Building through the middle

Will Muschamp admits it on a routine basis -- he's young but old fashioned. Part of that is why he knows the Gators have an important part of the defense to rebuild this spring. It's the entire middle. The Gators lost both of the starting defensive tackles, inside linebackers and safeties following last season. There's talent on the roster, but the Gators need to develop depth this spring.

It's a tough situation to be in for a team expected to compete for the Southeastern Conference next year. The Gators lost Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter from the interior of the defensive line while linebacker Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins leave Gainesville after both were three-year starters. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans are both preparing for their NFL careers after serving as starters for the previous two years.

It's the challenge of the spring for the Florida defense. There are young players at each position that can make an impact, but it's about developing depth and enough players to keep the defense from experienced a big drop off.

"You better be strong up the middle," Will Muschamp said. "You look at any sport. Look at basketball, you better have a point guard and you better have a center. You better have a pitcher and a catcher in baseball. There's no question we've got to be strong up the middle. That's something that's a question mark.

"We've got to have some question marks inside answered, linebacker depth answered and safety. That's where we've got some serious questions marks defensively, but I like our attitude. Our work ethic continued from our offseason program, and I'm pleased where we are."

The most experienced player at any of the six positions will likely be Dominique Easley. Muschamp said he will play defensive tackle if the Gators can find enough talented players at defensive end. If more defensive tackles stand out, then Easley can still play outside, but it's more likely the senior will be used on the interior of the line.

Orr needs a big spring

The other defensive tackle position isn't as clear. The 6-5, 310-pound Leon Orr starts at the top of the depth chart with 6-1, 309-pound junior college transfer Darious Cummings behind him. There's plenty of size but not much experience at the second defensive tackle position.

"I know Dominique Easley can go in there and play inside. Those other guys need a 1,000 reps, and rep and rep and rep," Muschamp said. "We've got to continue to build depth with the guys that we've got."

Freshman Joey Ivie is also playing inside this spring. The defensive tackle started spring practice at 6-4, 269 pounds and will be better prepared to potentially play in the fall because of his addition reps this spring.

"I'm excited about (Ivie)," Muschamp said. "Good work ethic and he fits in with our guys extremely well.

There are some answers at linebacker. Antonio Morrison started three games as a freshman but played in all of them while WILL linebacker Jelani Jenkins dealt with multiple injuries. He finished eighth on the team with 34 tackles. Morrison projects to start at middle linebacker with redshirt junior Michael Taylor starting at the WILL this season.

Taylor should start at linebacker

Besides those two, the Gators are searching for depth. There are three freshmen linebackers that enrolled early. Of them, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian are participating in practice while classmate Matt Rolin is on campus but still rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered during his senior season.

"At linebacker, I'm glad we've got them," Muschamp said of the freshmen. "They're good players. They're talented guys. They've just got to get some experience."

Gorman has a chance to start this year

The safety positions seem to be the least clear out of them all, and it's not from a shortage of bodies. Cody Riggs and Jabari Gorman were listed as the starters at safety this spring, but there are plenty of bodies behind them. Marcus Maye and Valdez Showers will also get reps at the position, and even though Rhaheim Ledbetter was recently moved to take reps at fullback, he could even see time at safety.

The Gators will also add three high school All-Americans to the team in the spring when freshmen Marcell Harris, Keanu Neal and Nick Washington get to campus. In the meantime, the Gators have enough bodies to make it work. Muschamp has also spoken about the possibility of moving cornerback Jaylen Watkins to the safety position for reps when the Gators play nickel coverage.

With Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson at cornerback, the Gators have enough depth outside to slide Watkins or other players to safety. Sophomore Brian Poole will split reps as a cornerback and nickel.

There are plenty of options and players that could emerge in the middle of the Florida defense, but spring practices are about finding them.

Purifoy will play both ways this year


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