For all the hype surrounding Chris Leak, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, the 2006 National Championship was largely won on the strength of a ferocious defense. Defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey relentlessly pressured the quarterback, linebackers Brandon Siler and Earl Everett stopped all runners and Reggie Nelson patrolled the defensive backfield with shocking ferocity. The 2007 unit had Derrick Harvey and...not much else. It was ranked 41st in the country, 98th (!) against the pass. Youth, inexperience and a lack of talent at a couple key positions combined to produce a defensive unit that could not stop anyone at crucial moments.
The 2008 defense projects better, if only because many of the key players have another year of experience. Exactly how much better is perhaps the most important question facing the Gators.
Defensive Line: DEs
Derrick Harvey bolted for the NFL after his junior year, but Florida appears to have another set of talented defensive ends. They won't replicate the production of the 2006 Moss/Harvey duo or the terror those two inspired, but they should be able to chase down the quarterback often enough to help the secondary.
Junior Jermaine Cunningham is not a dynamic, freakish pass rusher like Harvey or Moss, but he's a solid player and was probably Florida's second-best defender in the 2007 season. He recorded 64 tackles as a sophomore, including 17 in the loss at LSU. Cunningham's 6 1/2 sacks weren't extraordinary, but it was a respectable total. He's "only" 6-3, 250 lbs, so he doesn't profile as a future top NFL draft choice, but at the college level he'll anchor Florida's line.
The future superstar on the line is sophomore Carlos Dunlap, who is a freak in the Jevon Kearse/Moss/Harvey mold. Listed at 6'6, 290 pounds in the media guide, published reports indicate that he's at least an inch or two taller than that. After a largely ineffective true freshmen campaign, Dunlap shredded an admittedly paper thin offensive line in the spring game; he registered four "sacks" and practically pitched a tent in the offensive backfield. He'll probably struggle against the run, but if UF's going to generate a pass rush from the front four, it'll come from Dunlap.
Backing those two up will be a handful of under classmen, foremost among them sophomore Justin Trattou. He showed flashes of excellence as a true freshmen, compiling 20 tackles, 6 1/2 for a loss, and 3 1/2 sacks. For a true freshmen moving back and forth between the DE and DT positions, those are impressive numbers. He'll be a huge part of UF's defensive line rotation.
Fellow sophomore Duke Lemmens played played in 11 games as a true freshmen last year. He didn't make too much of an impression, recording just six tackles. But he was a well-regarded recruit out of California and should join Trattou in the rotation.
A couple true freshmen fill out the rest of the depth chart. William Green, a four star recruit Florida was able to pluck out of Alabama, has impressed coaches and should see action in passing situations. Earl Okine, a 6-7 monster from Gainesville High, might redshirt.
Defensive line: Defensive Tackles
Quite possibly the weakest position group on the team. Florida doesn't lack for talent, but there are no Marcus Thomas types in this group. The Gators will once again have issues pushing the pocket from the middle of the line.
The DT position is unsettled, but one of the starters should be redshirt sophomore Lawrence Marsh. I know very little about him. He's listed as a DE, but at 305 pounds (per GatorZone), he appears to have moved to the interior permanently. Marsh played sparingly last year and has impressed coaches this fall. So...yeah. There you go.
There's a lot of uncertainty behind Marsh. Junior college transfer Troy Epps seems to be in the driver's seat for the other starting position. He's listed at 6'1, 292 pounds and (evidently) dominated while playing for JUCO juggernaut Coffeyville Community College. Epps didn't impress much in the spring, but the fansite reports indicate he dropped fat and added muscle in the summer. No idea how true that is.
After Epps there's a scrum for the remaining spots in Florida's rotation. Senior Javier Estopinan has torn his ACL three different times and is more of an inspirational figure than a legit tackle. Redshirt freshmen Jaye Howard should contribute. Sophomore Terron Sanders played in only six games last year but seems to be in the rotation. Redshirt freshmen John Brown, one of the prizes in Florida's 2007 recruiting class, will also play and might represent the best shot the Gators have at finding a more than adequate tackle.
A handful of other players deserve mention, though they might not rack up a lot of playing time. True freshmen Omar Hunter out of Georgia was the best recruit in Meyer's 2008 recruiting class after being pulled away from a verbal commitment to Notre Dame. He's a huge talent, but a back injury has set him back to the point where he only started practicing late this week. No one's sure how much playing time he'll get.
