Injuries have tried to derail the Florida defensive machine this season, but three straight top recruiting classes keep it rolling along. When Brandon Hicks found out that an injured knee would keep redshirt sophomore A.J. Jones out of Saturday’s game with South Carolina, there wasn’t any hesitation.
One man goes down, the next steps up.
The mindset of defensive coordinator Charlie Strong’s defense is selflessness. It starts on the practice field during the week as the Gators fly all over the field, desperately trying to earn some playing time for the game.
The talent on defense has never been the issue. It has always been the experience. Now that the past three recruiting classes are gaining experience, players know they can’t have an off-week of practice if they want to play.
“Everybody makes mistakes, but it can’t be a continuous thing,” Hicks said. “This defense is based on going as hard as you can. If you make a mistake, still go as hard as you can for 4-6 seconds of relentless effort.”
The talent was all there in 2007. It was young and inexperienced, but it was there. The size and speed is now catching on to what it means to suit up for the Florida Gators. It doesn’t matter who gets the stats. As long as the ball is back in the hands of the offense, the defense couldn’t be happier.
“One can get a hurry, the other one picks it off,” Hicks said. “One makes a tackle, the other one strips it. Everybody is going to be around the ball no matter what play it is.”
Tuesday Hicks began to get word that the South Carolina game would be his chance to contribute. Jones was still dealing with a nagging knee injury he suffered during the game at Vanderbilt. Hicks had been playing the weakside linebacker when Dustin Doe was injured earlier in the season, but the switch back to strongside linebacker wasn’t tough since that was his position last season.
“We don’t want (Jones) to go in and try to play hurt because we still have big games left,” Hicks said.
It only took eight plays for Hicks to make his mark. He lined up at the line of scrimmage, ready to blitz South Carolina quarterback Chris Smelley. The quarterback rolled out to Hicks’ side and backpedalled for his life once he saw the blitz coming his way. Hicks could taste the blood in the water as he sprinted toward Smelley, only to see him make an ill-advised pass at the last possible moment.
“I could tell it wasn’t a set pass,” Hicks said. “It was off his back foot and he was trying to throw it away from the rush. I was just hoping in my head that someone would pick it off. I didn’t see the interception immediately, but I was just thinking ‘I hope somebody is there.’” I turned around right as Brandon (Spikes) was taking it in for six.”
After a 6-yard reception by Jared Cook on the first play of the next USC drive, Hicks got back to work. South Carolina set up a wide receiver screen to his side. Hicks was set to blitz, but read the screen and pulled up the make it a more difficult pass for Smelley. He tipped the pass into the arms of Ahmad Black for his sixth interception of the year.
“When I deflected it, I saw Ahmad grab it,” Hicks said. “I was filled with joy. I felt the rush of happiness. I got us off the field. I helped us become a good ‘D.’”
Causing two interceptions would have been plenty of production from a linebacker getting an unusual start. Hicks, however, wasn’t satisfied. The next offensive play for South Carolina saw Hicks flying off the edge, untouched to blow up quarterback Stephen Garcia.
“When I came off free, I knew he was going to hold onto it (until I got there),” Hicks said.
The strong performance didn’t come as a surprise to Hicks. He plays against one of the nation’s best offenses every day in practice in a competitive atmosphere. The practice preparation is so intense it makes playing in the games seem easier.
“It’s always competitive,” Hicks said. “We still have the (No.) 1s and (No.) 2s going after it trying to make plays. As long as everybody is going hard, it doesn’t matter who starts.”
If you look at the three plays where Hicks made his biggest impact, you’ll notice a trend. Hicks was blitzing on all three of them. That was the game plan from the first play. Make the two quarterbacks feel uneasy about being in the pocket and pressure them all night long.
“We knew Garcia liked to scramble and Smelley liked to stay in, so if we tried to get Smelley out of the pocket and make him throw bad passes, which he did,” Hicks said.
The play of Florida’s defense easily outshined South Carolina, which came into the game with the SEC’s best statistical defense. The coaches told the defense all week about those statistics and challenged them to show up and relay a message.
“We heard about that all week,” Hicks said. “They came out saying they were the best defense. We felt like we had something to prove, to show America we were the best defense.”
But the Gators still aren’t satisfied. Coming off an embarrassing defensive year last season, the job isn’t finished. The rallying cry all season has been about proving themselves to the nation. The only way they believe that can be accomplished is by holding up a crystal ball on Jan. 8 in Miami.
“It’s never finished until the big dance at the end of the season,” Brandon Hicks said. “You always have something to prove.”