Gator Defense Begins Taking Shape

Three practices into spring drills the process of rebuilding the Gator defense is well underway. Florida has just two starters back from last year’s championship unit but several others are clearly starters for ’07 already. One thing that is clear is that Florida will be a smaller defense.

Derrick Harvey and Tony Joiner are the holdover first-teamers but it’s already clear that the linebackers are set. Brandon Spikes (6’3”, 241), AJ Jones (6’1”, 206) and Dustin Doe (6’, 219) are all starters, albeit somewhat be default. Still, I think that group has the potential to be very effective with their overall speed. Spikes has to learn how to get lower from his middle linebacker position, but Jones and Doe are really naturals out there. I would be very tempted to move Spikes to the strong side spot with Doe in the middle to better utilize Spikes’ length..

There’s no debating the fact that Florida will be a little light in the drawers on the defensive line. Right now Clint McMillan (6’1”, 275) and Brandon Antwine (5’11”, 265) are first in line, but there’s little gap between them and Terron Sanders (6’1”, 304) and Javier Estopinan (6’1” 270). In fact during Saturday’s goal line work the most effective defensive tackle was starting offensive guard Ronnie Wilson (6’3”, 316). Depending on the development of some other offensive linemen, that’s something worth considering on a full-time basis.

Lawrence Marsh is the biggest of the bunch (6’5” 284) and seems ideal to move inside, but with only three defensive ends on scholarship that can’t happen this spring. In fact, Florida moved Trent Pupello (6’2”, 275) from tight end this spring and he’s already on the two deep with Marsh, Harvey (6’4”, 245) and Jermaine Cunningham (6’3” 230).

The corner situation is a mess with injuries slowing all the returning players at that spot. Truth be told, Joe Haden who’s a true freshman has probably been the best corner through three practices. It’s imperative that Wondy Pierre-Louis, Markihe Anderson and Jacques Rickerson get healthy and stay healthy because they need all the work they can get.

Safety is one place where Florida actually has some quality depth. Tony Joiner is set at strong safety while Kyle Jackson and Dorian Munroe are battling for the nod at free safety. In addition, Jamar Hornsby, Brian Thomas and John Curtis have shown enough to convince me that they could be contributors in the fall. Hornsby looks like a guy who could easily grow into a linebacker slot over the summer.

Memo to Incoming Freshmen:

The University of Florida football team is in a position it has rarely been in before and hopes never to be in again. It has a significant need for immediate help from several true freshmen. There are 13 of you who signed with the Gators six weeks ago, and every one of you should arrive on campus having worked your tail off to be as ready as possible to earn playing time opening day. I believe at least six true freshmen will play on day one.

To Duke Lemmens, Carlos Dunlap, Jay Howard and Justin Trattou: At least two of you could earn playing time this year. As soon as it’s clear which ones can make that happen, the Gators will be able to slide Lawrence Marsh inside to give that unit some much needed bulk.

To Torrey Davis and John Brown: One of you should see the field very quickly and the odds favor Mr. Davis because he has the size.

To Steven Wilks, John Jones, Lorenzo Edwards and Brandon Hicks: You need to run, run and run some more because there’s a very good chance you could all be covering kicks in the fall. The starting linebackers simply have to get some rest from special teams. Also, two of you will be on the second unit almost immediately.

To Major Wright, Jerimy Finch and Moses Jenkins: Assume you have a chance to start opening day. Nothing scares coaches more than the possibility of giving up big plays at corner and there is virtually no experience at all heading into fall. Find the fastest guy you can and try covering them al day, every day. Like your linebacker buddies you can all expect to be needed on special teams.

Even with the addition of the new bodies into the mix, Florida will still be short on size numbers and experience heading into 2007 and there’s nothing that can change that. However after watching these guys for a few days I am convinced the Gators will have plenty of speed and plenty of talent. Moving Marsh to tackle would help the size issue on the inside but unless the true freshmen are sensational upon arrival the Gators will be extremely vulnerable to any meaningful injury to a front line performer.