In this two-part series, GatorCountry.com columnist Dan Thompson, explores three names on the offensive and defensive sides of the football that, as the title suggests, may not be household names, but will be by the end of the season. Up first: Defense.
The Florida Gators entered the 2011 football season with a lot of questions on defense. How would the Gators replace Ahmad Black and Janoris Jenkins? Would Ronald Powell rise to be a top player during in his second season at the buck position? How would the Gators transition from a 4-3 defensive to a 3-4 hybrid? The Gators responded well, by finishing eighth in total defense, their fourth consecutive top-10 finish.
However, despite a top-10 finish, the Gators struggled to turn the ball over. They ranked 93rd in interceptions (8), 71st in forced fumbles (11) and 113th in turnover margin (-0.92). Further, the Gators struggled to get to the quarterback (sans the Gator Bowl). Against the SEC, the Gators only averaged 1.625 sacks per game.
Yet, the Gators defense was not the reason Florida went 7-6 last season. However, I could argue that if the defense could have improved by one turnover a game, the Gators would have ended the season with at least one more win.
The Gators will look for Matt Elam, Marcus Roberson, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easily to step up to improve the Gators defense and improve margins. However, here are three names that will help propel the Gators that you may not know much about.
Loucheiz Purifoy: The talented sophomore defensive back from the Panhandle saw most of his playing time last year on special teams. The Pine Forest High School product totaled 27 total tackles (22 on special teams) and had one forced fumble against Ohio State. With Roberson recovering from surgery during the spring, Purifoy was able to garner more playing time during practice and the Orange & Blue Debut. Purifoy made such an impression, he is now locked in battle with juniors Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs to start opposite sophomore Marcus Roberson.
What makes Purifoy a candidate to make a big impact this season is that he has the prototypical size (6-foot-1, 186 pounds) Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn are looking for and he performed well doing the dirty work. Former UF coach Urban Meyer and Muschamp talk extensively of using special teams as a way for a player to prove himself and Purifoy did just that. He was often near the return man, led the team in special teams tackles, and adjusted himself to angles well. Mark my words, Purifoy will be the next great No.15 for the Gators.
Lerentee McCray: It is often hard to argue that a redshirt senior has flown under the radar, that wasn’t a bust. However, McCray has his best opportunity to be the playmaker that will make him a household name this season. Depth charts and injuries have plagued the Dunedin product during his Gators career, but with the injury of starting buck Ronald Powell, McCray will have the opportunity to make an impact at the buck position. The buck position is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker in the 3-4 defense that will either rush the quarterback or drop into coverage depending on the play. What makes McCray a perfect candidate for a stellar year is that he is the perfect size and plays at a great speed for the position. See, McCray is a bit too small to be a high-performing SEC defensive end, but is slightly larger and slower than a high-caliber SEC outside linebacker.
What makes McCray a candidate to be a household name, however, is much deeper than his size. It is a product of what he showed on the field last season. With 24 tackles on the season, more than one quarter (7.5) were tackles for loss, managing 1.5 sacks on the quarterback and a forced fumble.
With Powell out until at least October recovering from his ACL injury, McCray will be forced to step up and lead the buck position, along with help from freshman Dante Fowler. The only question mark is: Can McCray finish one complete season injury free?
Darrin Kitchens: I never felt like I really knew Darrin Kitchens. He largely flew under the radar in 2010, announcing his decision on signing day, but without much fanfare. In 2010, he was assigned to the special teams, but only accumulated two tackles in nine games. In 2011, he only accumulated 21 tackles with 2.5 for loss with a season ending helmet-to-helmet hit against Florida State. So why is Kitchens on this list? Because of one performance last season that I believe largely set the tone for his upcoming season. The game? Furman.
Yes, I know, it was Furman. But let’s examine it further. Kitchen’s was able to get his first career start against Furman, where he accumulated 12 total tackles (team high) and one tackle for loss. However, it wasn’t only the stats that showed me Kitchens can dominate this season. No, it was his explosive speed (4.5 second in the 40-yard dash), his smooth hip movements, and threat to rush the quarterback will keep offensive lines honest. Even though he is the starting Sam linebacker for the 2012 season, Kitchens unique physical skills would also allow him to play the Buck position should there be a need.