Can the Gators replace the disruption?

Sometimes the numbers really do lie. If you simply go by the numbers – four unassisted tackles, one assist, two tackles for loss, no sacks in three games – then replacing Dominique Easley shouldn’t be all that difficult a task for Will Muschamp. After all, how tough is it to find someone who can participate in more than 3% of the total tackles? It’s not like replacing Jeff Driskel and the Gators did fine when he went down, right?

Whereas we will be able to measure the impact of Driskel’s loss by the weekly stat line produced by Tyler Murphy, it’s entirely possible that whoever steps in for Easley can double or even triple his production and still not have the same impact because there is no way to come up with a stat that legitimately measures what Easley brought to the table for that stout Florida defense that has given up only 212.3 yards per game.

There is just no way to measure disruption, which is what Easley provided. He forced opponents to scheme their entire offense around his presence. Opponents couldn’t leave their center to handle Easley. There’s not a center in the country that could have handled him one-on-one. That meant committing one of the guards for a double team and if that didn’t get the job done, asking a running back or a fullback to chip away.

Tennessee often used three players to slow down Easley and if this had been back in the day of the tearway Easley would have gone through a case of #2 jerseys last Saturday and the zebras would have had no choice but to call holding. You can’t ignore an offensive lineman holding a handful of blue shirt.

While the Vols and before them the Miami Hurricanes and Toledo Rockets were paying so much attention solving the Easley problem in the middle of the line, other Gators were filling gaps, standing up running backs, harassing quarterbacks and having a field day. All because of Dominique.

Noting that Easley is the sixth Gator to go down with a season-ending injury, Gator Country beat writer Nick de la Torre noted, “The loss of Easley will be the most difficult to overcome. Easley was so disruptive up front that he made the game easier for the 10 players around him.”

When you pay that much attention to one guy, others get to have their moments in the sun. Just ask the Ohio State Buckeyes. Back in 2006 in the national championship game they were so intent on doubling up on Ray McDonald that they forgot all about Steven Harris, which turned out to be a rather dumb thing to do. Harris finished with only one assisted tackle, but here is where the numbers lie again. Harris spent the whole night bullying All-Big Ten center Doug Datish. Forced to double up on Harris along with McDonald, the Buckeyes were left vulnerable off the edge. Troy Smith still hears the footsteps of Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, whose big games were possible because of the impact of a guy in the middle of the line.

Easley was doing that kind of thing this season for Florida’s defense, which is – or at least was with Easley at nose tackle – the best in the country. Easley was the dancing bully, the guy trash talking while he moved and grooved to the music in between plays. Between plays, Easley was the life of the party. Once he got into that three-point stance it was no more Mr. Nice Guy. There are guys doing hard time in Raiford for less than Easley was doing to opposing centers.

More than measurable productivity in terms of tackles and sacks, there was also the energy and the nasty attitude that carried over to his teammates. One thing about football, teams that have the most energy and the most guys playing mean usually dominate. Easley was Florida’s non-stop source of energy and nastiness and it spread contagiously to his teammates.

So how do you replace that?

That’s the toughest question for Will Muschamp right now. He can probably find someone who can make more tackles, but can he find someone in the middle who can command a double and sometimes triple team every single play? Can he find someone who is so loose in between plays that teammates forget about their aches and pains for those few seconds before they focus in on that next play? Can he find someone who practically foams at the mouth once he gets in his stance which causes teammates to want to feel every bit as mean and nasty?

Sometimes that leadership by example is more valuable than productivity.

So who will lead? Who will step in and be THE man? Can one man even begin to replace all the things Easley brought to the table?

“I think you will see Darious Cummings and Damien Jacobs play a lot more but it will hurt the defensive line depth,” says Gator Country recruiting analyst Andrew Spivey, who expects that freshmen Caleb Brantley (6-2, 313) and Jay-nard Bostwick (6-3, 305) can forget about taking a redshirt this year. “No matter who replaces Easley it will be tough to replace the life he brings to the team.”

Muschamp can scheme Leon Orr, Cummings and Jacobs into the gaps but none of those three have Easley’s first step quickness so it’s unlikely they can replace the disruption. Easley was making life so much easier for Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard off the edge but without that presence in the middle, opponents probably won’t have to double up the nose tackle. The ripple effect will be felt up and down the line.

The one player who can make up for Easley’s leadership and disruptive presence is Ronald Powell. He’s the strong side (SAM) linebacker right now and Muschamp has played around with him the first three games, occasionally moving him up and down the line to cause confusion with blocking assignments. The Giants used to do that with Lawrence Taylor and it was highly disruptive. Of course, Taylor produced and that’s something Powell really hasn’t done.

Consistency, not talent, has always been Powell’s issue. Perhaps Easley’s injury will prove to be that epiphany moment when the lights go on for Ronald Powell. If he can harness the talent to replace Easley’s ability to disrupt, he could save a season from slip-sliding away.

Powell had a lot to do with the Gators landing Dominique Easley in the first place. Along with Sharrif Floyd, the three envisioned themselves as the kind of difference-makers who would bring championships to Florida. Now Floyd has gone to the NFL and Easley is a wounded warrior, which leaves Ronald Powell all alone to carry on the dream. As we’ve seen with Easley, Powell won’t have to do it in a measurable, statistical manner. If he brings it every single play, he will disrupt, and if he can take on Easley’s nasty attitude, teammates will feel the contagion.

Maybe Dominique Easley can’t be fully replaced, but if Ronald Powell will step up and lead, there might be a measure of compensation. He is the one guy who can fill the void.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.