Front seven depth needs to improve

The Gators feel good about their first team defensive linemen. There's enough talent for the group to handle the toughness of the SEC schedule, but when a drive gets long and the starters get tired, the team needs to develop more depth. It's a similar situation at linebacker. The Florida front seven struggled last season, and they're aiming to change that this spring.

There are some known commodities. Dante Fowler showcased what he can do as a sophomore, totaling 10.5 tackles for a loss and becoming the focal point off the edge for opposing offenses. This spring, he looks to be in great shape and has shown points in practice where he's unblockable.

"It's kind of starting to get freakish," fellow defensive tackle Darious Cummings said about Fowler.

Leon Orr and Darious Cummings likely start or get a majority of the snaps at defensive tackle in the fall, but Orr has missed the spring with a wrist injury and Cummings was away from the team as his father dealt with a medical issue.

That allowed Jonathan Bullard, who Will Muschamp said is playing the best football of his career, to get increased snaps at the position he is playing exclusively this season. Bryan Cox has emerged this spring and likely sits as the starting defensive end opposite for Fowler at this point in the offseason.

But the issues come after that group.

There isn't much depth behind the first team linemen that have experience on the Florida defense, and it's the focus of the spring.

"We need the young guys to keep coming," Muschamp said. "We need to give those guys a bunch of snaps and let them play. We do some good things at times; we're just very inconsistent."

There are also questions about who will provide that boost. Florida redshirted three freshmen defensive tackles last season -- Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley and Antonio Riles. All three are being thrown into the fire this spring to get increased reps and see how they handle it. Bostwick has had the best sprig of the three, but they're all dealing with consistency issues.

Early enrollee Taven Bryan is also turning heads this spring. A former high school wrestler, the 6-5, 260-pound Bryan came to Gainesville from Casper, Wyoming. He's showing the ability to get on the field during his first season on campus.

"He's a kid that wrestled in high school, so he obviously has a good sense of how to use his weight, how to drop it," Cox said. "He has functional strength. I don't how strong he is in the weight room, but on the field, I see he has functional strength. He can handle his own in there at about 250 with Trenton Brown, who's like 360-something. That's a big boy.

"He can handle his own. He's learning, coming all the way from Casper, Wyoming. He's going through a little bit of a culture shock right now, so we're just trying to get him on our same level."

Improving the play of the defensive line will also give the Gators better production at linebacker. They didn't have that last season, and after Dominique Easley was lost for the year, the opposing offensive line was able to single team Florida's defensive linemen and get to the second level to block the linebackers.

Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison have worked as the two starting linebackers when Florida is in the nickel, and Michael Taylor is the third one on the field in more traditional sets.

Halfway through spring practice, Muschamp thinks improved play from the defensive line is allowing the linebackers to be more active.

"I think that's helping our linebacker play, when we're playing better up front," Muschamp said. "I've seen some positive things just very inconsistent once we get past that first group. The drop down is way too big. Way too much of a separation between the groups."

For Muschamp, the linebackers have to be leaders. He compared it to the quarterback on offense -- whether the player at that position thinks he's a leader or not, he is. That's an important part of what Davis and Morrison learn this spring. Taylor has always been loud and outspoken, not afraid to speak up. Morrison is usually more quiet and kept to himself.

But if you're going to play middle linebacker under Muschamp, you have to be vocal.

"They're so intertwined up front with what we're doing and also on the back end and also in our defense," Muschamp said. "We put a lot on that position. Those guys need to be cerebral guys to understand what we're looking for in the communication. They need to be able to calm the defense down at times."


Fightin Gators Top Stories