Are You Ready for Some Football? Five Burning Questions for Florida Gators Spring Football: Defense

Freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves leads the Gators defense. (bleacherreport)

Freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves leads the Gators defense. (bleacherreport)

Spring football arrives in exactly one week for the Florida Gators with much anticipation from Gator Nation still reeling from last seasons 4-8 debacle, the worst season in Gainesville since they went 0-10-1 in 1979. While a lot of the problem was on the offensive side of the football, the defense had it’s share of problems as well last season.

After losing it’s starting defensive tackles, defensive ends, inside linebackers, and both safeties after the 2012 season, last year represented a rebuilding year for the Gator defense. Now a year older, the defense needs to see improvement. They will, however, have to replace three of their top four corners as well as the interior of its defensive line once again.

Despite returning a lot of starters there are still many questions surrounding this defense. Today we present five burning questions on defense for the Florida Gators as we head into spring football practice.

1) Who will start opposite Vernon Hargreaves at corner and who will provide depth at the nickel and dime spots?

The Gators lost three of their top four corners after last season. Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson both left early for the NFL draft while Jaylen Watkins was lost to graduation. The only returning starter is freshman All American Vernon Hargreaves who quickly worked his way into the lineup and a starting spot last season as a true freshman. He had a stellar freshman campaign and looks to have a breakout season this year. An All American season is not out of the realm of possibility for this talented young man. The biggest question facing the Gator defense heading into spring is who will step into the starting spot opposite him?

Of the returning players, Brian Poole is the most experienced of the true corners and most likely to compete for the other spot. Nick Washington and Marcus Maye are versatile enough to compete there as well but are more likely projected at nickel and dime as well as at safety.  One player to keep an eye on is true freshman Jalen Tabor who may very well earn the spot opposite Hargreaves if he picks up the defense quick enough.

An early enrollee, Tabor will go through spring practice and have every opportunity to secure a starting spot. Like Hargreaves, he was a five star corner coming out of high school and has the build, speed, and skill set which projects him to have All American potential at Florida. True freshman Duke Dawson is also enrolled early and will be in the mix as well but, like Maye and Washington, he is more likely suited at one of the nickel or dime spots.

Quincy Wilson and J.C. Jackson, two talented 2014 defensive back recruits, arrive in the fall and may have an opportunity to get in the mix but it will be interesting to see if anybody can step up in spring practice and nail down starting spots ahead of their arrival.

2) Can the Gators get better and more consistent production out of the safeties?

After getting stellar production out of Matt Elam and Josh Evans in 2012, the Gators safeties took a step back in 2013. Of course, that’s to be expected after losing your top two safeties and all that experience starting over with “green” players.  Don’t get me wrong, they had talent last season they were all just young and inexperienced and it showed. It’s not that their play was horrible, just inconsistent. Often guys were caught out of position, there were communication issues, and problems with tackling which is something you really can’t have from your safeties. Coming into spring practice the Gators have some solid talent returning and a couple of newcomers to add to the rotation.

Experienced returnees include senior Jabari Gorman, redshirt sophomore Marcus Maye, and true sophomore Keanu Neal. Redshirt freshmen Nick Washington and Marcel Harris will also figure into the mix at safety. Additionally, it’s very possible early enrollee Duke Dawson as well as incoming freshmen Quincy Wilson and Deiondre Porter could also get a look here.

It’s very imperative that the missed assignments and tackling problems from last season get solved before the start of next season. One of the biggest stats the staff tracks for both the offense and the defense is explosive plays which are plays of 20+ yards. Obviously, holding down the number of explosive plays your opponents create increases your chances of winning. Strong and consistent safety play is imperative to minimizing explosive plays. Simply put, Gators gave up far too many explosive plays last season. They will need to improve greatly in that area next season if they hope to rebound from last season’s train wreck. As such, the competition for both safety spots will be wide open through spring practice and hopefully a few guys will step up and provide some level of consistency at the position. There is a ton of potential across the defensive backfield, it’s time for players to step up and realize some of that potential.

3) Can the Gators shore up the middle of their defense?

With Shariff Floyd and Omar Hunter manning the interior of the defensive line along with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins at the inside linebackers spots, the Gators were solid against the run in 2012 finishing 2nd in the nation in run defense. Last season was a much different story, however, particularly after losing Dominique Easley to a season ending knee injury. Once again, the Gators were not horrible just terribly inconsistent. Once they got into the meat of their schedule against good running teams, the Gators struggled in stopping the run game. It’s not all on the line, however, as the new linebackers were often caught out of position, taking bad angles, or plain missing tackles.

