Defensive line is deep and talented

We’re just a few weeks away from the start of spring football practice. Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday that Florida upended Oklahoma 24-14 in Dolphin Stadium to win the FedEx BCS National Championship Game. Plus, National Signing Day, when high school and junior college prospects can sign national letters of intent, is rapidly coming up on Feb. 4.

Though Florida hasn’t announced the starting date for its 15-day spring session, it does have a finishing date: Saturday, April 18 – the day of the annual Orange & Blue Spring Game in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Starting today and each week through the start of spring practice, we will take a look at a particular area of the football team. Today, we’ll preview the defensive line.

The Florida defense returns all 11 starters from the unit that earned the Gators’ their second national title in the last three seasons. Furthermore, each of the top reserves on the two-deep return for the Gators, who lose only senior Javier Estopinan, one of coach Urban Meyer’s favorite players whose career was hampered by injuries. One of the feel-good moments of all-time at “The Swamp” will always be Estopinan’s short touchdown run against The Citadel.

Amazingly, there is only one senior, Troy Epps, among those competing for playing time at defensive tackle.  Sophomores Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders and Brandon Antwine were the only players in 2008 to receive a starting assignment, and Antwine got his start against Florida State when Marsh was injured. The depth at each of these positions should be tremendous.

What will the Florida staff be looking for with so many returning? Reserves who want to push their way into the rotation for playing time. Several players have spent more time in rehabilitation assignments than they have on the field. The coaching staff will want to see who is ready and can be depended on. They will also benefit from another year under defensive line coach Dan McCarney.

Nose tackles

We know what redshirt junior Marsh (6-5, 305) can deliver and he developed into the player the coaching staff had hoped he would be. We’ll be watching to see if he improves this spring. The remainder of the players will be expected to demonstrate improvement and stick their noses into the mix to compete for playing time. Like it or not, this is important spring for young players to line up for playing time in August. There may be one or two who get left behind.

Trattou, a 6-3, 265-pound junior, played a significant role in obvious passing situations at the nose. His quickness, speed and high motor were definitely a positive for the Gators. He is very valuable, playing at both nose and defensive tackle. I would expect Trattou to pick up a few pounds just in time for spring drills to begin.

Howard has taken some steps forward toward receiving additional playing time. He is a terrific athlete who should also get some looks at the “three technique.”

Redshirt junior Brandon Antwine (6-0, 295) and redshirt freshman Omar Hunter (6-0, 315) are coming off injuries. We’ll see where they are with their rehabilitation assignments and if they’re able to compete in spring practice. Both of these players have struggled with back problems. Hunter probably needs to lose a little weight, which will benefit his back and also help his quickness.

Junior college transfer Edwin Herbert (6-3, 290) is an early enrollee and the staff is understandably excited to see how he can help the program. Also in the mix is redshirt sophomore Jaye Howard (6-3, 270).

Defensive tackles

Redshirt junior Terron Sanders (6-2, 300) is one success story who emerged from the injured list to earning a starting position last season. Sanders realized he wasn’t giving his absolute best each and every day in 2007. His personal development will help himself and younger Gators as he helps them grow up and there are a couple he can help at defensive tackle right now. 

Junior Torrey Davis (6-3, 298) has the potential to develop into one of the most disruptive forces in the Southeastern Conference. If he can win the battle against himself and mature into a player that follows the model established by other Florida players, then his will become a household name in the conference. We’ll see what develops this spring.

Epps, a 6-1, 292-pound senior, is yet another player who will get into the rotation with continued progress. Redshirt sophomore John Brown (6-1, 295), a former Lakeland standout, has spent more time in the rumor mill than any defensive linemen in recent years. It will be very interesting to see if he is out with the team this spring. There are indications that he won’t be with the Gators. 

A wild card could be sophomore Matt Patchan (6-6, 280), who played and started some games at defensive tackle before an injured knee kept him out of the SEC and BCS championships. Patchan was recruited as an offensive tackle, and with starters Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins lost to graduation, there is every good chance Patchan will spend the spring on the offensive line. Still, McCarney has vowed that he won’t give up Patchan without a fight.

Defensive ends

Senior Jermaine Cunningham, junior Justin Trattou and junior Carlos Dunlap have all spent time as starters. It is hoped that Cunningham (6-3, 250) will develop into an all-conference end under the tutelage of McCarney. There is a level of frustration with Cunningham because the coaches still feel he has more to offer. He has the athleticism but needs the high-energy motor to become a nightmare for opposing tackles. Still, Cunningham finished fifth on the team with 52 tackles, including 10 for 54 yards lost and six quarterback sacks totaling 44 yards.

Dunlap (6-6, 290) had a breakout season in 2008, finishing with 39 tackles. But he also led the team with 13.5 tackles for losses totaling 75 yards and had a team-high 9.5 quarterback sacks (for 65 yards), seven quarterback hurries and three blocked kicks – two against Vanderbilt and a blocked field goal against Oklahoma. He split time with Trattou (6-3, 265), who had 27 tackles, including four for losses.

If the Gators could have afforded to redshirt Duke Lemmens (6-4, 260) two years ago, it would have benefitted the junior. It will be interesting to see how much Lemmens develops this spring with two seasons under his belt. He is undoubtedly one of the most popular members of the team and is great for team chemistry.

Sophomore William Green (6-4, 215) and redshirt freshman Earl Okine (6-7, 270) will be two of the most watched defensive ends this spring. With speed, athleticism and toughness, Green just really needs to add some additional weight. I doubt that he will have gained much before spring practice, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t exceed 230 by August. The future is awfully bright with these young talents.

Next week: The linebackers.