True freshmen Matt Patchan was one of the nation's top offensive tackle recruits, but he was so fierce in spring practice that the coaching staff moved him to the defensive line. He'll rotate between the DT and DE spots.
Redshirt junior Ronnie Wilson was kicked off the team in early 2007 after an incident where he fired a gun over the head of someone who had annoyed him. He had played a lot as an offensive guard on the 2006 team, and would still be the starter if not for the incident. Wilson's scholarship was revoked, but he's worked his way back on the team as a defensive tackle. He'll miss the opener with Hawaii because of a sprained ankle. His season beyond that remains a question mark.
Junior middle linebacker Brandon Spikes will lead this unit. Spikes was one of the few Florida defenders who could have been accurately described as an above average player in 2007. He was credited with 131 tackles, 81 solo, and generally played well. At 6'3, 245 pounds, he lacks truly impressive speed and isn't much of a blitzer, but he's a strong tackler and acceptable in pass coverage. He'll be the "spiritual leader" of the defense, for whatever that's worth, and is a candidate to leave early for the NFL.
He'll play alongside fellow junior Dustin Doe, a 6'0, 230 pounder who lacks Spikes' size but makes up for it by running with the grace and speed of his namesake. Recovered a fumble and returned for it a touchdown against Tennessee, but aside from that he wasn't much of a playmaker in 2007. He did record 85 tackles last year and has played in 27 games in his career, so experience won't be a problem.
Doe and Spikes will have to make up the relative weakness of weakside linebacker A.J. Jones. Jones, a redshirt sophomore, played in all 13 games last year and started nine of them. I don't remember him making a single play.
Florida has good depth at the position. Jones will be backed up by sophomore Lorenzo Edwards and true freshmen Lerentee McCray. McCray's a swift, thin linebacker, but he's impressed coaches with his playmaking ability in fall camp. If Jones continues his non-entity performance, Meyer will have options to replace Sophomores Brandon Hicks and John Jones will back up Doe on the strong side. Dustin's probably more entrenched in his position.
The Gators don't have great depth behind Spikes. Redshirt junior Ryan Stamper is the only viable back-up at the middle linebacker position after freshman Brendan Beal tore his ACL. If anything happens to Spikes, Florida is in a world of hurt.
Oh, worth mentioning is true freshmen TJ Pridemore, who was Omar Hunter's high school teammate and possibly the price of signing the megastar DT. He likely won't see a lot of important time as a linebacker, but look for him as a blocker in goal line situations.
I rather bizarrely find myself cautiously optimistic about Florida's corners. I say bizarrely because, of course, UF's cornerbacks humiliated themselves throughout the 2007 season. They were short, they were young, they were inexperienced and they made sure everyone knew it. The Capital One Bowl was their crowning moment of shame, allowing a mediocre Michigan offense to rack up but 1,962 total yards. But the Gators have some talent here, and more importantly, they have enough names to fill out a depth chart.
The top cornerback will sophomore Joe Haden, who played that role for Florida last year with little success. Haden's got decent size (he's about 6'0, give or take an inch, and about 200 lbs, give or take a pound), excellent speed and surprising strength. You never want to see your cornerback racking up the tackles, but Haden picked up 63 of them last year and dealt out a surprising amount of punishment. Unfortunately, he only intercepted one pass, and it came on a dropped ball against LSU. But I'm optimistic because Haden was playing corner for the first time in his life last year. He was recruited as an "athlete" out of high school and was supposed to be in UF's receiving corps. But he was moved to corner out of necessity, and considering the circumstances he did the best he could. I'm hopeful that his second year as a defensive back will be a more productive one.
I'm less sanguine about the prospects for Florida's number two corner, junior Wondy Pierre-Louis. Wondy's got good size (he's 6-1) and impressive overall athleticism, but his speed and general skillset haven't been terribly impressive. He did intercept two passes last year, which isn't a good total but tied him for the team lead. That should tell you quite a lot about UF's pass defense. He was a solidly below-average player as a sophomore, and while I expect improvement, there's no reason to expect him to really impress.
