Florida Gators Defense: New Year, New Challenge

“I’m excited to see those guys get out there. We’ve got a great group of guys that are talented that can play the game the way we want it to be played and I’m looking forward. I think they’re going to go out there and do a great job.”

Florida Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin

New defensive coordinator leads a defense which lost a ton of talent from last season. Photo credit to foxsportsflorida.com

New defensive coordinator leads a defense which lost a ton of talent from last season. Photo credit to foxsportsflorida.com

Last season the Florida Gators put up a strong defensive effort finishing 5th in the nation in total defense, 4th in rushing defense, and 2nd in pass efficiency defense. After the season, however, the Gators lost a ton of defensive talent to graduation and to juniors leaving early for the NFL draft. Overall, they lost both starting defensive ends, a starting defensive tackle, both starting inside linebackers and both starting safeties. Seemingly,this should be a rebuilding year for the Gator defense. However, they do return their top three corners, have a lot of experienced talent returning at linebacker and on the line, and have a number of newcomers stepping onto the depth chart this season. Certainly there will be some drop off from last season’s amazing defensive run, but just how much depends on a couple of things. Namely, how do the returning players respond to moving into starting positions and how do the newcomers respond to playing in front of 90,000 people in the Swamp?

There are, however, reasons to be optimistic that this defense will be good. Let’s break it down by unit.

1) The corner back rotation is strong.

Loucheiz Purifoy returns to lead Gator defensive backfield. Photo credit to heavyinthegames.com

Loucheiz Purifoy returns to lead Gator defensive backfield. Photo credit to heavyinthegames.com

Arguably, this unit may be the nation’s best with Loucheiz Purifoy, who’s projected to be a first round draft pick should he leave after this season, Marcus Roberson, who will compete for All-SEC honors along with Purifoy, and Jaylen Watkins a three year starter at corner for the Gators. Purifoy is so good that the staff experimented with moving Watkins to safety in the spring and will use him in a variety of spots this fall.

Despite having only one season of experience, Purifoy is the star of the squad.  Long and rangy with speed, he’s one of the fastest players on the team overall, he fits the mold that Muschamp likes in his corners. At 6′ 0″, he’s able to play taller receivers straight up and can fight for jump balls. His long arms and big hands allow him to play strong press coverage and knock receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage. He also has good feet and hips which allow him to break on routes and on the football. Players and coaches alike love his talent and effort.

“Loucheiz is very physical,” according to defensive end Dante Fowler. “He has all the things that a corner back needs. He can press you, he can off-play you, and he’s very, very fast. I think he has all the tools to be a great corner back.

“I believe he’s growing,” defensive tackle Dominique Easley said. “He’s becoming more mature to the game. He has a year in experience, he played a lot last year so he knows the game. He knows how to prepare for the game, so he’s becoming older and better.”

“Loucheiz,” defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said, ” the best way to describe him is ‘he’s a competitor’. You see that. Whatever you ask him to do, he goes and does it really hard and does it well. He’s a guy that can help us in all three phases of the game.”

Adding, “he’s a tough guy.”

Roberson, going into his third year as a starter at corner back, was talented enough to start ahead of Purifoy as a true freshman. He’s another tall, rangy corner with good speed and athleticism, great feet and hands, and quick hips. He and Purifoy make it very tough on offenses to make throws downfield. They do a good job of keeping plays in front of them, they’re quick, sure tacklers, and they rarely let receivers get down the field. Their ability to play man press coverage sets the tone for the defense and allows the staff to do different things up front including stunts and blitzes.

Watkins is the wild card for this backfield. He’s a versatile player that can play multiple positions including corner, safety, nickel, and dime and allows the staff to get all three players on the field at the same time. Asked about Watkins versatility, Durkin responded:

“Love it. His versatility, obviously, it’s great as a coordinator when you have a guy who can do many things for you that’s helpful and he does them all well. As a leader back there for us, as a senior, a guy who’s played a lot of football for us, that’s been great.

