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Five Keys to a Successful Gator Defense

Jun 05, 2014 -- 11:33am

By: Nick Joost (@joosyjoost)

If you have ever played competitive sports before, or heck, even if you’ve just been an avid watcher for a number of years, I’m sure you've heard all of the clichés and mantras that come along with the nature of sports—especially football.

Some are a bit flaky, but some hold true; here's the ones I can't stand:

  • “We must take this season one game at a time, and get better and better each week.” (A classic utterance coming from the broken record that was Ron Zook’s voice. By the way, has a team ever been able to skip over games, or play two games at once? Doesn’t every team have to take the season one game at a time?)
  • “All that matters is if you had fun!” (Yeah mom, we lost 63-0, but boy I sure had a ball out there! Oh, and did you see the part where nobody on our team scored a point?)
  • “You gotta give 110%!” (Scientifically not possible, but I get it…that mantra isn’t so bad.)

Ok, so we’re on the same page now I hope. I only say this because I wanted to bring up one of the classic football clichés that I’ve always been a big proponent of: Defense wins championships.”

Although you’ll eternally think of the great offenses of Florida’s championship years, there was never a time in which Florida's defense played second fiddle. Whether it was Bob Stoops’ Troops from ’96 to ‘98, or the NFL-laden defenses we enjoyed under Charlie Strong, Florida’s national title teams always featured a defense that could take over a game, if needed. In Florida’s three national championship victories, the Gator defense gave up 20, 14, and 14 points respectively. And remember, the defense really only gave up 7 points against Ohio State.

So what does this mean?

Maybe defense doesn't win championships, but it takes a great defense to win a championship-type game. Teams win championships. It takes a full team of championship-caliber players and coaches to come together for a season, and go all the way to bring back a ring.

The Gators haven’t had that under Muschamp; whether you believe the setbacks of the 2013 campaign happened because of injuries, coaching, talent, or because you lost your lucky Gator hat, which inadvertently cast a perpetual superstitious curse over Gainesville...you can’t deny the fact that Florida went 4-8 last season—a fact we certainly hope this 2014 season will help erase from our memory banks forever. You were all there, you saw it. But hey, in all kinds of weather, we stuck together…and now we just have three more months of waiting.

But were there any bright spots last season? Any areas we can look back on with some confidence?

I believe so, because the same team that could never get out of its own way, lost arguably its two most vital players by September, and had every reason in the world to throw in the towel and quit, did something pretty remarkable last season. When you consider how historically awful the Gator offense was, you have to at least give a tip of the proverbial cap to the defense, which finished second in total defense behind only Alabama, in the nation’s toughest conference.

In the four primary defensive statistics (rush, pass, scoring, and total defense), Florida finished no worse than three. Consider this, the Gator defense gave up just nine passing touchdowns in 2013…Texas A&M gave up 31. Through the first six games, the defense gave up an average of just 235 total yards, with only LSU eclipsing the 300-yard mark.

Steve Spurrier once said that statistics are for assistant coaches and losers. The Head Ball Coach is wise, but that doesn’t mean stats are irrelevant. It’s all we’ve got, and when you take a good hard look at the defensive stats, you’ll see that this year’s Gator defense has the potential to be one of the nation’s best.

The projected starting front seven consists of juniors and seniors, and the secondary may have more raw talent than ever before. With a little help from the offense, this year’s edition of the Gator D might end up being tops in the SEC. Here’s my 5 keys to make it happen:

The play of Florida's front four defensive linemen—finding a rotation and creating pressure on opposing QBs. One thing I do credit Muschamp with, is recognizing that the SEC is absolutely a line of scrimmage league. It just gets tiring to hear about it when the W's aren't lining up in your favor. But Muschamp is 100% correct, this means that the Florida defensive line can't be good, it must be great. Gator Nation, the potential is there for Florida to field a defensive line comparable to its 11-2 squad a couple years ago—perhaps even better if it can gain depth and remain healthy.

The starting four consists of Jonathan Bullard (Jr.) Leon Orr (Sr.) Darious Cummings (Sr.) and second-team All SEC'er Dante Fowler. It's a group that has everything you'd look for in an SEC defensive line—they're versatile, explosive, strong, and have loads of game day experience. All reports from Gainesville indicate that these four men, along with the linebackers, are the core of your defense which is ideal. The good news is Florida has plenty of depth here, with potential young starts Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, and Joey Ivie ready and waiting to step into the interior of the defensive line. Although providing depth, those players don't have as much game experience as you'd like, so their development throughout summer and fall camp will be vital to the defensive line.

Dante Fowler is poised to have a breakout season and he has the natural ability to become an All-American, Jevon Kearse type of player (Yes, I know Kearse played linebacker at UF, but you get it). Fowler should lead the team in sacks, which surprisingly, the greatest concern other than health for this group. In 2013, Florida finished with just 19 sacks—not even half of Missouri's league-leading 41 QB burials. Not a single Gator defender has sacked the quarterback more than four times in a year since 2011. The last time someone even came close to the 10-sack mark was...yeah, you guessed, during the Tebow days—2009 when Carlos Dunlap had nine and Jermaine Cunningham had seven. If Fowler can blossom into that dominating force at defensive end, there will be plenty of havoc surrounding the opposing backfield, which will be a sight for sore eyes for the Gator faithful.

