics by beating Georgia. He wants to join Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer in bringing a national championship to Gainesville.

To do so, it will begin and end on the defensive side of the ball.

“This season — it was fun; it was glorious,” Floyd said. “Some of the stuff just slipped through the cracks on us. That’s just how the ball rolls. But it’s back to the drawing board.”