Post-Spring Perspective: The Front Seven

Everyone knew coming into the 2011 season the Florida Gators have to get more of a pass rush on defense if a quality defense from a year ago was going to make strides to get better. The ends were solid but not spectacular a year ago and rarely provided a lot of push. The Gators should get more in 2011, and it will likely come all across the line.

There was one significant injury this spring keeping senior Jaye Howard out of the mix on the defensive line, but what it afforded was a lot of quality time for sophomores Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd to work together up front. Combine that with an injury to junior Omar Hunter that saw him miss all of the preseason workouts and slow him a bit, Easley and Floyd dominated the practice time inside on the defense line.

That allowed the coaching staff to really see what the two young guys were made of and push them to their limits time and time again. The two did well and have formed a bond that should transfer over to the field even more as they continue to work together.

It also allowed the staff to see their strengths as players and now they understand in a 3-4 defensive set, the two can be used as ends in a big front, even with just three players. Both have good explosion and more than ample size and should be out there when the team goes to that 3-4 in a run stopping defense.

That leaves Hunter, who lost his starting role really to start the spring since he missed all of the preseason workouts. Hunter wasn't able to regain that role as one of the starters in a 4-3, but will likely be the starter as the nose tackle in the 3-4, with Easley and Floyd on the edge.

Of course that could all change with the return of Howard who could end up anywhere but at the BUCK/weak side end on the defensive line when he is healthy and ready.

Howard has a lot of experience and a ton of ability and quickness to think he won't be a huge factor among the top four guys.

Depth was also a positive this spring as Leon Orr had a very healthy and fruitful transition from offense before the spring and did well. He will add quality depth with his physical ability, but his inexperience at playing on defense at all, will mean he will see less time in year one on that side of the ball.

On top of all of this, Earl Okine provided some quality time inside and we hear he has had a great transition in terms of attitude with his teammates since the end of last season. It is like a new life for Okine right now.

On the outside, the development of Lerentee McCray has allowed the growth of Ronald Powell at the BUCK and to play more with his hand down than expected. McCray has moved back and forth from defensive end, linebacker, and BUCK and ended the spring as the starter at SAM linebacker. We will get back to him when we talk about the linebackers.

Powell, brings instant pass rush and off-the-edge speed that the Gators did not have a year ago. The sophomore form California will play the BUCK, which will allow him to stay on the field as much as he can physically do, but will now put him with his hand down more than he was scheduled to do when the spring started.

McCray will also supply some depth at the weak side end/BUCK position.

Another player that has seemingly shown improvement this summer is senior defensive end William Green. Green is the current starter opposite Powell in the 4-3 and is technically the strong side end in this defense. We have been waiting to see it from green for three years and indications are it is now really starting to happen for him.

Pushing Green at defensive end is freshman Chris Martin. Martin will play both sides and will play the BUCK as well allowing him to play an outside linebacker position in the 3-4. We saw Martin get to the quarterback a lot last Saturday in the scrimmage and he has exceptional quickness for a guy his size. His quickness and power allow him to play a little undersized as an end, but he will still play there because of his pass rushing ability as well.

4-3 Depth Chart after Spring
DE: William Green, Chris Martin
DT: Sharrif Floyd, Omar Hunter
DT: Dominique Easley, Leon Orr
BUCK/DE: Ronald Powell, Lerentee McCray
SAM: Lerentee McCray, Gerald Christian/Darrin Kitchens
MIKE: Jon Bostic, Michael Taylor
WILL: Jelani Jenkins, Dee Finley

At linebacker Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic have been exceptional this spring and Bostic is playing above the level he played at last fall. The two are inseparable off the field as well and are always seen hanging together.

The surprise as I hinted above has been the play of Lerentee McCray. Thought of more as a straight ahead runner, McCray was moved to defensive end a year ago, but even though he has bulked up quite a bit, he is now running with the first team at SAM linebacker and would also be a starting outside backer in a 3-4 set.

As I mentioned McCray's improved play and his size has allowed Powell to be more of a pass rusher, but Powell will definitely see a lot of time as an outside linebacker as well, especially when they switch to a 3-4 set up.

The 3-4 moves Jenkins to a middle linebacker spot, but the WILL actually has a lot of the same duties as the MIKE in a traditional defense anyway, so he won't be playing out of position. Jelani played a lot of MIKE or middle linebacker a year ago anyway, so it would be nothing new to him.

One impressive player that plays the game nasty is Michael Taylor. We saw Taylor fight through his own teammates to get to the ball carrier at times on Saturday as his drive to get the tackle is greater than most anyone on the team. The problem is he plays reckless at times, tackling too low and vicious, and it costs him. If he can channel that aggression, he will push the starters with his athletic ability, despite his non prototype size.

Dee Finley has stepped his game up a notch as well. He isn't lost in the shuffle anymore, but is still fighting to get in with that first group. Gerald Christian, Darrin Kitchens, and Gideon Ajagbe are all great athletes that will add depth and have a chance to get on the field this year.

3-4 Depth Chart after Spring
DE: Sharrif Floyd, William Green
NG: Omar Hunter, Leon Orr
DE: Dominique Easley, Chris Martin
OLB: Lerentee McCray, Chris Martin/Dee Finley
MLB: Jon Bostic, Mike Taylor
MLB: Jelani Jenkins, Darrin Kitchens
OLB: Ronald Powell, Gerald Christian

In all, it is a front seven that looks faster than a year ago and brings an edge to them that the 2010 group didn't have. Jaye Howard will make this a better group than it was in the spring, as will a healthy Omar Hunter.

The nasty streak of an Easley or Powell or Martin to go along with the hard hitting style of a Jelani Jenkins should make this as hard hitting a group as we have seen up front in a few years.

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