After reviewing the walking wounded that inhabited the roster for the offense this year, it is safe to say that the team could have filmed a new season of “The Walking Dead” just on that side of the ball. No program should have to withstand that sort of onslaught to its health, but that was only half the story. In Part II, we delve into the defense and see the rest of the script that created this football season that turned many a Gator fan into a listless zombie.
1. Roll Call
Once again, let’s cut straight to the chase. Here is the defense’s body count, and other missed time, by position:
Defensive Tackle (3): It is difficult for a defense to come up with a player more valuable to the team than the quarterback, but in Dominique Easley the Jeff Driskel injury met its eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe match. And only a couple days apart. A mere matter of hours after Driskel was lost for the season in the Tennessee game, the quarterback of the defense and MVP-by-a-mile tore his ACL – and just for good measure his meniscus – in a non-contact drill and was lost for the season – 9 games – and sadly for him and the Gators, the rest of his college career. The thing that made Easley so valuable is that he was not only unblockable; he was un-holdable. Double and triple teams would do their best to grab on and tackle him, like they did the rest of the Gator line most of the year, but he simply could not be stopped. This opened up huge opportunities for all the players around him. Subsequently, whereas with Easley on the field players like Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard were making big plays like all-stars and the linebacking corps were actually making plays period, after his injury the rest of the defense settled back into “solid but unspectacular” for much of the rest of the season.
But the tackle position was not done with Easley’s injury. Starter Leon Orr was also knocked out of the Tennessee game with an undisclosed injury and replacement starter Damien Jacobs was knocked out of the LSU game a few weeks later with a head injury and could not return until after missing the Missouri game.
Defensive End/Buck (2): Ronald Powell started this season as planned at both Buck and SAM linebacker, but he made 75% of his starts at Buck, so that’s where I will count him. RoPo joined Jacobs in being knocked out of the LSU game and missing the Missouri game with an ankle injury. Bullard was shifted inside to tackle for a few games, but made all but 1 of his 8 starts at end, which is where he was knocked out of the box early in the South Carolina game, going on to miss the entire Georgia Southern game with a knee injury.
Linebacker (7): Yes, seven. With over half a dozen players going down with injury, the linebacking crew had to get a jump on things by losing backup and projected contributor Matt Rolin in fall camp, missing the entire year with a torn ACL. Projected starter at MIKE linebacker Antonio Morrison missed the opener with the suspension stemming from the infamous “felonious barking” arrest, but later joined the ranks of the seriously wounded when he tore his meniscus in the Vanderbilt game and was lost for the season. In his first start of the season, Darrin Kitchens sustained a shoulder injury against LSU and missed the Missouri game, while backup linebacker and special teams star Jeremi Powell was lost for the season to a torn ACL suffered against Missouri. Michael Taylor, with 9 starts on the year at MIKE and WILL linebacker, was lost for the remainder of the season when he sprained his MCL against Georgia Southern. Backup Daniel McMillian’s chronic thumb injury limited him to just special teams duty for a few games before finally being lost for the season in the GSU game. And finally Alex Anzalone, after missing the LSU game and part of the GSU game with ankle injuries, was slated to start the season finale against FSU until a shoulder injury made him a scratch for the game that amounted to the balance of the season.
Cornerback (2): Starting corner Loucheiz Purifoy got the ball rolling early by getting suspended for the opener against Toledo. Then in the injury bonanza that was the Tennessee game, LP was knocked out for a good portion of the contest with a thigh contusion. Flanking starter Marcus Roberson went down with a knee injury, missing 3 games in the first half of the season, and then took himself out the South Carolina and GSU games via suspension.
Safety/Nickelback (3): Another position that got a jump on the season, projected backup safety Nick Washington missed the entire year with a shoulder injury sustained in fall camp. The rest of the unit stayed healthy for the year, but a couple of players missed time with ejections. Starting nickelback Brian Poole was lost for the end of the Tennessee game thanks to a questionable targeting call. While the penalty and ejection stood (part of the asinine new rule), the hit was later deemed undeserving of an ejection and thus he did not have to sit out the next game. Starting safety Cody Riggs suffered the same fate, only he was not so fortunate as to have the bad call levied against him late in a contest, but rather on the first play against Missouri, taking him out of the entire game.
