Difference in a year

NEW ORLEANS — The Florida defense looked elite on paper in 2011, but most of the coaches and players knew that wasn't the case. Opponents played conservative on offense, knowing the Florida offense couldn't hurt them, and the Florida defensive numbers looked better in the first year under Will Muschamp. This year, that isn't the case. The Gators defense has been dominant across the board.

It all starts with the turnovers. The Gators were -12 in turnover margin during 2011. They closed out the 2012 regular season at +17. It's a remarkable change in one season, as the Florida defense has created 15 more total turnovers during the 2012 season.

"Number one is takeaways," Will Muschamp said about the difference in his defense. "You want to look at the difference in seasons, looking at turnover margin. We finished top five in the country. That's been the huge difference in our football season from this year to last year — turnover margin.

"Dan Quinn does an outstanding job coaching overall, but I think it's as much as emphasizing turnovers and creating. We did it last year. We haven't done it a whole lot different as far as the emphasis is concerned. We just had better results on the field."

The added experience helped the team, too. The youth of the Florida defense was easy to see in 2011 with a quick glance at the depth chart. The Gators started multiple sophomores, and even a few freshmen earned starts. Muschamp talked all season and mentioned again on Tuesday that the Gator went into the 2011 season with the fewest defensive starts of any team in the Southeastern Conference.

Even with youth, the talent was there.

The junior class on the current Florida defense is loaded with former five-stars Dominique Easley, Matt Elam and Sharrif Floyd. They all started as sophomores in 2011, but it was their first time in that role, and they learned on the fly. It was noticeable at times.

With that full year under their belt, the trio has taken off during the 2012 season, along with other players that have made jumps.

"I feel like we inherited a very good, young talent base on defense," Muschamp said. "We've had guys play extremely well.?Sharrif Floyd has had an outstanding year. Matt Elam has had an outstanding year. Josh Evans played his best football. All three corners — Jaylen (Watkins), Marcus (Roberson) and Loucheiz (Purifoy)— have all played extremely well for us this year. Dominique Easley has played well.

"Omar (Hunter) played his best football. Jon Bostic played as well as any linebacker in the country in my opinion.?At each position, we've played extremely well."

The Florida defense had some dominant units with former defensive coordinator Charlie Strong at the helm. Now the head coach at Louisville, who Florida plays in Wednesday's Sugar Bowl, Strong sees plenty of similarities on film between this Florida defense and the ones he used to coach in Gainesville.

He was involved in the recruiting of multiple players on the defensive side of the ball, and the unit was developed in a way that has caught his eye.

"You look at the defense and think about it — you look at Bostic and you think of (Brandon) Spikes," Strong said. "You look at Elam, you think of Major Wright. And you look at those guys up front an outstanding football team. They are number one and number two in the country, and it's all categories they led.

"They're just a really good team defensively."

The infusion of talent in the freshman class has helped, too. The Gators needed immediate help at defensive end from Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard this year, and both delivered. When Jelani Jenkins got hurt, freshman linebacker Antonio Morrison stepped into his spot and played well.

The level of play by all three freshmen caught Muschamp's eye throughout the year.

"I think there's a lot of factors that go into why we've played well, and certainly depth is up there with that," Muschamp said. "The freshmen coming in, you look at Antonio Morrison, (Jonathan) Bullard and (Dante) Fowler — those three guys have been as productive as any freshman I've been around."

TICKET SALE NO CONCERN: The final count on Florida ticket sales was 7,000 of the allotment of 17,500 being sold. Louisville sold over 14,500 of its allotment of 17,500. It wasn't a concern to Muschamp, who joked that he had bigger things to worry about like "third downs" while he lets athletic director Jeremy Foley worry about the other issues.

"Right now with the economics, we're going through a tough time in the country," Muschamp said. "I think that certainly has affected everyone, not just Gator fans. That's a tough time right now. There are different ways to get tickets other than going through the university athletic association. Obviously we're seeing a little bit of a loophole. Those things happening as well."

The high tickets sold for Louisville didn't surprise Strong. The Cardinals' fanbase got a boost of confidence when Strong turned down Tennessee to stay with Louisville as the head coach, and that could be a part of their high ticket sales.

"If you look at University of Florida, I think it's a program that has so much tradition over the last few years," Strong said. "And now what has happened here, the University of Louisville, it's our second BCS Bowl game. So our fans are really excited about getting to a BCS Bowl."


Fightin Gators Top Stories