“When you watched us last year those guys rotated all year long. Roberson, Purifoy, Watkins all rotated and we’re going to continue to do that. They’re all good football players, it doesn’t make sense to have just two of them playing and one watching.”

” We have a couple of different combinations and we use different packages on defense to get them all on the field.”

The fourth member of the corner rotation will be true freshman Vernon Hargreaves, the top high school corner in the country last season, who will see time providing depth at the position. Hargreaves is a coaches son who is extremely mature for his age and is likely the most talented corner coming out of high school since “Prime Time” Deon Sanders. Players and coaches have raved about his maturity, his work ethic, and his skill set.

“Vernon, he’s just a ball hawk,” said Dante Fowler. “He’s a playmaker.”

“His work ethic (is impressive),” added Dominique Easley. “He wants to learn, he’s in his book every day, and his ball skills (are impressive).”

2) The defensive line is deep, talented, and mature.

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

Dominique Easley returns for a potential All American senior season anchoring the middle of the Gator defensive line. Photo credit to sbnation.com

Despite losing it’s best player in Sharrif Floyd and both starting defensive ends, this year’s line may well end up being better overall. The two true freshman defensive ends, Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard, played early and often last season and gained a ton of experience. Their potential is so good that the staff moved Ronald Powell, the nation’s top defensive end in the 2010 class and returning from two ACL injuries, to outside linebacker. Despite playing only on instinct last season, both players really came on late in the season. With a strong offseason in the gym and training with the staff as well as watching film, these two are expected to have breakout seasons this year. On Dante Fowler, starting defensive tackle Dominique Easley remarked,

“Last year he was young. I believe he was just playing the game off his athletic ability. This year he knows the game, he knows how to study the game, so he’s much more advanced than he was last year.”

“Dante had a great camp,” corner back Jaylen Watkins said. “He took more strides than I’ve seen out of any freshman. Him playing a lot last year in those big games got him ready for being a starter this year. He’s definitely a mature guy. He was a mature guy coming in last year and that’s why he saw the field.

On Bullard, Easley said,

” Jon Jon he improved a lot. I know when he first came in he was very raw. He was just a very raw football player. But being able to have the off-season to get in shape, studying film, working on technique, and stuff like that, it’s going to bring a lot of confusion to offensive coordinators because he can play defensive end, defensive tackle. He can line up everywhere, he’s very versatile.”

Speaking of Easley, he returns for his senior season after questions whether he might turn pro after last season along with his classmate and line mate Sharrif Floyd. He’s another versatile guy who’s played both end and tackle throughout his Gator career but will be counted upon to man the middle this season in Floyd’s absence. He’s shown flashes of talent throughout his time in Gainesville that had him listed as the number two tackle in the nation (behind Floyd) coming out of high school. He has, however, been plagued by nagging injuries that have made him miss numerous games each season. Barring injury this season, the staff is expecting him to have a big season for the Gators. To his credit, Easley said the main reason he came back for his senior season is because his mother wants him to get his degree. That’s a big deal considering he has a child to support and most certainly would have been a decently high draft pick last season had he left. Another reason for coming back according to him is to establish his legacy at Florida.

“(I came back) for the simple fact that I don’t believe I left my mark here the way to wanted to leave it,” Easley said.

And how do he want to leave his mark at Florida?

“Be one of the best,” Easley said. “Be called a Gator great.”

Two other returning tackles poised to step up this season are Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs. Orr is a fourth year junior who has played a lot of snaps at Florida but will be counted upon as a starter and leader along the defensive line this season.

