In my last piece, I looked at the where the program stands with regards to offense. Now let’s take a look at where the team stands as it pertains to the defensive side of the ball. Most Gator fans feel that this is where new head coach Jim McElwain has the most talent to work with on the current roster. McElwain has hired a highly regarded defensive coordinator in up and coming star Geoff Collins from Mississippi State. Collins has a track record of aggressive and versatile defense using multiple formations. With the kind of talent that Florida is accustomed to assembling it is expected that Collins will field a formidable defense. Here is my take on where the program is defensively and what it needs to bring in most on signing day. Defense could be the key to making the Gators competitive again quickly.
Defensive Line-My initial intent was to separate this segment into two pieces with tackles and ends, but these days players are so often shuffled from one to the other that I opted to address the defensive line as a single unit. In was great news for the Gators when Jonathon Bullard announced that he would be returning for his senior season. Florida needs Bullard to fill the leadership role on the line that Dante Fowler filled in 2014 and Easley before him and Floyd before that. Bullard has played both inside and outside at Florida and may well continue to do so although I think he will become a force at defensive end this year. He will have help with the likes of Bryan Cox JR and Alex McCalister both of whom have played extensively and effectively already. Inside, young guys like Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick will need to become anchors eating up space in the middle. There is young talent in Khairi Clark, Taven Bryan, Thomas Holley, Joey Ivey and others waiting in the wings to be developed. Florida is still hoping to land a couple of elite defensive linemen in the upcoming class but if that falls through there is ample talent already on the roster to buy the new staff time to build recruiting relationships for next year’s class.
Linebacker-This is the perceived weakness or at least depth concern of the defense for most Gator fans. While I agree that it is important for Florida to bring in a couple of quality linebackers in this recruiting class, I do not believe that this unit is as thin as many think. Antonio Morris, Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillan have all played enough to be considered experienced veterans. Alex Anzalone, Jeremi Powell and Matt Rolin are all going to be counted on to provide depth. While this unit cannot afford to get hit too hard with injuries it is not dangerously thin. The starting three should be one of the better linebacker units in the SEC and the backups were all highly touted recruits. The Gators might be forced to shuffle guys around at times during the year but the talent is there.
Secondary-The secondary is somewhat like the defensive line in that some players can be moved back and forth between safety and cornerback. I expect Marcus Maye, Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal to battle it out for the starting safety spots. Vernon Hargreaves III is clearly one starter at cornerback. The most likely candidate to man the spot opposite VH3 would seem to be Jalen Tabor. Tabor came on really strong toward the end of the 2014 season and promises to join Hargreaves in what may well be the best cornerback tandem in the country. This leaves a talented pool of Duke Dawson, Brian Poole, Nick Washington, JC Jackson, Quincy Wilson and Deandre Porter to find backups for both safety and cornerback as well as who plays in nickel packages. Geoff Collins and his staff inherits an incredible amount of talent in the secondary which should allow them to move freely through any defensive schemes they might choose to apply. While you always want to be stocking the roster here, this is an area that Florida is under no pressure to address with the 2015 class.
Overview-The defensive roster really is loaded with talent for Collins and the Florida Gators. While offensive concerns do remain, the Gator Nation has seen that a great defense can keep you in the game even with next to nothing from the offense. It is hard to believe that coach McElwain will not improve the offense right from the start. If Collins and the rest of the defensive staff can turn all of this talent into a dominant SEC defense, Florida could actually compete for the SEC East as early as 2015. Quite simply put, the Gators do NOT need this recruiting class to be an elite class for there to be a quick turnaround in the Gators’ fortunes. That is not to say that the 2015 recruiting class is not important. Continuing that turnaround will depend on a solid influx of talent into the program. Landing elite defensive players like CeCe Jefferson, Byron Cowart and Jeffrey Holland would certainly help keep the talent level of the Florida defense up to the level the Gator Nation has come to expect. But, a failure to secure these top recruits does not doom the Gator program. A weak 2015 class would make a spectacular 2016 class a must, but that is to be expected when a coaching change is proven to be unavoidable. So while it is quite normal for fans to be concerned about an off-year recruiting it is not devastating to the program if there is talent already on the roster and it is only one class.