Year Two Provides Comfort on Defense

Florida defensive players haven't been hesitant to admit they played timid at times last season. It wasn't intentional, but their focus on the defensive scheme caused them to play slow. Sometimes the hesitancy would only allow a few extra yards. Other times, it allowed points. The Gators now return ten starters in the second year of Will Muschamp's scheme, and expectations continue to grow.

"A lot of times before, everyone was worried about not messing up what they were doing," said linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who ended last season at 224 pounds and is now up to 238. "Everybody kind of knows what everyone on the field is doing. Most of the people in this defense have been playing together for three years.

"We know where each other is going to be instinctively. We play better and faster that way. We communicate better because everybody knows what's going on."

That wasn't always the case in 2011. Despite finishing eighth in the country in total defense last year, most of the Florida players were open on Thursday when talking about the times when they didn't play fast. The early parts of the season were filled with some uncertainty as the team was learning the defense on the fly.

As the season went on, players remember their comfort in the defense increasing, and their productivity on the field followed.

"I'm able to play faster now that we're a year in," safety Josh Evans said. "We've got veterans on this defense. That's what is going to make us a better team. We're going to play faster and react."

The comfort isn't just in the scheme. It's also in the players on the field. Safety Matt Elam talked about a moment in the spring when he lined up at safety and looked around the defense before the snap. It was all familiar names that were productive for the Florida defense last season.

Almost every player had a similar story. Lining up with familiar teammates and friends surrounding players only makes them more comfortable. With players in their second year of the defense, the comfort helps players be more aggressive, knowing that their teammate will be there to backup the play if it doesn't work.

"There's a lot of confidence in the experience," Elam said. "If you have experience, that means you have confidence. If you have confidence, that means you play well. If the guy next to you has experience, you can worry about what you're supposed to be doing and not what they're supposed to be doing."

Florida tried to go to more of a 3-4 defense last year, but the roster wasn't built for it. This year, the Gators will line up in 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes. Muschamp said that Dominique Easley will start out the season at defensive end while Sharrif Floyd slides back inside to defensive tackle.

There will still be new wrinkles this year. That's another benefit of a roster that's comfortable in the scheme. They've had the basic emphasis of the defense pounded into their minds for almost two years now. That understanding can help the coaching staff put in new aspects and take out parts that they didn't like from 2011.

"We won't be running the exact same defense," linebacker Lerentee McCray said. "We'll put in some new stuff. Some of the plays he might've called last year weren't good enough, so he'll switch that out and change it. There's always going to be something new that we'll have to learn."

The Florida defense was challenged in 2011 against teams that centered its offense on a power run game. Alabama and LSU combined to run for 464 yards against the Gators during back-to-back weeks in early October. Muschamp ended the regular season by calling his team "soft" after the home loss to Florida State.

The offseason was focused on getting bigger, tougher and — for a defense that struggled at it — stopping the run.

"It's not a thought. Now it's just second nature," defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said about stopping the run. "That's just what we're going to do to teams."

Above all the improvements, it's the comfort in the scheme that means the most to the Florida players.

"In a lot of games we lost, we'd go over it after the loss and realized it was really just us hurting ourselves and not being in the right place," Jenkins said. "It was us not knowing where we should be and being hesitant, that messed us up. There were just a lot of things going on in terms of lack of experience and people not knowing the defense as well as they should."

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