Continuing our series of in-depth match-up previews, Gator Country and Kentucky Sports Report take a look at how the Gator defense and the Wildcat Offense match-up against each other.
By: Mark McLeod
Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. Opposing offensive coordinators have adjusted to that by shortening their passing game. The short drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. Make no mistake though, the pressure is constant.
Defensive lineman Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) had begun the season like the kid who always had to sit in the back seat of the school bus…disruptive. Thomas sat out the first game of the year for failing a drug test, but came ready to play recording a pair of sacks and two tackles for loss as he manhandled the Central Florida offensive line. He continued his stellar play with three tackles, a sack, and tackle for loss against the Volunteers. Simply put- Thomas was having an All-American year.
However, the senior from Jacksonville won’t be using his great quickness, speed, and athleticism in “The Swamp” this weekend against the University of Kentucky. Thomas reportedly has failed a second test for marijuana. Obviously, this behavior has cost his teammates who must go forward without his help. He has made an appeal. If it fails, Thomas’ pain will go on for years. While I’ve personally never held a U.S. Treasury note with Salmon D. Chase’s photo on it- chances are that Marcus Thomas may have just cost himself a wheelbarrow full.
He plays alongside a pair of senior tackles in Joe Cohen (6-2 296) and reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) who possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Cohen had five tackles last week and has accumulated seven total tackles, a tackle for loss, and has broken up a pass. Harris was a starter last season, but was suspended by the coaching staff until he got life’s priorities in order. Junior Clint McMillan (6-1 285) plays a key reserve role. McMillan is a former middle linebacker at Oviedo High School who has good speed and runs very well.
The Gators have tremendous speed and athleticism at defensive end. Senior Ray McDonald (6-3 280) has returned from having both knees surgically repaired. He appears to have shaken off most of the rust and is fast approaching his potential. McDonald had three tackles, including one for a loss against the Vols. His leadership has been a boon for the defense.
You can’t begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 251). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss’ quickness is reminiscent of Georgia’s Quinton Moses. Obviously, Moss hasn’t yet produced to the level of Moses. Furthermore, the junior bulked up over the off-season and has yet to tap into the vast wealth of his potential. But, he is getting there. Moss had six tackles, one for a loss and two quarterback hurries last week. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) is the Gators third end, who combines a steady blend of speed and quickness. However, his experience is even more limited than Moss.
Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who might even be a better leader. He had another monster game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He is currently second on the team with 15 tackles, including three tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-3 234) is yet another centerpiece to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Tennessee, where he led the Gators with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 19 tackles. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a starter for the first year at Florida. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in ’03 where he saw very little action. He played pretty well against Tennessee.
While there is plenty of talent playing behind the linebackers, experience is virtually non-existent. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) have been impressive in practice and have seen limited playing time thus far. The Gators are in trouble if they lose Siler, Everett, or Crum.
Overview: Experience, speed, and athleticism reigns supreme along the Florida defensive front. Surprisingly, there is even depth. Florida has toiled with depth problems up front for many years, but this is finally one year where Gators fans can rest assured that the level of play will be among the best in college football.
And the numbers certainly bear that out. Opponents are averaging just 1.8 yards per carry rushing against the Gators. That is tops in the conference and fifth best in the nation.
The strength of an interior defensive front that was among the best in team history suffered a major blow with the loss of Thomas. Joe Cohen, and Steven Harris are still two very good football players that should give the Wildcats difficulty. Furthermore, the Gators can play Ray McDonald down giving the Gators additional quality and depth. Cohen and Harris all were named to the champions club for their performance against Tennessee.
The speed and athleticism at the defensive end position blend perfectly with the inside game. Jarvis Moss will be a major force to be reckoned with for the Kentucky tackles. He was named co-defensive player of the game. Derrick Harvey doesn’t have the experience, but should be very good very soon. Joe Cohen can play up if the Gators need some bulk at the position.
Siler (19 starts) and Everett (27 starts) are the only experienced linebackers at Florida. They must stay healthy. This team has been very good in the red zone, allowing two touchdowns and a field goal in seven opportunities. Southern Miss and Central Florida struggled to convert only 8 of 29 (27.6%) third down opportunities. The Vols had some success, converting on 6 of 13 (46.1%) attempts.
Florida received an incredible boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. Smith has been praised by coaches for picking up exactly where he left off. Smith has terrific cover skills and there was no learning curve as he has a fine understanding of the defense.
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game against Vanderbilt a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has an interception, which he returned for 35 yards.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) is tied for second on the team with 15 tackles. He also has two tackles for loss, has broken up a pass, an interception, and safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 193). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. Nelson leads the Southeastern Conference (second in the nation) with three interceptions. He averages one pick per game and was named to the champions club after Florida’s victory over the Vols.
