Durkin notebook: Evaluating defensive players

The middle of the defense is going through an overhaul this spring. The Gators lost both inside linebackers, safeties and defensive tackles from the starting unit last season, and it's up to first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to fill those spots. He ran through his thoughts on a few players during a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

It'll be Antonio Morrison's job to take over in the heart of the defense. He slides in as the middle linebacker this spring, and now up to 229 pounds, the Florida coaches expect him to hang in the middle of the defense.

There's no doubt about his ability to hit. Morrison made that clear early in his time at Florida. He enrolled to start the spring semester in 2012 and made an immediate impression on the Florida coaches.

Durkin didn't hesitate when asked about the moment he knew Morrison was a difference maker.

"The first day we put pads on," Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin said with a laugh. "The first day he was allowed to hit someone. He made it very clear that he likes hitting people. We like people who like hitting people on defense. He made that statement very clear early on. The players recognize it, the coaches recognize it -- it was pretty clear.

"We knew we had something there with the other abilities he has, but we knew we had a guy that was going to play and help us."

The safety position started with Cody Riggs and Jabari Gorman at the top of the depth chart before the spring. Durkin joined Florida head coach Will Muschamp and players on the team in their praise of redshirt freshman Marcus Maye. The 6-0, 200-pounder has the size to stick at strong safety and is starting to come on during practice.

When he came to campus last summer, Maye was rehabbing a torn meniscus. That stunted his development in Gainesville. He wasn't healthy until the middle of the season, so the coaches decided to redshirt him and save a year of eligibility.

Now with a full spring under his belt, Maye is starting to make a charge for playing time.

"This is the first time he's actually going through football and really learning our defense," Durkin said of Maye. "It's kind of like the freshman learning curve where those first couple days, it seems like a lot and they have a lot of indecision and playing hesitant or playing slow, but then as you pick it up, you get more comfortable and the guys do better. That's how he's done it.

"We're very pleased with Marcus and what he?has done. I think Marcus is going to be a great player for us."

The added pass rush off the edge this season should make the Gators stronger on defense.

Dante Fowler is showing the progress the coaches wanted out of him this spring. He was fourth on the team last season with eight tackles for a loss and added 2.5 sacks with a quarterback hurry. He showed flashes of his ability off the edge, and the sophomore is starting to show signs of taking the next step this spring.

Fowler is primed for a big year

"He's an unbelievably gifted football player, and he's going to continue to get better and better," Durkin said of Fowler. "He's very coachable. He's always asking what else he can do, what does he need to do better. He's a pleasure to coach. I think that guy has a really bright future ahead of him."

Jonathan Bullard will add some help to the pass rush, but if redshirt junior Ronald Powell can get back to full health, he will bring even more explosiveness off the edge. It's an improvement the Gators need after recording 30 sacks last season.

The Gators will take it slow with Powell and keep him off the practice field this spring. He'll continue to rehab the injury, but the expectation is that he will be fully healthy when fall camp begins in August.

"Ronald has been doing an unbelievable job," Durkin said. "That guy is incredible with how relentless he is with his rehab and how he works at things. He has been through a tough time with having the ACL and then re-injuring it and going through that whole process again. He does it. He brings it every day to his rehab and what he's doing.

"It will be a great day for all of us that know Ronald and coach him or play with him, when he's able to get back on the field because of how hungry he is."

Two newcomers are also starting to make plays and show the ability to get on the field this fall. Linebacker Daniel McMillian and defensive tackle Darious Cummings both enrolled early to get a head start with the Florida defense, and it is paying off for both of them.

McMillian should be a senior in high school at the moment, so the coaches are keeping their expectations realistic for his performance on the field. So far, it has been what they expected. He's still learning, but every once in a while, he'll make a play that shows why they recruited him.

"He flashes of what we thought he was, which is a guy that has unbelievable ability and talent, and he'll be a great player eventually," Durkin said. "He's still learning the defense, which is common for a freshman and a guy of his age. It's coming in flashes right now. We'd like to be more consistent, it's not there yet. But he'll be fine, he's going through the normal process."

The transition has been smoother for Cummings, who enrolled after playing at East Mississippi Community College. The 6-1, 309-pound lineman can eat up space in the middle, but he's starting to get more consistent as the spring goes on.

"He's doing a great job," Durkin said. "Darious has been a very pleasant -- I don't want to say surprise -- but that was a guy we brought in thinking we were getting a certain type of player, and he is what we thought he was. That's always a good thing. He's another guy that's done some really good things out there. We want to be more consistent and be every day and that's all part of the process too, but he can really help us this year. We're going to count on him."

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