Note:This is the first of a two-part series on UF’s defense
In the lead-up to kickoff against Idaho I’ll be taking my next few pieces to introduce, highlight, and analyze the groups of players that hold the key between Florida’s return to SEC prominence, or conversely, its banishment to the SEC cellar for 2014.
After last season, one of the few things Gator fans could hang their hats on was to the strength of their team’s defense – a hallmark of any Will Muschamp team. Buoyed by a strong defensive line, this year looks to be no different.
The D-line, despite losing first round pick Dominique Easley, was second in the SEC in run defense in 2013. Led by Dante Fowler Jr., who looks poised to have a breakout year, this group will continue to play smash-mouth football and force opponents to earn every yard. Jonathan Bullard should provide solid coverage up the middle, and a finally healthy Leon Orr will prove a terror for opposing lines on the wings. Look for Jay-nard Bostwick and Bryan Cox Jr. to shine in backup roles, as well. Bottom line: this unit should (and will) be feared by all who attempt reaching the end zone on the ground.
This unit, mainly due to injuries, never quite lived up to its potential in 2013. Of all the 17 season-ending injuries to starting scholarship players last season, four of them (the most of any unit) came from the linebacker corps. Jeremi Powell tore his ACL on the road at Missouri, Antonio Morrison tore a meniscus at home against Vanderbilt, and both Michael Taylor and Alex Anzalone saw their seasons prematurely end with a dislocated shoulder and a lacerated heel, respectively.
All return at full-strength for 2014, which is good news for Gator fans everywhere. Before his injury, Taylor led the Gators with 62 tackles, and Morrison was second with 49. Jarrad Davis, who shined in the absence of the starters, will benefit from his game play last season, and prove strong in a backup role.
In Muschamp’s defensive schemes there are two starting linebackers, with a majority of the snaps coming in some form of nickel, thus leaving an extra defensive back on the field. So, in the weak-side and middle linebacker positions, the above players can, and will, shine.
Morrison (shown above in my favorite play from ANY Florida player in the last five years) and Taylor have, to me, looked better on the inside, and Davis was (pardon the pun) strong on the weak side last season.
Davis gives the Gators an instinctive linebacker who can get to the ball lightning fast, which is something Morrison has struggled with mightily.
Taylor has the same base instrict for the ball (shown at South Carolina last season), but his size was an issue when facing opposing offensive lineman (particularly at LSU). The training staff has made sure to address the issue this off-season, and he is up from 210 to 238.
Morrison must get better this season (he was mangled against Vanderbilt before his injury), and use experience to his advantage to close the small remaining gaps in this unit.
Neiron Ball will remain at strong-side, and use the edge to pass rush, with Anzalone and Matt Rolin going to the strong side and the middle, respectively.
Replacing Jaylen Watkins is no easy task. He was a defensive back who played cornerback, nickel corner, and safety during his time at Florida.
Junior Brian Poole, much with the same resume as Watkins is looking to pick up some of the slack. During spring practices and at the Orange and Blue Debut, Poole played cornerback but has not yet been named a starter at the position. To me, he’s a natural fit at nickelback, but we’ll see where Muschamp and defensive coordinator DJ Durkin place him.
Jabari Gorman, a rising senior, looks to be a good fit at safety to replace Cody Riggs (who transferred to South Bend), along with Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal, and Marcell Harris.
This is a young unit, but there is experience (and not to mention one of the best defensive minded coaches behind them). They must find ways to create pressure in tight and open space, and be aggressive against opposing teams who live by the run. If the Florida DB’s can stop the likes of T.J. Yeldon, Marquez North, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, and Mike Davis (sense a theme here?), they can challenge for the SEC East division and conference crown.