In the second part of Gator Country’s Orange and Blue Debut preview, we take a look at the defense.
While Mike Gillislee and the running game carried the offense, it was the defense that really stepped up last season to help the Gators go from a 7-6 team in 2011 to a team that finished the 2012 season 11-2.
Florida’s defense finished the season ranked No. 5 in total defense (286.7 ypg) and in scoring defense (14.5 ppg). Additionally, the Gators finished No. 4 and No. 16 in run defense and pass defense respectively.
When he came to Florida, Will Muschamp preached that he would have a fast, tough, physical defense, delivering just that in 2012.
However, heading into the offseason, the Gators were tasked with finding players to replace Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Josh Evans and Lerentee McCray among others.
The defense is losing five of their top six tacklers from 2012 and three of their top four sack leaders.
Despite losing so much leadership and production from a season ago, the defense looks poised to re-load rather than rebuild and should pick up right where they left off from last season.
Let’s take a look at how each position has progressed through the spring, what to look for in the Orange and Blue Debut and the 2013 outlook.
The biggest loss here is Sharrif Floyd. After moving from defensive end to tackle prior to the 2012 season, Floyd has his most productive season in orange and blue and will hear his name called early during the NFL draft.
If the season were to start today, Dominique Easley would be Floyd’s replacement.
“We have a little luxury because Dominique can play inside and outside and right now if we had to start the season, Dominique would have no problem inside,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we would do. I told the defense that yesterday. If we had to start the season, to get out best players on the field, Dominique’s gonna play inside.”
If you look at Easley’s production from his sophomore season (where he played tackle) and what he was able to do last season at defensive end, it’s clear that Easley is better suited as an interior lineman. As a sophomore, Easley had more tackles and more passes batted down than he did as a junior.
Having the flexibility of being able to move Easley around the defensive line is a luxury for the Gators. It should allow for Jonathan Bullard to lock down a defensive end spot and give the Gators more depth at defensive tackle with Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings. Cummings is currently listed as the No. 2 nose tackle on the depth chart, but could jump ahead of Leon Orr if Orr doesn’t become a more consistent player on the field.
Muschamp has stressed that the Gators will play their best 11 players on defense. So being able to have players move around and play multiple positions will allow the coaches to get creative and get those best 11 players on the field at the same time.
It’s crazy how much can change in just a year. This time last year, Ronald Powell was playing his best football and was as impressive as anyone during the spring. Powell tore his ACL during last year’s Orange and Blue Debut and missed the entire season.
Lerentee McCray was more than serviceable in Powell’s absence and Dante Fowler Jr. had a great freshman campaign. With McCray gone, it has been Fowler that has stepped up and taken the starting Buck LB spot.
Fowler has dropped some baby fat and is now listed at 268 pounds. While he may have gained a step due to his weight loss, he hasn’t lost any strength. Fowler looked like a man amongst boys during the two open practices we attended, routinely ripping, swimming and just plain running around offensive lineman during drills.
Powell has been focusing on rehab this spring and hasn’t participated in drills. He will have every opportunity to step in and take back his starting spot at Buck when the summer and fall practices begin but Fowler may just be good enough to push Powell to another position.
Alex McCalister is another player who has transformed his body. McCalister is listed at 6’5”, 238 pounds, up from last season. McCalister is a fast edge-rusher who looked impressive from what we saw during spring practice.
Bryan Cox Jr. will also add depth to the position.
When looking at the surplus of talent the Gators have along the defensive line and at Buck, you can’t help but wonder what kind of lineups Muschamp and D.J. Durkin can come up with. Imagine a starting front four of Dante Fowler Jr., Dominique Easley, Jonathan Bullard and Ronald Powell. That’s a scary, scary pass rush.
Florida lost a lot of production and leadership at linebacker. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins were not only great players at Florida, but were leaders on the field.
Replacing Bostic has been Antonio Morrison. If you didn’t notice Morrison last season while he filled in for an injured Jenkins, he made sure you would remember him after the FSU game. Morrison’s devastating hit on FSU quarterback, E.J. Manuel, endeared him to the fan base and those type of bone-crushing hits are something Gator fans should come to expect from Morrison.
He’s a physical player who enjoys contact and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty.
Michael Taylor has replaced Jelani Jenkins at weakside LB. While I was skeptical of how Taylor would fare at the new position, he has adjusted nicely and looks to be ready to contribute right away.
Neiron Ball has locked down the Sam LB spot. Ball has done well enough this spring that the coaching staff has decided to move Darrin Kitchens over to Mike LB in the fall. Kitchens will give the Gators good depth at Mike and he is a veteran player who can come in to relieve Morrison.
The young linebackers have had some hard luck this spring. Alex Anzalone underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and missed most of spring practice. Matt Rolin is still recovering from ACL surgery and wasn’t a participant this spring. That leaves Daniel McMillian as the only early enrollee left at linebacker.
McMillian’s work ethic has really impressed his head coach.
“He’s got instincts, he’s got toughness. In football, again, go back to what I was asked earlier, very important to him. He was up here on Sunday after the third practice, the first day in pads, for two hours watching film by himself,” Muschamp said. “So again, it goes back to the same thing, the thing’s important to him. And some young players have a hard time with that, because they’ve always been better and they didn’t have to put in the extra time, and Daniel, he’s working, he’s the absolute right guy to be coaching.”
McMillian is going about things the right way and he will absolutely make an early impact in 2013.
With names like Riggs, Watkins, Roberson, Purifoy, Gorman, Showers, Maye and Poole, the Gators have great depth and a good mix of youth and veterans in their secondary.
Starting with the cornerbacks, I fully expect Marcus Roberson to lock down one of the two starting spots. Roberson has had a great spring and is still the most well rounded cornerback the Gators currently have on their roster. Roberson has been a more physical and willing tackler this offseason and that is exactly what the coaches were looking to get out of him.
Loucheiz Purifoy will be a part of the offense in some form or fashion next season but make no mistake; he is a defensive player first. Purifoy should be the leader in the clubhouse to start at the other cornerback spot until Vernon Hargreaves arrives on campus and challenges him.
Jeremy Brown gives the Gators depth at the position while Riggs and Watkins can both play cornerback if the Gators need them to.
Moving on to safety, the Gators haven’t quite gotten the kind of production they’re looking for this spring.
Muschamp asks a lot out of his safeties as far as being able to communicate on the field and there hasn’t been a player to step up and take the job.
“I think, number one, in our defense, the linebacker and safety position, you’ve got to be a really good communicator,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to check things based on formations, receivers’ splits, sets, whatever it is. You’ve got to be able to communicate the calls to get us in the right situation.”
Jabari Gorman is leading for one of the starting safety spots.
“There’s no question, he has had a bunch of at bats,” Muschamp said. “He has had turns and reps to be able to do those things, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jabari.”
If nobody steps up at safety, the Gators have three very talented freshmen that would love an opportunity to crack the starting lineup and they’ll be on campus very soon.
Players like Riggs, Watkins, Gorman, Showers and Maye need to step up and help fill the void left by Elam and Evans.
Despite losing so much on the defensive side of the ball, the coaching staff has done a good job in recruiting and they have the talent in place to continue playing some of the best defense in the SEC and in the country. Players like Fowler, Morrison and Bullard are poised to make huge jumps from their freshmen to sophomore seasons and could become household names in 2013.
While there are still some questions to be answered, the Gators defense is headed in the right direction.