The ingenuity came in the form of junior defensive end Jonathan Bullard moving inside and playing exclusively at defensive tackle this spring. Senior Leon Orr missed the spring with injury and Bullard was supposed to be a guy that moved inside in pass rushing situations only, but he showed good effectiveness with his quickness against interior offensive linemen and so he stuck.
The move of Bullard was bolstered by a promising development of two others on the edge. Sophomore Bryan Cox played well as the starter at defensive end and did so at the onset of spring ball and until its conclusion. Cox's biggest issue has been fighting through direct blocks and he has worked hard on that through the spring. It is something he will continue to fight through.
Finding some relief for Fowler was also a necessity and sophomore Alex McCalister made some big strides from the start of spring. A victim of a bit of a sour attitude to start the spring, the light came on a bit with McCalister when he started seeing himself improve. Fighting the inferior attitude has allowed him to really become a weapon at times. He still needs another 15 pounds or so to continuously play at a high level, but there was progress made in that department in the off-season.
True freshman Taven Bryan isn't ready for prime time, but he has made enough noise and does enough things to draw the praise from the staff regularly and to know that he can be a force down the line. I expect Bryan to play as a freshman because he is physically ready to do so and he is able to keep up because of his motor. Red-shirt freshman Jordan Sherit has really not had much time to do anything yet this spring due to a hyper-extended elbow in the early going. He is back practicing but a work in progress still at this point.
On the inside, Orr missed the entire spring with a wrist injury, but should be back in the fall. He will remain in the mix up front with Bullard and senior Darious Cummings. Cummings is playing as well now as any defensive tackle did last year after Easley was gone. He has had a very good spring despite missing a week or so for family reasons. He's quick and he's also got some size to him to take on two blockers. He can provide some pass rush even from the interior.
Ivie is the most advanced of the trio, but didn't make much of a move this spring. He can play inside or outside, but seemed stuck inside this spring.
Bostwick probably made the biggest strides. He has quickness and size, he will see some playing time as a first reliever when the season starts. Brantley will play as well and like Bostwick it is all about playing snap after snap in a possession or two. The consistency is something these last three guys need to really work on and that is hard without really playing in games.
While the defensive line had numbers this spring, the linebackers were desperately low. Really four guys made it through most of the spring in senior Michael Taylor, junior Antonio Morrison, and sophomores Jarrad Davis and Daniel McMillian.
From what we visibly saw from the linebackers it was hard to tell if they made a lot of improvement simply because there was no tackling involved in almost all we saw. That said, the staff has been very pleased with the progression of Morrison, Davis, and Taylor and all three should be considered starters for the main two linebacker positions (MIKE ad WILL). The Gators played 80% NICKEL last year meaning they played without a SAM backer for most of the year and it looks to be even more in that direction this time around.
Of the four, McMillian was the one that needed a lot of snaps and did get those before recently being injured. He's back now and the spring has done wonders for both his play and his psyche. The physical part of the game has always been there for the super athletic linebacker from Jacksonville, it has been the mental part of the game and the confidence that comes with knowing what you are doing.
The Gators do need more numbers. There will be times when a SAM backer is needed on the field. Senior Neiron Ball is a seasoned guy that they know they can count on and he missed the entire spring with an injury. They will get back Jeremi Powell, Alex Anzalone, and Matt Rolin in August and they will have to play a lot of catch up. The depth at the position without all those reps is a concern for now.
While Florida will start two new safeties, there is a bit of experience and a lot of talent at the position. One thing is also for sure, they all got a lot of reps this spring.
The starters coming out of spring ball look like senior Jabari Gorman and sophomore Marcus Maye. Gorman has been a productive player on the field whenever he has been inserted in his Gator career. It doesn't seem like this will be his fourth year on campus though. He's a hard hitter and is always around the ball.
Maye is steady and heady. He has had a good spring as well and the staff feels confident in these two. But, the third guy will get heavy in the mix. Even though sophomore Keanu Neal injured his knee in the first practice of spring and missed most of the drills, he has come on real strong here at the end and will be a huge factor in who starts at safety when the season begins. Neal is built more like Jarrad Davis than a safety, and he hits like a linebacker too. Bu, he has the speed and instincts to play well at the position.
The Gators finished the spring with good depth with Nick Washington, Marcell Harris, and Marqui Hawkins also in the mix. Both are physically ready to play, Washington was a quasi-safety anyway playing corner and NICKEL, but will likely see more time at safety moving forward.
Don't rule out Harris making a move either. His first day was tough and he has gotten an earful from the staff during practice, but he takes coaching very well and has the size, speed, and quickness to be a very good one. Hawkins is playing catch up after moving over from receiver half way through the spring.
Cornerback is another thin position that will add three freshmen in the fall. One spot is locked up entirely by sophomore Vernon Hargreaves, but the other is work in progress. Hargreaves is primed for an All-American season after garnering Freshman AA honors in 2013. He has also been busy helping his younger teammates at the position.
The other spot right now will likely be manned by Jalen Tabor heading into fall camp. The long and physical Tabor is a perfect fit for what they want to do, but he is still adjusting to the fast pace and speed of the game at this level as a guy that just arrived in January out of high school.
Junior Brian Poole is also getting a look outside, but will likely be the starting NICKEL. Poole is best suited inside but has the tools to go out.
Finally freshman Duke Dawson has probably surprised most with his ability to come in and compete right away. He isn't ready to start on game day, but he is fearless, physical, and faster than most might believe. He is also battling Poole for that NICKEL spot.
The numbers at corner are scary and all the backups will come in the form of freshmen J.C. Jackson, Quincy Wilson, and Deiondre Porter who will all be in school in June. All of them better be ready to play when they arrive.
In the end, the Gators look to have a very productive first group on defense… real players at almost every position to start with and a lot of very talented young guys behind them that will have to learn on the job in the fall.