“Leon’s played his best football throughout this camp,” Durkin said. “He’s done really well. He’s embracing the role at being a veteran now, a guy that’s going to be counted on to play more snaps for us. He’s shown evidence on tape to be ready to do that. I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Senior junior college transfer Damien Jacobs is also expected to perform at a high level this season. The top junior college in the nation two season’s ago, he played a lot last season but still required some time to get acclimated to line play in the SEC. This season, with Floyd gone, he should see significantly more playing time and will be counted on as a veteran to both play well and help with bringing younger players along including fellow East Mississippi alum Darious Cummings.

A couple of young guys stepping into the rotation this season are redshirt freshmen Bryan Cox, Jr. and Alex McCalister. Both guys sat last season gaining weight and strength in the gym and learning technique and roles on the scout team. They’re both expected to provide solid depth this season as they step into the rotation.

“Bryan Cox is a high motor guy,” Durkin said. “Plays really, really hard, great effort. Always getting after it. That’s what we’re about on defense. He’s a physical guy.”

“Alex McCalister, he’s a guy that had to come in and redshirt a year and help get his body right. He was slender for the position. He still has a ways to go on that but he’s more in a position now where he can go out and help us and give us some snaps in the game. And we’re going to count on him to do that.”

“The whole deal is when those guys are in there, you got to play a hundred miles an hour when you’re in there. There can’t be any drop off. And I think those guys understand that and they’ll do that for us.”

3) Good mix of experience, depth, and talent at linebacker

Antonio Morrison steps in at middle linebacker this season. Photo credit isportsweb.com

Antonio Morrison steps in at middle linebacker this season. Photo credit isportsweb.com

Despite losing four year starter Jon Bostic and three year starter Jelani Jenkins after last season, this corps returns a mix of veterans and talented youth that ultimately may be an upgrade for them. True sophomore Antonio Morrison returns to man Bostic’s old spot, after playing backup to both Bostic and Jenkins last season. Morrison is a physically mature, hard hitter who made the play of the game against FSU last season when he knocked quarterback E.J. Manuel out of the game. He has a strong understanding of the defense and his role and is a natural at the position. He has a good nose for the football and loves to hit, something required in a good middle linebacker.

“He made it very clear that he likes hitting people,” Durkin said during the spring. “We like people who like hitting people on defense. He made that statement very clear early on. The players recognized it. The coaches recognized it. We knew we had something there.”

An offseason of work in the weight room has increased his size from the 220 range he played at last season up to 235 going into this season. Reports are that he hasn’t lost any of the quickness, speed, or violence he displayed last season. He will have to sit out the first game, however, due to a suspension for his offseason arrest for punching a bouncer.

In his place, Michael Taylor will start and will be counted upon for solid back up play throughout the season. A career backup, Taylor has nonetheless played a ton of snaps and the staff has full confidence in his abilities. Two more experienced veterans are Darren Kitchens and Neiron Ball two versatile players who will back up at middle and split time at weakside linebacker. Like Taylor, both of these guys have played a lot of football for the Gators and have a good understanding of the defense and bring solid talent to the positions.

“We have guys (at linebacker) Michael Taylor, Darren Kitchens, Neiron Ball, all guys with playing experience that have played a lot for us around here so I don’t see any drop off there (without Morrison),” said Durkin.

Coming off a lost season due to two ACL injuries, Powell returns and has made the switch from defensive end to strongside linebacker. Powell brings size, speed, and playmaking abilities to the position and is poised to have a breakout season this year. Just getting back on the field, though, will be a major accomplishment for him after reinjuring the knee after rehabbing the original injury.

“Well I think, you know, a guy who’s been though a tough deal,” head coach Will Muschamp said on Monday. “You go through two ACL’s the setbacks, and as hard as he worked to get back the first time, that’s what people don’t realize, I mean he was a guy who was probably going to end up playing for us the latter part of last season before the second tear happened.  So, a guy that’s just put so much in to, as a coach, you get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing somebody put so much into something, and now you’re going to see them have the benefits of going out and playing.  Which sometimes, that’s really what’s fun about playing college football.”