With Easley and Damien Jacobs lost to graduation, once again the Gators will be replacing their top two defensive tackles. Back ups Leon Orr and Darious Cummings return as well as some new faces such as Caleb Brantley,  Jaynard Bostwick, and Antonio Riles. head coach Will Muschamp has made it very clear in the offseason that there are no incumbent starters. Every job is wide open and players must come prepared to compete or get passed by those who do. With the Gators rotating lineman in and out to maintain fresh legs, expect all five and possibly a couple of other players to get in the mix at tackle.

At linebacker, the Gators are loaded with junior Antonio Morrison and sophomore Jarred Davis back to man the Mike spot, as well as senior Michael Taylor and sophomore Daniel McMillan at the Sam linebacker spot. All four are talented players but all had their issues last season with gap assignments, technique, and tackling. They must improve collectively and individually this upcoming season.

Regardless of how the depth chart shakes out at defensive tackle and linebacker, the bottom line is the Gators absolutely must have better play across the board from the interior of their defense. Stopping the run and being sound in the interior is a must in Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin’s defensive schemes and it sets up everything else they do particularly against the passing game with their pressing man to man and pressure blitz packages.

4) Will the Gators be able to generate a significant pass rush?

This is not a new issue for the Gators, it’s a question which seemingly gets asked every season for the last several. The Gators have struggled with getting a consistent pass rush for quite a while. Whether from the inside or outside, the Gators haven’t been able to affect the quarterback enough to cause problems for the opponents passing game. All too often last season, opposing quarterback’s were able to drop back and make rhythm throws, as well as progress through their reads and cause havoc in the Gators defensive backfield.

Junior ends Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard are in their third year and, while they’ve played well in general, it’s time for them to step up and become the pass rush threats we all thought they would be when they signed with Florida. Hopefully the infusion of new talent, particularly Brantley and Bostwick, will help provide some interior pass rush like Floyd did so well getting into passing and scrambling lanes making it difficult for opposing qb’s to get comfortable in the pocket, make their reads, make good timing throws, and scramble for first downs. Bryan Cox, jr and perhaps Alex McAlister may step in as well and provide quality depth this season at the buck position, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position.

With the proliferation of spread offenses and teams which pass 30+ times per game, it’s become imperative that defenses be able to to get to the passer consistently, generating sacks and disrupting the timing and efficiency of opposing offenses. If they can do that successfully their odds of winning go up astronomically. The Gators will be giving everybody a look in the spring as they search for a pass rush and every player along the line will have an opportunity to step up and secure a starting spot or playing time at the least.

There is no substitute for a strong pass rush and the Gators will be seeking to identify players who can provide it.

5) While this isn’t really defense, one of the biggest questions for the team overall is can the Gators shore up their special teams?

Behind specialists like kicker Caleb Sturgis, who finished his Gator career as the school record holder in career field goals made, and punter Kyle Christy, special teams were indeed special and a team strength in 2012. Last season, they fell completely apart.

With sophomore Austin Hardin and Frankie Velez both struggling with accuracy, field goal kicking was an adventure and a lesson in futility last season while punter Kyle Christy, a Ray Guy award finalist in 2012 for the nation’s best punter, head scratchingly seemed to forget how to punt in the offseason. He couldn’t punt for distance or accuracy, often shanking punts and failing to pin opponents inside the twenty which is something he was very successful at one season before. It reached a point mid season where the staff lost all faith in him and replaced him with true freshman Johnny Townsend.

To try to get more consistency and production from the kicking spot the staff brought in a preferred walk on Brooks Abbott who had previously been a kicker at Virginia Tech before taking a season off at a junior college in Jacksonville. The three kickers will have an open competition for the job in the spring and fall and the staff is hoping at least one guy steps up in a big way.

Muschamp also brought in a new special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler who returns to Florida from New Mexico where he helped the Lobos greatly improve their special teams. Previously he was an assistant special teams coach under both Muschamp and Urban Meyer at Florida before taking over the special teams duties at New Mexico.

It will be very interesting to see what changes have been made in the offseason by the new special teams coordinator and if they’re able to get back to the level they were at in 2012 when they had one of the best units in the nation across the board. We’ll get our first look in spring practice.

While the Gators had an unusually difficult season in 2013, most experts believe it was an aberration due mostly to injuries and in part to youth and lack of solid leadership which often happens with young teams. The Gators will certainly need to develop some leadership moving forward and spring practice will be a chance for them to develop that on the practice field before the start of summer.

After suffering through the ignominy of last season’s 4-8 record, Gator fans are eager to see their team get back on the field and get back to work. Spring practice for the Florida Gators begins next Wednesday March 19 and will culminate in the Orange and Blue debut on April 12. Lots of questions abound as the Gators seek playmakers across the board and players try to secure their spot on the depth chart.

So I guess until then there is only one question left to answer?

Are you ready for some football?

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