Reserve safety Kyle Jackson (6-1 200) was a starter as a freshman, who struggled last season. However, he is playing very well and figures to be the first man out playing safety when Florida goes nickel.
Overview: The Gators first team guys are solid. However, other than Kyle Jackson, there isn’t any experienced depth to speak of. That is particularly true at corner where the numbers have been thin.
The Gators are third in the conference in pass defense efficiency and fourth in passing defense. They have given up 154 yards per game through the air. Obviously, much of that credit is due to a defensive front that has gotten pressure on the opposition. However, their three interceptions prove that they are in position.
The Gators were pretty effective keeping Tennessee’s receivers contained to the short game. It will be very interesting to see how they fare against Burton and Lyons, who run more intermediate routes. Florida’s secondary faces one of the finest receiving corps in the country each day at practice. That provides a definite assist. There is no question that the Tennessee receivers will get theirs, but how much depends on the Florida offensive front.
Analysis: The Wildcats have an outstanding back in Rafael Little, who may not be able to play because of injury. The Florida reserves struggled a little keeping him bottled up last year. This is not last year. Even the Gators reserves (Steven Harris and Clint McMillan) are much improved. If the seventh ranked run defense in the conference (Ole Miss) can limit the Kentucky running attack to 2.7 yards per carry it stands to reason that a top ranked defensive front minus Thomas at home, should be able to limit the Wildcats effectiveness as well.
Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson is the SEC Offensive Player of the Week and the third leading passer behind Ainge and Leak. The ‘Cats have seemingly found another receiver to accompany veteran Keenan Burton. Dickey Lyons is the ‘Cats leading receiver. Both are ranked among the league’s top six in receiving yards.
The Gators are 13th in nation in total defense. They have given up a few big plays, mostly through breakdowns in the secondary, which is ranked 48th in the country against the pass. Expect the coaches to continue making the necessary adjustments to counter the short passing game.
So, what might the ‘Cats do? They probably aren’t going to be able to establish a running attack. Sure, they’ll try and keep things honest with the draw ands some misdirection. But, they’re best opportunity offensively lies with Woodson, who seemingly has benefited with the addition of quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders. I would expect the ‘Cats to try and offset the Gators pressure by utilizing quick routes, much like the Volunteers did last Saturday. If healthy, getting Little involved in the passing game has been very good for Kentucky. He is a good receiver. Florida should also be prepared for an early trick play or two.
By Larry Vaught
The Kentucky offense has not been able to run the ball as well as coach Rich Brooks anticipated this year and could have even more of a problem if versatile running back Rafael Little, one of the nation’s top all-purpose yardage leaders in 2005, can’t play Saturday because of a turf toe and bruised knee.
The good news for Kentucky is that quarterback Andre Woodson has already thrown six touchdown passes — or three more than he threw all of last season. Six of those have gone to Dicky Lyons Jr. as he has two scoring catches in all three Kentucky games.
“Andre is just more poised in the pocket and has better players around him. We are protecting him better and one thing we thought he could do was stretch the field for us. So far, he’s been able to do that,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said.
Kentucky has a proven playmaker in Keenan Burton, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Louisville in the opening game. Normally he draws a double team. “As long as teams double team him, that makes it easier for me to get open. I always feel like I should win a one-on-one battle,” Lyons said.
Tight end Jacob Tamme played just 20 plays against Mississippi because of a hamstring injury. Brooks expects him to be full speed this week. This is one spot where Kentucky has little depth as shown by the no tight end sets the Cats went with against Mississippi when Tamme was not able to play except in certain situations.
With Little ailing, Kentucky will turn to Tony Dixon — the 2004 starting tailback who missed last year with an ankle injury. Like Little, he has breakaway speed. He’s a little more power-oriented than Little and not quite as elusive, but he is a playmaker. Redshirt freshman Alfonso Smith also has good speed and if Little can’t play, he’ll likely get his most extensive playing time at Kentucky.
The offensive line could be a huge problem against Florida’s stingy run defense. “If Tennessee couldn’t run against them, and I think Tennessee is a pretty good run team, then we are really going to have problems,” Brooks said.
That’s especially true if starting center Matt McCutchan is out with an ankle sprain as Brooks anticipates. That forces guard Trai Williams to shift to center because backup center Jorge Gonzalez went down two weeks ago with a season-ending knee injury. UK’s only other center, Eric Scott, played tight end and defensive end before switching to center this season. Kentucky revamped its offensive line after its horrendous play against Louisville. But the Cats have still had trouble running the ball. Guard Christian Johnson and tackle Garry Williams are both sophomores while senior Michael Aitcheson has started at guard and tackle. Kentucky has depth, but not the kind of talent that has shown it can control a game against a quality SEC defense like the one Florida has.