ACK: Can UF improve on defense?

Florida’s 2008 season is set to begin in a matter of days and the question on everybody’s mind is can the Gators improve enough defensively to challenge for SEC and national championships? Florida led the Southeastern Conference in run defense last year but in all four losses, opponents were able to pound the football. For Florida to return to the top of the SEC defensive charts and to have a legitimate shot at winning championships, the Gators will have to stop the run and the secondary will have to play with a lot of confidence.

Although the Gators led the SEC in run defense last year, they were seventh in total defense so there were some obvious flaws. Injuries on the defensive line forced the Gators to move Mike Pouncey from offense to the defensive line and that helped UF to go 4-0 in the month of November, but in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Michigan exposed those fatal flaws in stopping the run.

The games where the problems with the run defense stood out were LSU and Georgia. The Auburn game was somewhat of an aberration because the Gators didn’t really give up big plays but yet they really couldn’t stop anything well. In the second half, Michigan seemed to have its way whether running or passing the ball. Even with all the problems on defense, however, Florida was in a position to win all four of those games.

I think UF will be good against the run all season in 2008 and that will mean teams are going to try to throw first to set up the running game. There are some teams who may not have enough confidence to throw on the Gators and then there are teams like LSU and Georgia, which probably have so much confidence in their running games that they think they can just line it up and hammer away.

A look at Florida’s schedule and I think you’ll see that it sets up in favor of Florida’s defense. The Gators should be able to force teams to throw but for many of the teams on the schedule, the passing game will be suspect because of a variety of factors. Let’s break down the schedule.

HAWAII: They do not run well but they might try to establish something early to see if the Gators can stop them. Figure they’re going to get stuffed and that will make them one-dimensional the rest of the night.

MIAMI: The Hurricanes will arrive in The Swamp with two young talented quarterbacks whose collective college experience is one game against Division I-AA Charleston Southern. If Randy Shannon comes into that game thinking his quarterbacks are going to launch 50 passes they will be sitting ducks.

TENNESSEE: The Vols catch the Gators at home, probably a good thing with a first-time starter at quarterback. They might have the second best back in the conference at the start of the season in Arian Foster, plus they have a new offensive coordinator (Dave Clawson) who has always had a run-first philosophy. Expect the Vols to try to get the running game going from the opening snap.

OLE MISS: Jevan Snead will be a new quarterback, playing for a coach who would rather not throw very much. Houston Nutt will run some spread, but don’t expect the Rebels to be two-dimensional.

ARKANSAS: Bobby Petrino is going to try to establish the pass with a team that was largely recruited to run the ball. In spite of that handicap, this will probably be the best passing game UF will face in the first half of the season.

LSU: The Tigers will bring a new quarterback into The Swamp so don’t expect anything fancy. Expect the Gators to load the box and blitz the rookie quarterback early and often.

KENTUCKY: The Wildcats break in a new quarterback but they do have some speed and elusiveness at running back. They want to throw it too but they don’t have Andre Woodson.

GEORGIA: This figures to be the ultimate test of the Gator defense. The Dogs were able to impose their will on Florida last season and the ability to run the ball gave Mathew Stafford a nice pocket to throw the ball down the field. This will be the true test because I can guarantee you Mark Richt will run to set up the pass.

VANDERBILT: They should have pretty good quarterback play but they’re minus Gator Killer Earl Bennett, who is gone to the pros.

SOUTH CAROLINA: They are looking for a quarterback and for someone to step up to replace tailback Cory Boyd. This should be the fourth toughest game on the Florida schedule.

CITADEL: No comment necessary for a Division I-AA team.

FSU: Quarterback play is below average and the offensive line is so bad that even if they develop, I am not sure they are much more than a gimmick team by the time they play Florida.

So let’s re-cap the possibility of Florida’s defense getting picked on through the air.

The first four opponents have new quarterbacks and the fifth opponent has a new coach. LSU has new quarterback while Kentucky and South Carolina break in new guys as well. Georgia looks good and FSU is a complete unknown. The Gators should be improved against the run and they should fare well against the passing game because of more experience in the secondary, better talent and facing a bunch of first-timers at quarterback.

Defense wins championships and the numbers of the last four BCS champions spells that out clearly. USC, Texas, Florida and LSU finished 6th, 10th, 6th and 3rd nationally in total defense.

QUICK STRIKES: I see 16 scholarship defensive lineman on the camp roster for the Gators. There are nine guys who will compete for four defensive tackle positions. If UF cannot find four they like from the group of Brandon Antwine, Troy Epps, Javier Estopinan, John Brown, Torrey Davis, Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders, Matt Patchan and Omar Hunter, then expect Jaye Howard or even Justin Trattou to go down inside. UF has Jermaine Cunnigham and Carlos Dunlap as starters while Duke Lemmens, Howard, Trattou, Earl Okine and William Green are back ups at defensive ends. You really could live with three defensive ends and four defensive tackles if you can stay healthy. With that said here is my pre-camp guess — Dunlap, Cunnigham and Trattou at DE with Epps, Estop, Hunter and Brown at DT. Throw Marsh and Sanders in the mix and UF is still very deep on the defensive line … Word is the that Earl Okine is looking very ready physically to come in and compete for the fourth defensive end spot … The back end is also another big question with Bryan Thomas possibly being a guy who can provide some depth at free safety. Here is my guess, Major Wright at the free safety spot with Ahmad Black and Will Hill playing strong safety. I think Hill will win the job and be a great player at UF … You want to see the key to winning college football? Look no further than scholarships spent at the line of scrimmage. Depending on UF’s total numbers it’s my guess that 35 percent of the Florida roster is made up of guys who play with a hand down on the line of scrimmage.