One thing about Fowler is he's been a consistent starter since his freshman year, and the pro scouts who make a living breaking down game film project this guy to be a first rounder. Fowler has all the potential to become the force that Florida has been missing for so long.

But I look at Jonathan Bullard to be the key player on the line. Bullard, while not flashy and not one to wow you in the stat book, is the most versatile player of the group. Bullard can be counted on to take reps at defensive tackle and defensive end, something he's done in game situations and during the spring. When Bullard is able to line up inside, it creates a situation where Florida can tee off and really pressure the quarterback with speedy pass rushers who can come off the ball quicker. Look for Brian Cox, Alex McCalister, and even linebacker Daniel McMillian during these passing situations. Florida may have found all of the necessary ingredients to getting pressure on the quarterback—something that kills drives, creates momentum, and more importantly forces turnovers and rattles quarterbacks.

Win the turnover margin battle by 10+. You can't stress it enough. Defense may win championships, but turnovers dictate games—and that's why, year in and year out, the top ranked teams at the end of the season typically lead the nation in turnover margin. Florida's -2 margin is unacceptable for a Will Muschamp-coached team, and must be fixed if the Gators want to return to national prominence sooner rather than later. Granted, a key component to this ever so important stat is the offense, which did its fair share of mistaking a football for a bar of soap in 2013; but it also garners another point: If the Gator D can force more turnovers, it'll only create more opportunities for the offense to put points on the board—which brings me to my next point.

Other than Vernon Hargreaves, who will step up in the secondary? We all know by now that Hargreaves, a first-team All SEC corner and freshman All American, has the talent to join the likes of other Gator defenders who wore #1 at Florida—guys like Tony George, Keiwan Ratliff, and Reggie Nelson. With the departure of veterans Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy, and Jaylen Watkins, it is imperative for someone to fill the void left in the defensive backfield. Losing the three aforementioned players may be something of concern for Gator fans, but Will Muschamp has made it clear that he believes this group possesses more raw talent than any of his previous three seasons at UF. So who will play the role of next door neighbor to "Hargreaves Island?" My guess is Brian Poole, the nation's second-ranked defensive back coming out of high school in 2011. Poole is a natural talent and has shown ability in coverage, picking off two passes last year and recording 20 tackles.

Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye will likely start at the safety posistions. Both Gorman and Maye have experience and are very good tacklers, but Gorman has proven to be shaky at times and has blown coverages more than once in his career. There is a long list of young Gators..."chomping at the bit," if you will, to find the field in 2014. Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal, both prized recruits from a year ago have progressed well and are built like they came from a laboratory that designs the frame and physique of top-notch safeties. Neal especially could find himself on the field as a starter by the time the season kicks off. Not to be forgotten, freshman corners Duke Dawson and Jalen Tabor, who played very well in the spring will flourish as the season moves on. Also a player to keep an eye on—#22 Nick Washington from Jacksonville. Washington was injured last season, but has a knack for getting to the ball, which was made evident by his interception in the Orange and Blue Debut.

Rush Defense. The SEC East is as "wide open and quarantine" as Mick Hubert would say, than it has ever been. Personally, and I'm sure you all share this feeling as well, I am overjoyed to see the departure of Aaron Murray from Georgia, Connor Shaw from South Carolina, Zach Mettenberger from LSU, and James Franklin from Missouri. If there's a fan base that understands the struggles and risks of replacing quarterbacks, it's the University of Florida.

With that said, of the 12 teams Florida will face this season, six are equipped with at least one running back who will probably make a living playing football on Sundays soon. The Gators' front seven will be challenged week in an week out against some of the top running backs in the country. Starting with Alabama's three-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, and Derrick Henry—combined, they rushed for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Terrance Magee of LSU averaged 7.6 yards per carry, Vandy's Jerron Seymore ran for over 700 yards and 14 touchdowns. Then there's the most lethal 1-2 punch in the nation—Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall from UGA. Additionally, the Gators will face Mike Davis, a 1,000 yard rusher from South Carolina and Karlos Williams from Florida State.

Gentlemen of the Gator D, your work is cut out for you.

Who will be the leader of this unit? Before the Missouri game, four Gator captains walked to midfield before the coin toss. Two were senior linemen, Jon Harrison and Jon Halapio, the third, Dante Fowler, and the fourth, a true freshman, was a player largely unknown among Gator fans—Jarred Davis.

Davis, a three-star recruit coming out of high school quickly became an integral part of the defense as injuries continued to plague the Gators, and he made an immediate impact not only on the field, but inside the locker room. Will Muschamp calls him one of the most respected players on the team by both the coaches and players.

Last year, Florida lost its leader in Dominique Easley early in the year, and his absence was clearly evident in many situations throughout last season. The Gators need more players like Davis to step up this season and refuel the identity of the Florida defense.

Vernon Hargreaves and Dante Fowler are both cemented as team leaders, but the Gators will need the attitude shared by Davis, Hargreaves, and Fowler to become contagious. One of the few flaws of this unit over the past few years has been its consistent undisciplined style of play, often committing foolish and costly penalties. I think the young men inside that locker room know more than anyone else, while it may not take one single individual to be the face of the defense, the majority of the success of 2014 will lie on their shoulders. It's time for players like Antonio Morrison, Mike Taylor, Neiron Ball, and Darrious Cummings to step up and take charge as a whole. If that can happen, this could be one of the best defenses to come around Gainesville in quite some time.

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