His maturity and experience will be counted on by the team on the field this season but it was his maturity off the field helping Fowler learn Powell’s old spot in the off season that really stand’s out.

” (Ronald’s) a guy that’s willing to take somebody under his wing, a young player, and help him develop.  That’s what good football teams do, that’s what good football programs do.  They help develop the young players within how we practice, how we approach meetings, all of the things we need to do to be successful, and that’s what we got a bunch of older guys that understand that now.

Behind the veteran’s there is a crew of true freshman from last season’s heralded recruiting class poised and ready to provide solid depth for the Gators this season. Of that group, Daniel McMillian is the star. He came in physically ready to play, much like Morrison did last season and his work ethic and desire have put him in the rotation this season backing up Powell at strongside.

“McMillian, he has a nose for the football,” Dante Fowler said. “He was meant to play linebacker. He’s a hard-nosed football player, he likes to stick his head in and he always wants to learn and he always wants to try and get better.”

Two other freshman, Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone will likely see time this season as well providing depth. Both guys came in with good size and are physically mature. Davis is a hard hitter and a natural at middle or strongside linebacker. Anzalone has size and speed and should see time backing up at weak and strong side linebackers.

“The young guys we brought in are going to play and compete and help us,” Durkin said. “And we’re very excited about where those guys are at through camp so I think we’ll be fine.”

4) The safeties are young but talented.

Probably the biggest concern after last season is the safety position where the Gators lost both starters and had zero experience behind them. Coming into the season, however, the staff feels much more comfortable. The reason is converted corner Cody Riggs and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye. The staff had done a lot of experimenting in spring and fall camps trying to find replacement at both positions including working three year starting corner Jaylen Watkins there. Cody Riggs, slightly undersized for the position was a pleasant surprise as he continually made plays and showed he had the talent and ability to fill in at Joshua Evan’s vacant free safety spot. Considering the amount of passing being done in the conference now, especially with more teams moving to the spread, free safety needs to have some corner skills and Riggs fits the bill perfectly.

Marcus Maye is another that has really stepped up in the offseason and showed he has the talent and desire to make an impact replacing three year starter Matt Elam at strong safety. Maye is a hard hitter with good ball skills that had shown the talent from the start but just needed a season to learn the defense. Apparently he learned a lot watching Elam last season. He and Riggs have huge shoes to fill but the staff and teammates have complete confidence in them.

“Marcus and Cody did a great job,” Jaylen Watkins said. “And that’s what we were looking for as a defense. Two guys to go back there and do their job.”

Behind them are junior Jabari Gorman, sophomore Brian Poole, and true freshman Keanu Neal. Gorman and Poole have both really stepped up in the offseason and have given the staff confidence that they will provide solid depth without a dropoff. Neal is a physically mature true freshman who might be the hardest hitter on the team and is strongly reminiscent of Matt Elam in stature and in his hitting ability. Both Poole and Jaylen Watkins will see time at safety and at nickel and corner in situations.

Overall, this team lost a ton of NFL caliber talent in the offseason, but returns a unit that is deeper, experienced in spots, and relying on some talented youth at some other. It appears to be a good mix and the staff is confident these guys can get the job done this season without a significant drop-off in production from last season. It may not happen right away, however.

“With any team it’s an ongoing learning process throughout the year,” Durkin said. “I think you talk about last year, we were a different defense in game 11 or 12 than we were in game 1. I don’t see that any differently now. We have guys that have played, we have good experience that are playing for us whether they were starters or not they’ve played a lot of football. And we’re going to continue to play a lot of guys. There will be some guys playing out there that haven’t played a college football game yet. It’s our job as coach to prepare them, get them ready. And I feel like we’ve done that. We’re going to continue to do that the next couple of days. I’m real excited to see our guys get out there.”

The season kicks off at 12:21 eastern in the Swamp against MAC foe Toledo University. Broadcast is on the SEC network. Check here for local broadcast affiliates.

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