"On defense, we return 15 of our 16 top tacklers, so that's exciting," Will Muschamp told the crowd of reporters. "We had a lot of first-year starters last year. Defensively going into last season, we had (fewer) starters than anyone else (returning) in the SEC. That attributed a lot to our inconsistent play across the board. That's where we need to improve there.
"When you talk about names like Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, Ronald Powell, Matt Elam, Josh Evans, Jelani Jenkins, all of those guys were first-time starters last year for an entire season, I think are really good football players. We inherited a good, young talented team. All those guys back, a year more maturity. I'm excited about what we can do on that side of the ball."
Here is this man's idea of how the two-deep looks heading into two-a-days and removing the players that are injured and can't play to start the year.
Jr. Dominique Easley (6-2, 286)
Fr. Jonathan Bullard (6-4, 260)
The best news for the defense is that the combination of Dominique Easley moving outside with his quick first step to play the big defensive end position along with Sharrif Floyd moving inside should produce more pass rush than the opposite, or so it seems. At 286 pounds, Easley is going to be a bear for offensive tackles with his size and we have already noted the quick first step they will have to deal with.
I am taking a leap of faith with Jonathan Bullard and really sure he will arrive on campus in August, and I also believe he will be in the two-deep very early. My understanding is that he is that good. His emergence could really allow them to do some really big things up front. And really help generate a pass rush.
The Bottom Line: This position should generate much more production in 2012, the players there will just be better. They will be bigger and more stout against the run and their quickness should actually allow for a better pass rush from that side of the defensive line. Guys like Earl Okine will likely remain in the shadows.
Jr. Sharrif Floyd (6-3, 305)
Jr. Damien Jacobs (6-3, 290)
Floyd may be the happiest player on campus when fall practice starts. He is back at his natural position and should be a beast from there. We saw it in the bowl game just how productive he can be. He will of course still get snaps on the outside when they want to go big and they can move Easley to the other end spot.
Jacobs came to Florida fat and sloppy and we noted that in our remarks in the first two days of spring ball that we were allowed to watch. By the end of the spring, he was trimmed down and looked like a whole different animal in the spring game. He has publicly commented about his body transformation and now the staff is really high on his prospects to play at an SEC level. Time will tell, but this is one junior college transfer that may work out.
The Bottom Line: Again with Floyd here it makes this position better than a year ago. With a defense returning 9-10 starters, to have two positions already better than a year ago is a very good boost moving forward. Floyd has a quickness that lets him be a very effective pass rusher from inside and Jacobs has the same type of tools, but not quite as gifted.
Hunter is the closest thing the Gators have to a monster nose tackle. He is quicker than most at the position and maybe hasn‘t shown quite the power as some of the best. He has a lot of football under his belt and got better last year as the season progressed.
Orr will have his chance to play a lot more with Easley playing on the outside. Orr has all the physical ability to play the nose, but has to stay low when he attacks the snap of the ball. He's a guy that is still learning how to play defense a great deal.
The Bottom Line: I keep hearing that this will be the year for Hunter. It is his ‘contract year' so to speak in terms of the NFL looking his way. He is in the best shape of his life and knows he has to play at a high level. He also has a bunch of people around him that know what they are doing, which will make a big difference than the start of last season. Orr is still a work in progress, but has the ability to play in the SEC and Will Muschamp has said as much this summer.
With junior Ronald Powell out for at least most of this season, the BUCK position is one that will be in flux and have a few guys being worked in there to try and produce. At this time it appears that McCray is the guy that would get the first crack with his size and physical attributes and ability on the field. McCray could actually be the best straight ahead speed pass rusher on the squad. He is a bullet when he gets a straight path to the ball carrier.
It is time for Johnson to make a move before he runs out of time to do so. He is a red-shirted junior with very little time on the field in his career. Some early career off-the-field issues have kept him at arm's length of the two-deep but most or all of that seems to be behind him now. We shall see what he can do.
Muschamp says:"Lerentee was a guy that was banged up a little bit last year. I held him, he probably could have gone. Can play both outside linebacker positions and can give us some edge rush in our four-down package.
"Ronald Powell has been cleared for all weight room activities. He's squatting, doing everything, been cleared for straight-ahead running. He's not changing direction or taking on blocks right now. As any of you know with an ACL situation, that always takes time. That last 20%, as you work through that, is always critical to see how quickly you can return. He'll play for us this year. When that will be? I don't know yet. There's nobody that's worked harder or handled the situation better or more mature than Ronald has. He's grown up through the summer."
The Bottom Line: The defense as a whole will get better when Powell returns to this position. Physically he is the perfect fit and he improved dramatically as the season progressed. I am not buying the early to mid-October return and they say that is best case scenario. Is a November return a good thing for Powell? If he is 100% and cannot hurt himself then yes it is.
In the meantime, McCray and a host of others will have to man the fort and McCray has a really good chance of impressing NFL teams that run a 3-4 scheme as he will be able to show his pass rushing skills and linebacker abilities as well.
Again, this position will be manned a lot by McCray, but with McCray up front, I am having to guess a bit at who the starter will be. Although he sat out last year with his medical condition, we are hearing that Ball has looked very strong in the offseason and is prepared to do work. He may the biggest positive surprise for the team in the offseason.
It is strange that he and Kitchens have the exact same measurables. One thing you have to say about Kitchens is that when he was asked to take the field last year because of injuries, he produced. He led the team in tackles with 12 when he started against Furman, and he has been a special teams dynamo as well. Coaches tend to like the special teams guys, but for some reason Kitchens hasn't been on the field a whole lot. Muschamp made it a point to say this summer that Kitchens is an excellent player.
