In a perfect world, Greg Mattison would be looking at a Florida defense this spring that has plenty of experienced players ready to plug in and take up where nine departed starters left off. Let’s just say that what Mattison has seen in spring practice isn’t exactly the perfect picture, but he’s a glass half full kind of coach so he sees enormous potential every day.
Replacing nine starters from college football’s best defense is no easy task under any circumstance but it’s complicated this spring because Florida was roster was so senior-laden in 2006 that most of the backups were also seniors. That means Mattison, who coaches the defensive line and serves as Florida’s co-coordinator of the defense along with Charlie Strong, has a spring roster that’s bottom heavy with freshmen and sophomores. That the Gators are so young and lacking experience is the bad news.
The good news is that they’re plenty fast, they are very talented and they have an exceptional work ethic to go with a nice learning curve. These young guys also know what is expected of them. Just because they are young, they know they won’t get any days off. The standard for all Florida defensive teams was set in 2006 and not it’s up to this group of players to do whatever they must to live up to the high expecations.
“Sometimes I don’t think they want to work so hard because they’re young, but they know about the bar,” said Mattison after Wednesday’s practice. “They know how high the bar is and what’s acceptable to us. They have a standard that’s been set by the guys that were here last year and so it’s up to them to meet and then exceed.
“The advantage they have — and it’s a great one — is that they got to play behind great kids and they got to see how it’s done the right way. They’re all good athletes. They know they have to play harder because they’re younger to make up for that age and experience difference.”
Last year’s defensive unit set the bar plenty high when they held Ohio State to 82 total yards in the national championship game in Glendale, Arizona. They totally dismantled Ohio State’s high scoring offensive machine and left the Buckeyes looking like litter in the tall grass on the side of the road when they got through with them.
The way this coaching staff goes about its business, the torch has been handed to the young guys who have to do whatever they must to carry on the tradition. Youth and inexperience can’t be an excuse. Whenever Mattison and his fellow defensive coaches see these young guys taking a few plays off here and there, all they have to do is remind them that the way things have been done around here in the past is the only acceptable way of doing things now and in the future.
“They know what’s acceptable and what isn’t so we really don’t have to say all that much,” said Mattison. “We just say remember how it was done last year and then show them the film so they can see for themselves. They do the rest.”
The building blocks for Florida’s defense will be end Derrick Harvey, who was the defensive MVP in the national championship game, and safety Tony Joiner, a steady as a rock performer who doesn’t make mistakes. Joiner is a vocal leader who always has something to say. He knows how to encourage and he knows how to get in a teammate’s face. Harvey is a quiet type, but Mattison says he has learned how to lead, too.
“Harvey can say ‘I was one of those guys’ [last year’s defense] and this is how it’s done,” said Mattison. “He works hard and he knows how to set a tempo for everybody around him.”
Harvey is a 6-5, 260-pounder that had 11.5 sacks last season. He will probably be listed on most preseason All-America teams. He will have to work harder than ever before since he won’t have Jarvis Moss on the other end to take away some of the attention. This season, Harvey will command the double team every game and every play until someone steps it up on the defensive line.
Jermaine Cunningham is at the other end. He’s fast and lean like Moss. The potential is there but most of his action as a true freshman last year came on special teams. Lawrence Marsh has size, speed and strength. He’ll probably be asked to fill Ray McDonald’s role as the player that can handle both defensive ends and then move inside when the matchups are favorable.
On the inside, there are veterans with limited experience like Clint McMillan, Javier Estopinan and Lutrell Alford. They are being pushed by sophomore Brandon Antwine and red-shirt freshman Terron Sanders, a 310-pounder that sat last year to strengthen his surgically repaired knee.
“BA is the one that can really move inside,” said Mattison. “He is as quick as a cat. Marsh really is going to be good, too.”
The Gators signed the top defensive line class in the nation so there will be added strength and depth in the fall when tackles Torrey Davis and John Brown are in the fold along with ends Jay Howard, Justin Trattou, Duke Lemmens and Carlos Dunlap.
“We’ve got talented young guys that will be here in the summer and they’ll be able to push our guys so that’s a good thing for us,” said Mattison.
Florida only has four scholarship linebackers this spring and they’re all young and inexperienced. Brandon Spikes has the look of a future all-star in the middle. Ryan Stamper is a third-year sophomore that is starting to show his ability and then there are the two speed demons, A.J. Jones and Dustin Doe. Jones had the hit of the spring Wednesday afternoon.
“They [linebackers] have a lot of talent and they’re all so fast,” said Mattison. “We don’t have the numbers, though. We can’t afford to have one go down this spring.”
Brandon Hicks, John Jones, Lorenzo Edwards and Steve Wilks will arrive in the summer so the depth issue will be eased somewhat but for now, having only four scholarship linebackers is rather dicey.
In the secondary, the depth chart at corner has improved with true freshman Joe Haden moving over from receiver and Markus Manson switching from running back. The greatest issue so far in practice has been injuries to Wondy Pierre-Louis (hamstring), true freshman Ahmad Black (hamstring) and Jacques Rickerson (knee that’s been drained). At safety, Joiner will be a third-year starter and senior Kyle Jackson is hoping to rebound after a couple of sub-part seasons.
“We’re so banged up back there now,” said Mattison, “but we’ve got some talent. I like the way Jamar Hornsby has stepped up. Dorian Munroe is going to be a good one. We like what we’re seeing out of Joey [Haden] and Ahmad looks good but he’s got that hamstring. We’re really proud of Deuce [Markus Manson, #2]. We’re seeing some things out of him that we like a lot.”
Mattison, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery, sees the defense do the two steps forward, one step backward thing nearly every day in practice. It’s not nearly the consistency that he wants to see and certainly, it’s far from the polished product that he wants to put on the field. There will be improvements made, in part, because each day at practice the Gators will do the hard work that is necessary.
“One thing you don’t have to worry about is hard work,” said Mattison. “As long as Urban Meyer is the coach here, hard work will be foremost. As long as Coach Meyer is here with this staff, I don’t think anybody will outwork us.”
The willingness to work hard allows Mattison to see the potential. He knows that nothing can take the place of experience, but he’s got good, solid building blocks to work with.
“We understand that we have a ton of work to do,” he said. “I mean we’re not even close yet but with the way these guys work and then with the group of freshmen coming in, I think we’re going to have a chance to be pretty good.”