Florida Gators defense closer than ever

As the Florida football media day began, Shariff Floyd pulled his chair closer to his pal Dominique Easley, sat back and smiled.

The No. 1 and No. 2 defensive tackle prospects in 2010 have transformed from more than Gators teammates who happen to play similar positions.

They have become best friends, two guys who are almost assuredly going to give you a smile and crack a joke about one another.

In doing so, the two have changed more than just their own outlook on the game. They have brought the entire defense closer together.

“They’re characters,” said senior safety Josh Evans. “But they keep the practice fun, and they keep us going.”

Coming into college together, the two have a bond that has become almost magnetic. It is hard to be around them without smiling yourself.

For Easley, last season wasn’t particularly easy to smile at times. After tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee against Florida State on Nov. 26, he was forced to miss Florida’s 21-14 win against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.

It was a disappointing season as a whole for the Gators.

Defensively, the team held serve in many statistical categories. Florida was eighth nationally in total defense after giving up just 299.5 yards per game.

It was tied for 20th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 20.5 points per game. However, despite the strong numbers, the team faltered, finishing with a 7-6 record, its worst since 1987.

Behind an injured and inconsistent offense, the team struggled to score points. While the defense was often able to limit the damage, playing from behind virtually eliminated any chance of forcing turnovers late in games.

As a result, losses piled up in the key months of October and November.

After a 48-10 dismantling of Kentucky to begin the season 4-0, the Gators reached a more trying part of its schedule. The result was four consecutive losses.

From there, the team alternated wins and losses the rest of the season, never gaining any significant amount of momentum.

It was a frustrating time, Easley admitted. Coming to Florida, nobody expects to go through that type of growing pains. Nobody expects to lose that many games.

It would have been easy to come into 2012 with a frustrated outlook. Instead, the pair of Easley and Floyd decided to take a positive approach.

“Life is too short to be upset, angry or in a negative frame of mind,” Easley said.

“We like to have fun,” Floyd added.

The pair’s looseness has brought the entire defense together.

“I can’t say enough how close our defense is right now,” Lerentee McCray said. “We all get off the bus together, we shower together, we do everything together. When our defense steps on the field, everybody should be scared because it’s going to be crazy. I’m getting tingles on my fingers just thinking about it.”

Along with Floyd and Easley, McCray also will play an integral part in Florida’s defense this season.

After Ronald Powell went down with an injured knee in the Orange & Blue Debut on April 7, it was clear he would not be 100 percent for the start of the season. Powell was the team leader in sacks last season with six and was expected to be the guy at the buck position this season.

Instead, it will be McCray filling the buck duties to start the season when the team lines up in its hybrid defense. His flexibility, similar to that of Easley and Floyd who will also swap spots at defensive tackle and defensive end depending on the situation, has the rest of the defense confident it will not miss a beat.

“I came in with Lerentee, and I know how hard he works,” defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “He’s a leader on this team and up for the challenge of helping replace Powell.”

Helping being the key word.

Replacing a player like Powell, no matter how short the time he ends up being out may be, is a collective effort. In addition to McCray, the defense will be counting on the contributions of true freshmen in the front seven.

Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler, Jr. will both be looked at to help plug holes while the Gators are short-handed.

“Dante Fowler will do a very good job,” Okine said. “Out running drills, he is very quick and very explosive. We have a lot of players and a lot of depth that we haven’t really had in a while that will help us.”

Another thing the team hasn’t really had in a while is trust. At least not this level of trust, the type that comes from forming a truly meaningful relationship with another human being.

It’s not the type of trust that can be built solely on a football field, but the kind that grows through having a deep-rooted interest in another person’s well being.

That is where having guys like Floyd and Easley is so special. They set the tone for that type of commitment and caring.

“The whole defensive line is learning from them to legitimately care about one another,” Okine said. “No matter what, if anybody has a problem, the whole defensive line hits them up.”

Coming together as a unit off the field is something players said they were confident would make a positive difference on the field.

“It’s about trust,” Easley said. “You don’t have to look on the side of you and wonder what the next person is going to do. You know.”

It remains to be seen whether Florida can improve from 2011 to 2012. There are still plays to be made and games to be won, or lost.

Still, having high-character guys like Dominique Easley and Shariff Floyd has brought the entire defense together. It is no longer 11 guys on a field.

It is one team. One unit. One family.

Whether they win or lose, surprise or disappoint, they have vowed to do it together.

“We are as focused as ever,” Easley said. “We are ready for anything that is put in front of us.”