August 28, 2007

New faces step in on defense for the Gators

Overwhelming Troy Smith didn't require much creativity.

The Florida Gators just unleashed a beat-your-blocker pass rush that left Smith, Ohio State's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, rattled like a mouse in a full room full of tomcats.

The Gators toyed with Smith. He was shaken. And eventually he was pounced upon and consumed by the ferocious Florida defense. The Gators sacked Smith for more yards in losses than he managed to gain passing.

Make no mistake, defense was the primary reason Florida romped to a 41-14 victory in January's BCS national championship game. A largely unproven defense will probably determine whether the Gators can contend for another championship or fall back among the B-list teams destined for lower-tier bowl games.

Nine starters have departed from the unit that so confounded Smith. Seven of them were selected in the NFL Draft, including first-round picks Jarvis Moss and Reggie Nelson.

That leaves the Gators defense with several holes. Florida expects to start five sophomores and a redshirt freshman on defense this season, which coach Urban Meyer acknowledged will require a much different approach than a year ago.

The hit-in-the-mouth style of '06 will be replaced by sucker punches in '07.

"I think the creativity on defense and the defensive staff is going to be significant this year," Meyer said. "You don't have Reggie Nelson you can keep looking, but those are rare players. You don't have a Jarvis Moss.

"But instead of worrying about that the coaching staff is going to have to pick up their creativity to make sure that we're giving these guys the tools to win. I think our defensive staff is really going to earn their coaching stripes this year. That's a major issue."

However, talent is not an issue.

Seven of this season's projected starters were ranked four- or five-star recruits by Rivals.com. Three others were three-star prospects. That includes defensive end Derrick Harvey, a former five-star prospect who sacked Smith three times in the national championship game. Senior safety Tony Joiner, another former three-star recruit, had 59 tackles, eight passes defended and two interceptions last season.

"This might be one of the youngest groups I've ever worked with," co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "I can't remember going into a meeting room where there were so many young kids that we were counting on. The good thing is that I don't know if I've ever been in a room where there is that much talent, either."

That's especially the case at linebacker where sophomores Dustin Doe and Brandon Spikes and redshirt freshman A.J. Jones are likely to comprise a completely knew corps.

None of last season's starters Earl Everett, Brandon Siler and Brian Crum posted outrageous tackle numbers. Only Siler a seventh round choice was drafted, but linebackers were considered an area of strength.

There is speculation that the Gators will remain strong at linebacker and in time may actually get better. The highly touted Spikes, a five-star prospect a year ago, is expected to be an anchor in the middle.

"I have the responsibility as the middle linebacker of making sure that everything is balanced," Spikes said. "To me, age is just a number and it doesn't matter as long as you can handle the competition and make the plays. These guys are hungry and they want to get in there, and that can only make the team better."

Better?

The Gators should settle for anything approaching just as good as last season. Perhaps the biggest issue that may prevent them from reaching that level even more than youth and replacing starters is depth.

Florida has players like Spikes who could step in and play well in spots last year. When defensive tackle Marcus Thomas was suspended and defensive tackle Javier Estopinan was lost to injury, the Gators had sufficient depth to absorb those setbacks.

They won't have that kind of depth this season, especially in the secondary. Joiner is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield. An area of strength has become an area of concern, especially with the schedule listing five opponents that last season ranked among the nation's top 30 in passing offense.

Yet, Joiner remains stubbornly optimistic that the Gators defense will be remodeled more than rebuilt.

"I have seen talented groups of guys that know what is in our reach and know what we can accomplish," Joiner said. "I have plenty of confidence in the young guys we have now. We have a talented group of young guys and we have a bunch of eager guys ready to get on the field who want to step up and play for us this year."

The greatest asset a defensive back has is a strong pass rush. The Gators' new starters in the secondary have the luxury of playing behind Harvey, who emerged as one of the country's best rushers a year ago. He had 10 sacks last season and is expected to approach that total again this year.

"I need to do more than I did last year and help the team out," Harvey said. "It's a challenge, but I'm up to it."

Whether the Gators can mount consistent pressure with their front four is unknown. Harvey will routinely face double-teams. Jermaine Cunningham, Moss' replacement at the other end, only had two tackles and no sacks in 2006.

"Last year we were able to pressure with four defenders," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "We didn't want to run a lot of zone blitzes because we didn't want the pass rushers taken out. If this year we can't create pressure with four, then we will have to get creative and create ways to get sacks and stop people."

MORE ON THE STATE OF FOOTBALL IN FLORIDA:
Shannon bringing swagger back at Miami | Florida State revamps coaching staff
Balance of power always shifting | South Florida program making quick progress

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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