Breakout candidates: Defense

The Florida defense took a big step forward to becoming one of the best in the nation during the 2012 season, but there are multiple holes to replace up the middle this fall. The Gators have players capable of filling those roles and experiencing breakout seasons. They got on the field last year, but 2013 could be the year the Gators see multiple defensive breakouts.

We'll keep true freshmen off this list.

5. Safety Marcus Maye: The loss of Matt Elam and Josh Evans creates two open safety spots for Florida to fill in fall camp. Senior Jaylen Watkins will move from cornerback to safety, so he's expected to win one of those starting spots. The other is up for grabs.

Maye redshirted last year after coming to campus with a torn meniscus. The former four-star prospect used the season to rehab while rejoining practices near the midway point of the season. He went into the spring battling for playing time, and Maye got better near the end of the spring and was in the conversation for winning a starting job. The 6-0, 200-pound safety has the build and athleticism to make an impact in the secondary if he earns playing time this fall.

4. Defensive tackle Leon Orr: The redshirt junior has played in 22 career games and made 25 tackles, but he's still searching for the season that puts him on the map in the Southeastern Conference. Orr has the build to make that happen this year. He's 6-5, 310 pounds with the athleticism to make plays in the backfield. Orr made 15 tackles last season with 5.5 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage.

With Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter starting their NFL careers this fall, the Gators are searching for starters. JUCO products Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings will be involved, but Orr has the most experience of the three. Dominique Easley is also expected to slide inside to defensive tackle this year, meaning there will only be one starting position open to fill.

3. Defensive end Jonathan Bullard: A member of the SEC All-Freshman team last year, Bullard is poised to anchor one end of the defensive line this fall. He played in all 13 games as a freshman and made 27 tackles with five of them behind the line of scrimmage, including 1.5 sacks. Bullard also led the Florida roster with seven quarterback hurries.

As a sophomore this fall, he'll be more comfortable in the defense and stronger off the edge, capable of turning those quarterback hurries into sacks. Bullard is more of the anchor on the end of the line than the expected team-leader in sacks, but he was rarely out of position as a freshman in the Florida defense. The former five-star defensive lineman will have consistent playing time this year and the chance to make an impact.

2. Defensive end Dante Fowler: This is the biggest breakout possibility in the Florida pass rush. CBS Sports named fowler a First Team Freshman All-American when he played in all 13 games, making 30 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Fowler said he started to get comfortable around the South Carolina game, and the numbers show it, recording a tackle for a loss in four of the last five games of the season.

The Florida pass rush was one of the few areas where the Gators struggled on defense last year. It should take a big step forward this season with Bullard, Fowler and the return of Ronald Powell. Fowler has the versatility to play defensive end or the BUCK linebacker but expect him to play most of his time with his hand in the ground.

1. Linebacker Antonio Morrison: The loss of Jon Bostic at middle linebacker looked to be an easier one to handle with the strong freshman season Morrison put together. He made three starts while getting on the field in every game, often subbing in for an injured Jelani Jenkins. Morrison made 34 tackles, with two for a loss, forcing one fumble and a quarterback hurry. He learned the defense quickly after enrolling early and going through the spring of 2012.

There are questions all over the field at linebacker, but Morrison is expected to be the one that nails his role down as the middle linebacker. At 6-1, 229 pounds, Morrison needs to continue bulking up to anchor the middle of the Florida defense, but his mentality on the field makes him tough enough to stick at the position during his career.

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