SPRING: Losses on DL hurt experience level

As the Gators prepare for spring practice it is quite evident that the losses on the defensive side of the ball cause concern for the 2007 season. Three starters are gone from the secondary, all three linebackers are gone and the defensive line returns only one starter and he has five starts to his name. Youth will be the byword on the defensive line.

In Florida’s run to the national championship last year, the Gator could rely on a defense that was downright nasty and it all started up front with Joe Cohen, Steven Harris, Ray McDonald, Marcus Thomas and Jarvis Moss. The next time you see them playing they will be wearing NFL uniforms. That leaves a depleted corps of linemen that enters the spring minus Darryl Gresham, who was dismissed from the team.

The bad news is the Gators are young, inexperienced and depth will be a problem this spring. The good news is that Florida signed probably the best defensive line class in the nation in February so there will be an infusion of talent in the fall.

But, spring is upon us and the coaching staff has to start the rebuilding process on the defensive line with a solid group of players that has talent but lacks experience.

In a lot of ways, this spring is reminiscent of last year when it was the offensive line that was young and inexperienced. Those guys only got better every practice because they went up against the nation’s best defensive line every day in practice. This year, the offensive line figures to be about as good as there is anywhere in the country so Florida’s defensive linemen will have the advantage of going against the best every day and that should speed up their development.

The lone returning starter on the defensive line is junior Derrick Harvey, who spent so much time in Ohio State’s backfield in January that he nearly qualified for an OSU letterman’s jacket. There is no question that Harvey will be rated among the top five defensive ends in the country going into the 2007 season. His numbers from 2006 — tackles for loss (13), sacks (11), and fumble recoveries (3) led the team; second on the team in quarterback hurries and third among all linemen in tackles — were outstanding and the Florida coaching staff needs him to duplicate or improve them in 2007. Harvey is not much of a vocal leader, but is a true technician under the guidance of coach Greg Mattison. When Mattison wants others to see how it is done, he will say, “just watch Harvey.”

Harvey was mostly a strong side defensive end to compliment the speed rushing ability of Jarvis Moss. With his explosiveness, Harvey could play either strong side or weak side and will most likely be asked to do both this year while the numbers are low at the position.

The only other defensive end with any experience is sophomore Jermaine Cunningham, who got most of his experience as a true freshman after games were already decided. Cunningham has the explosion the Gator staff is looking for from the weak side and he has bulked up his long, angular frame. He has a chance to make a real statement this spring and needs to solidify his position before Florida’s talented newcomers arrive in August.

The Gators will have two others in the spring fighting for playing time at the strong side this spring. Red-shirt freshman Trent Pupello of Tampa (FL) has moved over from tight end. He was an outstanding defensive player in high school but he’s an unknown quantity at the college level. His chief assets are that he’s big, strong and very fast.

The other possibility at the strong side spot for now is red-shirt freshman Lawrence Marsh of Augusta (GA). Marsh looks like he will be used much like Ray McDonald in that he can go inside to play tackle or stay outside. Coach Mattison has been praising Marsh since last season when it was a close call to pull the red-shirt when there were some injuries. Marsh has excellent size and the tenacious attitude the staff is looking for up front.

The Gators have more depth at defensive tackle this spring than they do on the outside. Including Marsh, who will play both end and tackle, the Gators have five scholarship players and a walk-on to fill those slots. Senior Clint McMillan of Oviedo (FL) has the most experience up front and is someone that the staff will ask to step up this year. McMillan is not going to wow the pro scouts, but he is someone that will play his assignment correctly and that is more than half the battle. He does bring excellent quickness and strength to the position.

Junior Javier Estopinan of Miami is a player that Mattison loves and is another that does everything the coach asks him to do. Estopinan will miss half of spring practice while his knee still recovers from last year’s ACL surgery. A state champion wrestler in high school Estopinan uses his hands and feet very well inside and makes up for the lack of desired size for the position.

Senior walk-on Lutrell Alford of Gainesville has the size and ability to play the nose. A former Furman transfer, Alford has some game experience and might be called upon to play a big role this season. This is a huge spring for the senior and he very well could make a statement.

The inside player returning with the most game experience from last season is probably Garland Texas true sophomore Brandon Antwine. Antwine has extremely quick feet for someone his size. He saw action last season in quite a few situations where you don’t normally see a true freshman, so he’s quite mature and coachable. He is reliable and he will continue to add muscle working with the Florida strength staff. Florida’s coaches expect big things from him before all is said and done.

Another red-shirt from last season is freshman Terron Sanders of Bradenton (FL). Sanders is the biggest of the defensive linemen entering last season at 315 pounds. He was a high school weight lifting champion and has nimble feet to go with his brute strength. Reports out of camp last year were that Sanders was more than a lot of the offensive linemen wanted to handle on the scout team. With his size and ability, he has a chance to be the true plugger this team needs along the defensive line.

The numbers aren’t great along the line, especially on the outside. But, this spring is big for all of these guys on the roaster as maybe the most talented defensive line group ever signed in one recruiting class will enter school in June. Tackles John Brown and Torrey Davis are two five-star prospects that bring different and exceptional tools to the field. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap, Jay Howard, Duke Lemmens, and Justin Trattou are diverse and big time players that will also be added to the mix.

When fall rolls around some true freshmen will be forced to play because of numbers. This spring, the older guys can establish themselves in the eyes of this staff and are a good foundation in which to build a quality line and defense around. It is going to be an exciting spring on the defensive side of the ball.