Freshmen needed to contribute on defense

Replacing the middle of the defense has opened spots for the freshmen to make an impact this fall. The highly regarded 2013 recruiting class was expected to get on the field in some capacity this fall, and judging from the comments of defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, that could come sooner than expected. The Gators will trust freshmen at linebacker and in the secondary this fall.

The linebacker position needs help, especially in the middle after MIKE linebacker Jon Bostic and WILL linebacker Jelani Jenkins are starting their professional careers this fall. It's made even tougher with the current two-game suspension of MIKE linebacker Antonio Morrison.

Durkin noted on Wednesday that the Gators have moved Neiron Ball to inside linebacker along with Michael Taylor and Darrin Kitchens for the early part of the season. With Ronald Powell expected at SAM linebacker, the Gators will need some of the freshmen to play.

Matt Rolin tore his ACL last week and will miss the season, but the two freshmen linebackers talked about the most are Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian. The only one to go through spring practice was McMillian, and that's part of the reason he's expected to get on the field this fall.

"D-Mac's a guy that competes and loves football," D.J. Durkin said. "He's in the film room all the time, he's always trying to get better, asking questions on the field, off the field. He really wants to be great. He wants to contribute and he will. You mix that with the ability level he has, you've got something pretty special right there. We saw that going into the recruiting process with him and that's what we got here."

Durkin is excited about his defense this fall

The stories about McMillian started to spill out during the spring. Florida head coach Will Muschamp was wondering through the facility early in the spring on a Sunday. There weren't many people in it, but after walking into the linebacker meeting room, Muschamp spotted McMillian watching film alone.

It's that desire to get better that the coaches compare to what Morrison did as a freshman last year. During the 2012 season, it was Morrison going above and beyond what was necessary to get on the field and know the defense. The coaches see similar characteristics in McMillian.

"You can draw the comparison there in terms of their love for the game," Durkin said. "They really want to learn the game, they're hungry for it. It's not they're just out there practicing, move on and not think about it. They're both in their playbooks a lot, watching film. They don't want to be on the field and not know what they're supposed to do because they're competitive. They want to be in the spot where they're going to go succeed, so they put the time in and do it."

The cornerback position doesn't have the desperate need for freshmen on the field like other positions on the defense. A former NFL general manager has referred to the cornerback depth in Gainesville as the best in the country, and there is plenty of experience on the unit.

That's what makes it impressive for freshman Vernon Hargreaves to get involved with the first team.

Hargreaves was a five-star cornerback prospect

The coaches always expected Hargreaves to be immediately involved on defense, starting back when they recruited him. He has only lived up to their expectations since coming to campus in the summer.

"He'll be playing for us this year," Durkin said. "I can't say he's a pleasant surprise to us because (playing immediately) was our plan with him going in, but he has lived up to the expectations of him coming in here. We think he's a phenomenal player.

"He takes the game very seriously, he understands the game, he learns defense well, he's a smart player and a very talented player. He'll be out there."

The safety position is where the Gators will have to trust freshmen. Marcus Maye came in as a part of the 2012 recruiting class, but he took a redshirt last season after dealing with a meniscus injury he suffered in high school. This year, getting on the field won't be a problem. Maye has put together an impressive fall camp and is heavily in the mix to earn a starting job.

"Marcus Maye has had an unbelievable camp," Durkin said. "That guy has the talent to be as good as anyone around. His thing, like any other young guy, was learning the defense and all that. He's proven he's done that. The strides he's made from the spring till now have been great, so he's doing a great job for us."

Maye is pushing for a starting role

Durkin also mentioned the normal candidates at safety like Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins, although both can play cornerback, too. They need more true safeties to emerge, and they're starting to improve from the freshman class.

True freshman Keanu Neal is drawing rave reviews for his play. The 6-1, 204-pound safety will get on the field this season.

"Keanu Neal is really standing out as a young guy that can do some things. He plays fast, he plays physical. He's a very physical player. He plays fast, he reacts fast. That guy has all the things you want a safety to have. We're thrilled to have him."

The only thing holding Neal off the field is his knowledge of the defense, a typical issue for freshmen enrolling in the summer. However, he's showing maturity and an ability to learn quickly, giving the coaches confidence he'll be able to get on the field this fall.

"Like all young guys coming in, it's eliminating the mistakes mentally you're making on the field in terms of where you fit into the defense," Durkin said. "A lot of that is expected, but what you want it to do is keep getting less and less as you go through practice, which it has for him. He's got to keep getting himself in a position by the time we get through camp to where his mental mistakes are down far enough where he's ready to play."


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