There will be a scrum for the playing time afforded when UF goes to nickel and dime formations. Fortunately, the Gators have good numbers at the cornerback position. Markihe Anderson played as a nickelback in 2006 and would have been a starter last year were it not for a pre-season injury. He didn't impress when he played last year, but no one did in that secondary. He's probably ahead in this race because the other competitor, redshirt Jacques Rickerson, was probably Florida's worst cornerback in 2007. He might have improved, but I've read nothing to that effect.
True freshmen Janoris Jenkins, a top-ten high school cornerback, will push for playing time and probably get it. Sophomore Moses Jenkins is tall at 6-2 and recorded a sack against Florida State, which is pretty much the extent of his contributions so far. Two true freshmen, Adrian Bushell and Jeremy Brown, will likely redshirt.
This was supposed to be a position of great depth for the Gators. But Jamar Hornsby was kicked off the team, Jeremy Finch transferred and Dorian Munroe tore his ACL. Those defections, combined with five star recruit Dee Finley's failure to qualify academically, have left Florida with a talented but depleted depth chart.
Sophomore Major Wright will start at free safety. (Or strong safety. We don't know yet, and it probably won't make much difference) Played in every game as a true freshmen and started seven of them after it became clear Kyle Jackson simply could not play football at the SEC level. Wright's a big hitter and turned around the Auburn game by forcing a fumble after one of the Tigers' broke a big run. He had 67 tackles and four forced fumbles as a true freshmen, both impressive numbers. Not easily available on the internet were the number of times he screwed up pass coverage responsibilities, but there were quite a lot of them. He was a true freshmen learning on the job, so I won't judge him too harshly. If he can improve in that area, he'll be an outstanding player. If he can't, he'll still be better than Kyle Jackson.
Starting beside him will be sophomore Ahmad Black, a converted cornerback who checks in at 5'8, 190 pounds. Those measurements do not inspire confidence. He played in seven games last year and...did nothing, so far as I can remember. But he'll be the starter until he's unseated by...
True freshmen and mega recruit Will Hill. 6'2, 205 pounds and blazingly fast, Hill was one of the country's very best recruits. Parade All-American, participant in ESPN's All American Game, etc. And Florida fans are desperately hoping he'll live up to that hype. He'll come off the bench for awhile, but hopefully he'll play so well that he'll take over for Black by the Ole Miss or Arkansas games. It's hard to imagine Black being a truly effective safety, though I'm sure he'll give it an admirable effort.
Backing up those three are a collection of walk-ons and converted receivers. The receiver is redshirt sophomore Justin Williams, who has good size and intercepted a couple passes in Florida's first fall scrimmage. He probably won't contribute a whole lot this year, but it's good to have him on the depth chart. Sophomore Bryan Thomas is actually a safety, but he's missed fall practice after surgery to remove a cyst from his knee. No idea when he'll return.
Urban Meyer is a special teams acolyte and coaches the various units himself. As a result, UF's special teams units have become a decided plus for the team. The Gators return punts well and simply don't allow opponents to return them. They block kicks and keep the other guys from blocking kicks. About the only thing they don't do consistently well under Meyer is kick field goals.
Kickers and Punters
Two players continue to battle for the right to boot footballs through the uprights for the Gators. Senior Jonathan Phillips came in as a well-regarded high school kicker and hasn't done anything for Florida except shank extra point attempts. True freshmen Caleb Sturgis comes in as a well-regarded high school kicker and...well, let's hope this sentence ends with a better clause than the previous one did. I actually got a chance to watch Sturgis kick while I was covering a high school football game in Baker County, Florida. He's got a big-time leg and is more than capable of converting field goals from 50+ yards. (I saw him do that several times at halftime without the aid of a tee) Meyer's a little down on Sturgis' accuracy, but I have to imagine Sturgis will win the job eventually.
There's no such competition at punter. Sophomore Chas Henry has the job locked down. He only averaged 39.3 yards per punt, but the important statistic is net average. Florida ranked ninth in the country in net punting average, thanks to the team's preternatural coverage unit. Henry averaged 39.3 yards per punt, and his net punt average was 39.27. Hell, the Gators only allowed five punt returns period in 2007. Summing up: when the Gators punt, just fair catch.
Brandon James, Brandon James, Brandon James. Shifty and explosive, this is where James really earns his scholarship. He's a threat to score on every return and is especially dangerous on punts, where Florida ranked seventh in return average.
Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey will probably see some time returning kicks in mop-up situations, but this is James' role.
Tomorrow: Schedule and Prospects