The Totals: After once again giving the calculator a strenuous workout, here is the final tally for the defense:
Total injured players: 15
Total injured starters: 11
Total players missing significant game time: 17
Total players lost to season-ending injuries: 7
Total starters lost to season-ending injuries: 3
Total combined games missed: 59.5
Total combined games missed by starters: 29.5
Compared to the offense, there were only marginally fewer players and starters injured and lost for the season on defense, but the numbers were significantly smaller in terms of combined games lost to injury (by 20%, 74.5 to 59.5) and the combined games lost for injured starters (by 51%, 60.5 to 29.5).
Benchmarking: Again looking back at last year’s injury report, this time for the defense (and again omitting partial games missed, since I don’t have those data for 2012), following is how the last two seasons compared. In 2013, there were 11 starters on defense that missed one or more complete games. In 2012, there were only 3: Dominique Easley (2), Lerentee McCray (1), Jelani Jenkins (4).
Here is a comparison of just the full-game injury impact on the starters:
Total injured starters: 2013 (11); 2012 (3)
Total starters lost to season-ending injuries: 2013 (7 for 14.5 games); 2012 (1 for 1 game)
Total combined games missed by starters: 2013 (29.5); 2012 (7)
2. Disruption, Displacement and Juggling
Now to measure the impact of the injury churn on the defense. Though there were no in-season injuries at safety, both positions were impacted by the churn of the defensive backfield as cross-trained players shuffled back and forth between corner, safety and nickel as needed due to injuries, suspensions and ejections. After the tallies I indicated the percentage of games started by the most regular starter per position. This is an indicator of the stability of each starting spot in the lineup. Note: there are more or fewer starts than games at some positions due to scheme changes.
Defensive Tackle: 3 (Cummings 6, Easley 3, Jacobs 3) 50%
Nose Tackle: 3 (Orr 8, Bullard 1, Jacobs 1) 67%
Defensive End: 2 (Bullard 7, Fowler Jr 6) 54%
Buck: 2 (Powell 6, Fowler Jr 6) 50%
MIKE LB: 3 (Morrison 7, Taylor 4, Kitchens 1) 58%
WILL LB: 3 (Taylor 6, Ball 4, Davis 1) 55%
SAM LB: 3 (Ball 3, Powell 3, Kitchen 3) 33%
Cornerback: 3 (Purifoy 7, Watkins 3, Roberson 2) 58%
Cornerback: 2 (Heargraves 10, Roberson 2) 83%
Safety: 3 (Riggs 8, Maye 2, Watkins 2) 67%
Safety: 3 (Gorman 5, Watkins 4, Riggs 3) 42%
Nickelback: 2 (Poole 6, Riggs 1) 86%
Now compare those to the same spots in 2012:
Defensive Tackle: 1 (Floyd) 100%
Nose Tackle: 1 (Hunter) 100%
Defensive End: 2 (Easley 11, Bullard 2) 85%
Buck: 2 (McCray 12, Fowler Jr. 1) 92%
MIKE LB: 1 (Bostic) 100%
WILL LB: 4 (Jenkins 8, Morrison 3, Taylor 1, Kitchens 1) 62%
SAM LB: 3 (Ball 2, Kitchens 1, Morrison 1) 50%
Cornerback: 2 (Purifoy 12, Roberson 1) 92%
Cornerback: 2 (Watkins 10, Roberson 3) 77%
Safety: 1 (Elam) 100%
Safety: 1 (Evans) 100%
Nickelback: 3 (Saunders 7, Riggs 1, Watkins 1) 86%
While the defense had more stable churn than the offense in 2013, the increased churn from 2012 appears to be larger on the defensive side than on the offensive side. Unlike offense, the 2012 defense actually had more churn at two positions: WILL linebacker and nickelback. However the difference was only one player each and at WILL the primary starter started more games at that position in 2012, while the churn at nickelback was due to competition, not injuries.
