SPRING: Gator Defense Solid Up Front

Things may have started out well for the defense during Saturday’s scrimmage, but by the end of the 2-1/2 hour workout, it was the offense that was making the big plays. It wasn’t all-bad for Charlie Strong’s and Greg Mattison’s unit – several upfront players shined – but it is apparent that the secondary still has a long way to go.

The first team defensive line appears to be close to being set at the tackle positions with Clint McMillan and Brandon Antwine. Jermaine Cunningham and Lawrence Marsh lined up at the ends with Derrick Harvey sitting out. Lutrell Alford replaces Antwine during goal line situations, though.

Cunningham is a solid tackler and showed considerable quickness off the snap. He beat Phil Trautwein and Carlton Medder on several occasions, applying pressure to Tim Tebow in the backfield. His biggest play came during the goal line situations. With the offense starting from its own 2-yard line, Cunningham pounced on a fumbled snap in the end zone for a touchdown. He also picked up another fumble following a botched handoff between Cameron Newton and Chevon Walker earlier in the scrimmage.

Marsh made his share of big plays, beating Medder to hurry Tebow on one play, but he was drawn offsides on another play by Tebow’s hard count.

Strong rotated four linebackers on the first team, using Brandon Spikes, Dustin Doe, Ryan Stamper and A.J. Jones. Spikes and Doe remained on the field in nickel packages, and both showed they are ready to fill their roles.

Spikes didn’t miss a tackle and put pressure in the backfield whenever he was called upon to blitz. Doe was everywhere on the field making plays. Not only can he help stuff the run, but he is also good in coverage and a shore tackler.

On one of the final plays of the day, Doe kept Tebow out of the end zone – it was one of the few times the defense was able to keep the offense from scoring during the final phase of the scrimmage.

The first team secondary continues to have the most holes, although there were some good efforts. Dorian Munroe was solid both at safety and when asked to cover. He made some great solo tackles, including a few saving tackles. During third down situations, Munroe was called on to cover Percy Harvin a few times in the slot and was able to keep him away from the ball.

Markus Manson and Joe Haden both did good jobs in coverage, and Ahmad Black showed he had potential when used in dime packages.

Besides the secondary, the next area for concern is the all-around lack of depth. The second team defensive line saw Alford and Terron Sanders taking most of the snaps with John Fairbanks and Moise Paul seeing time at the ends. The second team offense, led by tailback Chevon Walker, defeated the defense on the run with ease. Walker was able to have a couple of nice runs, including a 40-yard run and 25-yard run during the long field situations.

The second team secondary saw its share of problems as well. Jacques Rickerson was matched up against David Nelson for much of the workout and wasn’t able to stop him at all. By the end of the day, Nelson had become Newton’s go-to-receiver. Jamar Hornsby had problems as well, being beaten by Cade Holliday for a touchdown.

At safety, Bryan Thomas was usually in the right place at the right time, but had a rough day tackling. He missed a tackle on the very first play of the day and missed Walker on his 40-yard scamper. He also missed Justin Williams on a bubble screen and drew an unnecessary roughness call after plugging Nelson following an incomplete pass. The redshirt freshman, though, did make some nice plays, including bringing down Aaron Hernandez late in the scrimmage to save a possible touchdown.

Two weeks into the spring, it is getting more apparent that the Gator defense is solid up the middle, but the loss of Reggie Nelson is obvious. Although Tebow didn’t tear apart the secondary, Harvin and Andre Caldwell watched from the sidelines for most of the day.