The success of next year's defense depends on the players that are currently sophomores. That has Quinn optimistic because he feels like the biggest jump players make in college is from their sophomore to junior seasons.
"That's what I'm hoping for anyway," Dan Quinn said after Thursday's practice at Jacksonville University. "We've sure got some talented sophomores, and some of those guys had to go through some things for the first time. It was a different scheme and some in different spots, so I'm glad we had to go through that and play different things and more reps than you want. You can create a hardness of guys and the way we want to go about it. I'm looking forward to seeing progress that they can take from year two to year three."
The defensive line is the most dependent on players ending their sophomore seasons. Sophomores Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, as long as his ACL recovers for the start of the 2012 season, should anchor the interior of the defensive line. Ronald Powell is expected to start on one edge at defensive end.
Sophomore safety Matt Elam is second not he team with 72 total tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
With the trio of returning defensive linemen, Quinn is expecting the Gators to dominate the line of scrimmage next season. That's an area they struggled at all through the 2011 schedule. The extra year of playing time should give them a better understanding of what Quinn expects out of them.
"Back in the NFL with defensive linemen, sometimes they took a little longer. It almost was year two or three before they could really get it going, then they were 25 until you're about 30 where there was a window where you were really on top of your game as a defensive linemen. It was hard for the guys who were rookies or even second-year who had been playing against an offensive lineman that was working 7-9 years at their craft. It was on the details.
"As a college player early on, it's about getting on the field and seeing what you can do. Then as you're on the field, as you move on in your career, you want to get really good. Hopefully that's the progress we're making now as we move forward."
Just as NFL players improve throughout their careers, Quinn thinks that college players have more of a capacity to make that jump. They're younger in their athletic careers and still growing. That allows speed and strength to improve at bigger rates than it will when players are in their mid-20s and in the NFL.
"The size and strength gains are so much bigger when you're 19 or 20 compared to when you're 24 and 25, already fully developed," Quinn said. "To me, that's one of the things you like about college football and getting to develop guys and see how far you can get them to come in their careers."
The Florida secondary should also get a boost next season simply from players being a year older. The Gators started two freshmen and two sophomores in the secondary all season, and they showed improvement throughout the year. Quinn even said freshman safety Pop Saunders has been "one that has come on and done some good things" throughout the last few weeks.
The young secondary isn't thinking as much anymore. Instead, they're letting their instincts take over on the field and making more plays.
"That's one of the things that as a young player, I just want to get the call and get lined up," Quinn said. "Now, I can go a little further into it where I know the call, now what is likely to happen? What routes do they run out of this formation? That's what I've seen out of those guys."
The secondary continued to show improvement as the season wore on. Those improvements came with their play on the field, but it also came in the younger players being more vocal.
Soon after taking over the reigns to the defense, Florida head coach Muschamp and Quinn labeled Elam as a player that needed to become a leader in the secondary. His play was impressive during time in the game as a freshman, and he blossomed with a starting role.
Elam also got more vocal throughout the season, which started to spread throughout the defensive backs.
"It's our situation awareness," Quinn said. "Our third down defense, those guys deserve a lot of credit for that, knowing that on 3rd and 6, you play things differently on 3rd and 12 than on 3rd and 1. Those are things that stick out on the back end. They understand that when third down comes, you're going to hear the safeties talk and say, 'alright hey, it's 3rd and 8.'"