He may be young, but he’s old-fashioned.
At least, that’s how Will Muschamp described himself on Wednesday when asked if he believes a defense needs to be strong up the middle to be successful.
“You better be strong up the middle,” Muschamp said. “You look at any sport. You look at basketball, you better have a point guard and you better have a center. You better have a pitcher and catcher in baseball.
“There’s no question we’ve got to be strong up the middle. I know Dominique Easley can play inside, but those other guys need a thousand reps.”
When referring to “those other guys,” Muschamp was pointing at his defensive line. However, the Florida coach also said his team has a number of uncertainties dotting the defense.
“Defensively, again, we’ve got to have some question marks inside answered, linebacker depth answered, and safety,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got some serious question marks defensively.”
Upon the conclusion of the 2012 season, the core of Muschamp’s prized defense was ripped out entirely. For half of the departed, it was simply a case of the eligibility clock running out (DT Omar Hunter, LB Jon Bostic, S Josh Evans). For the other half, the lure of NFL riches was too much to ignore (DT Sharrif Floyd, LB Jelani Jenkins, S Matt Elam).
While the players looking to fill the void on defense don’t lack in talent, they do come up short in the experience department. Easley will be one of the few players along the line with three-plus years of experience ready to play in the spring.
Florida’s other such lineman, Ronald Powell, is still recovering from an ACL-tear he suffered during last year’s spring game. Powell suffered a subsequent setback in the fall, leaving him out during the spring as a precaution.
“In all of our walk-through and teaching sessions, he’s a part of what we’re doing,” Muschamp said of Powell. “And when he’s not, then he’s rehabbing … obviously, all frustrated for him and what he’s been through, but again, he understands and he’s matured through it, and he’s been outstanding.”
Florida players will be rotating frequently over the next few weeks, as the coaching staff tries to get each player as many reps as possible. Muschamp cited early-enrollee Joey Ivie as a youngster who got some reps along the defensive line on Wednesday.
Ivie, who’s listed at 6’4 and 269 pounds, is listed as the team’s second string defensive tackle despite playing his last game on a high school field. The Gators are young everywhere, which includes the linebacker spots vacated by Jenkins and Bostic.
Since arriving in 2010, Mike Taylor has seen action in 25 games for the Gators, including a start in 2011. Taylor is being looked at as the heir apparent on the weak side. Sophomore Antonio Morrison started three games at the weak side spot last season, when he stepped in for an oft-injured Jelani Jenkins.
Of all the defensive groups Muschamp spoke of on Wednesday, the linebackers may have received the biggest vote of confidence.
“At linebacker, I feel very comfortable about Mike and Antonio. I have a lot of confidence in both of those guys playing very well,” Muschamp said. “It’s really after that, Daniel [McMillian] and Alex [Anzalone], and those guys continue to develop at that position … I saw Alex and Daniel get a lot of reps because our depth at linebacker is not as good.”
On the back end of the Florida defense, the Gators also have the luxury of having seasoned players in the fold.
“The safety position, we have some flexibility because of Jaylen and Cody,” Muschamp said. “But at the end of the day, we got to get our best players on the field, whether that’s at safety, nickel, corner, whatever.”
Muschamp went on record to say that Elam was his smartest defensive back last season. While Elam was known for his seemingly non-stop motor and penchant for hard hits, his ability to make the right calls and put teammates in the correct spots was somewhat overlooked.
According to Muschamp, finding a player to matchup with Elam mentally will be a challenge.
“Right now, you need to have some guys who develop and become better communicators, and Matt was that guy,” Muschamp said.
“So that’s something we’re missing at this point after one day and going through the offseason program with being vocal and confident with the call and the check. There’s no question that’s an issue.”
With seven starters gone from last year, new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin knows his defense will need to fill the gaps immediately. However, Durkin is optimistic about the spring, noting the system familiarity should be of help to returning players.
“We’re a third year into the system,” Durkin said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of things that we can move faster than we have in past springs.”