The Bottom Line: When McCray can move back here with Powell's return, the SAM position gets stronger. In the meantime this and the BUCK will likely be the defense's biggest questions in 2012. But they may just have answers as well.
Often scrutinized, I swear if Bostic came out in the first two games and had two or three monster hits he would be a lot more of a fan favorite than he stands today. The fact is, he played at a very high level last year and despite the constant praise from his coaching staff he was scrutinized a good deal from the fan base. He is now a preseason coaches' All-SEC pick and for a reason.
Taylor is the hitter of the linebacker group and if not for his lack of sheer speed, he would be on the field a lot more. A great backup, he will get his chance to start in 2013 and allow them to maybe move Bostic around if they want.
Muschamp says: "Jon was our leading tackler last year, had a solid junior season. (I am) looking for him to take the next step as far as leadership and those things are concerned. I thought he did a great job in spring."
The Bottom Line: It is a strong position with quality depth. Bostic will be better simply because of the maturity of the guys in front of. A year ago the linebackers were eaten up a lot because of players being out of place up front, that will happen far fewer times in 2012.
Jr. Jelani Jenkins (6-0, 235)
Fr. Antonio Morrison (6-1, 216)
Jenkins has much of the same fate as Bostic in the eyes of the fans. He just doesn't get the respect he deserves. He is a hitter, but maybe his biggest draw back from last season was the number of interceptions he dropped. He [plays in coverage a lot and is good at it, but had his hands on enough balls to make a difference in a couple of games that mattered. They are working on that aspect of his game and it will make him more of a complete player.
Morrison is a beast of a linebacker and will bring the punishment to the guy carrying the ball. Another true freshman in the two-deep may be scary, but he did arrive in the spring and that should help him a great deal. The staff feels like they already know what they have in Morrison and they like it.
The Bottom Line: Another position manned by a preseason all-SEC player and backed by a young and capable player that will bide his time until he gets on the field as a regular. Jenkins has bulked up due to the change in the strength coach at Florida and really enjoys playing at the bigger weight. It is something he has wanted since he arrived on campus a few years ago. The Gators have a chance to have the top linebacker grou8p in the conference.
Sr. Josh Evans (6-1, 201)
So. Pop Saunders (5-8, 186) (also nickel)
Evans is supremely gifted athletically and shows flashes of being a beast on the field. Some of his cohorts on defense think he is actually the most underrated guy on that side of the ball. A former track star in high school, he is really fast for the position and he has supreme size as well.
Saunders is a natural safety and showed a good bit of that in his freshman season. He will play a lot of nickel as well and despite his outright speed on the field, he can play safety because of his deft instincts.
One player expected to be in the mix was Marcus Maye, the true freshman Under Armour All-American from Melbourne. Muschamp enlightened us that he will miss a lot of physical training leading up to fall camp.
"Marcus Maye came in with a torn meniscus," Muschamp told the media at SEC Media Days last week. "He had surgery in high school and still recovering from that. We think he'll be cleared the first part of training camp."
The Bottom Line: Another position that should be better with experience from last year. If Evans can be consistent he has the tools to be special.
Jr. Matt Elam (5-10, 210)
Fr. Valdez Showers (5-11, 188)
Elam is a true leader on defense and played exceptionally well in his first year as a starter in 2011. He will only get better in year two as a starter and with the new leadership role. He is a man as a safety and loves playing in the box. This could be his ‘contract year' as well and I am sure he looks to have a great year and is working toward that.
I could have gone a couple of different directions in the backup spot, but Showers had a good spring and will certainly be in the mix. He has good tools and size for the position as well.
The Bottom Line: Elam is an all-conference preseason pick and deserves the accolades. He has the ability to play nickel as well because of his athleticism and may be asked to do so on bigger receivers in the slot. Guys like Jabari Gorman and freshman Rhaheim Ledbetter can get in the mix at either safety spot as well.
Roberson has a chance to be all conference and he is 100% healthy right now after missing the bowl game with an injury last season. He is big, strong, and physical for the position, and much like Janoris Jenkins did in the past, he makes up for his lack of speed with his physical play. He is the prototype of what they like in a cornerback.
Watkins could start on the opposite side and his athleticism is as good as any at the position with supreme size for the position as well. He would be an excellent nickel player as well against big receivers in the slot position.
I slipped Purifoy in the starting spot here because he has had a tremendous offseason and played well in the bowl game despite a couple of miscues. Purifoy is the speedster of the group and has legit NFL size at the position. he is quick and agile and just needs the experience that he didn't get much of in the regular season a year ago.
If Riggs were a couple of inches taller and stronger we would be saying great things about him. He is solid, but he has a hard time in this defense against bigger receivers and we saw those issues way too much a year ago.
Jeremy Brown is a guy that we keep hoping makes a return to the field, but as Muschamp told the media, he has another hurdle to cross now.
"Jeremy Brown fractured his wrist this summer," Muschamp said last week at media days. "He's having surgery as I speak right now. He should be cleared September 1st for full contact."
The Bottom Line: This position is so much more advanced than a season ago. There is now tons of experience throughout the position and there was just about none at the start of 2011. No longer do the kids have to think about what they are doing on the field and they can just play to their best abilities. I believe without a doubt we won't have all the jump ball issues from a year ago that cost the Gators games against Auburn and two against Georgia and a few other scores in other losses. That improvement alone may be worth a game or two on the schedule.
We also add in a consensus top two cornerback in Brian Poole as a freshman and suddenly you have quality depth at the position and a guy that plays the game physical like the staff likes. This is likely to be the most improved yunit in the Sec and I would say they were the most improved unit in the league from start to finish last season.