At the rest of the positions, however the churn gap is significant in negative favor of 2013. At 5 positions on defense, the same player started every single game of 2012. That cannot be said about a single defensive position in 2013 (and only one position on the entire team). In 8 of 12 defensive positions in 2013, the primary starter started fewer than 60% of the games; in 2012, that was true for only one position – and that was SAM linebacker that was only used by scheme in four games.
While not as important to defensive success as the offensive line continuity is to the success of the offense, the continuity of the defensive line is nonetheless a critical factor in how well a team plays on that side of the ball. The 2013 projected defensive front combination of Bullard-Easley-Orr-Fowler Jr was only in play for the first three games. By no coincidence, those were the three games where the defense played like one of the elite units of the past decade. Then Easley’s injury sent the line into carousel mode and sent the defense as a whole down the ladder from elite to sometimes just ‘good’. In all, the Gators had to use 6 different defensive line combinations, and none of them lasted for more than 3 games. The breakdown in games for each combination was 3-3-2-2-1-1. Contrast that to 2012, when the Gator coaching staff had the luxury of using the opening day lineup of Easley-Floyd-Hunter-McCray in 10 of their 13 games. And those three odd games resulted in just one substitution each (Bullard for Easley twice, Fowler Jr for McCray once, and while Fowler Jr got the start, the two split playing time evenly for that Missouri game – so the staff played with their desired rotation in 11 of 13 games last year, they just started the 11th with a different combo).
3. Pulling The Rug Out From Under
Finally, let’s look at what starting lineup the staff intended to use on the defensive side, what lineup with which they ultimately had to start the season, and what lineup they eventually had to use to finish the year.
In 2013, the Gators started the season in Game 1 with just two different starters than they were projecting. That’s only 18% of the planned starting defense out of action to start the season (counting 12 positions due to the different schemes played throughout the year). That’s not ideal but it is half of what the offense was missing to start the year. The missing starters were LB Antonio Morrison and CB Loucheiz Purifoy, both suspended.
But then the injury avalanche ensued. By the last game of the season the number of replaced defensive starters had tripled to 6. The Gators added 5 more new starters to the total, while subtracting 1. This time, DT Dominique Easley, DT Leon Orr, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Roberson and S Marcus Maye were replaced, while Purifoy returned to the starting lineup.
Compare that to 2012. Last year, the Gators started the season with the exact starting 12 on defense that were projected and planned all fall (to reiterate, the extra position accounted for due to the multiple schemes swapping a nickelback for one of the front 7 depending on the game or situation). They finished the season with 10 of the projected starting 12 – and only one of them was replaced by injury (Roberson lost his starting spot to Jaylen Watkins during the season), and that injury replacement occurred in the final game of the season, with Jelani Jenkins starting the previous 6 games before re-aggravating an injury to miss just the bowl game.
Finally, let’s look at the experience lost to injuries. From the projected starting lineup to the opening day starters, the 2013 Gator defense lost a total of 14 starts. That is the difference in the experience level of the projected lineup and the opening day starters on defense this year. While that is a significant number, it pales in comparison to what the offense lost in 2013 (57). By the end of the year, that drop from the defensive team the staff projected to field this year doubled to 28 lost starts.
The 2012 Gator defense suffered zero lost starts and zero total games of experience lost from the projected starting lineup to the opening day lineup. From opening day to the bowl game, it lost 24 starts, but 22 of those were with Jelani Jenkins who as mentioned before played the entire second half of the season and just skipped the bowl game. So omitting the bowl game, in which the players did not even want to participate, the defense only lost 2 starts of experience to injury from the opening game to the final game of the regular season.
Looking Ahead To Part III
Though not as bad as the offense’s story, those are nonetheless pretty damning numbers when stacked up like this again. However, this is still not the whole story. In Part III, the final installment, we’ll look at the combined full-team numbers – including special teams – and consider lost production as well.
If you can bear to relive it.