Answered questions: Defense

The Florida defense didn't live up to expectations last season. Injuries slowed the progress of the unit and hampered how well the Gators played. Florida has returning stars in defensive end Dante Fowler and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. The talent is on the roster for the Gators to be a top defense, and they answered some questions about it this spring.

Can Dante Fowler be consistent?

He was unblockable at times during the 2013 season. There were other times when he went silent. Fowler led the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 more than second place Ronald Powell. He was disruptive and made big plays. He wasn't only a pass rusher, either. Fowler blew up plays in the run game and was a force in the backfield.

But that was only some of his time on the field last season.

The challenge he heard from the Florida coaching staff this offseason was to play consistently. He looks physically ready for it, standing at 6-3, 277 pounds. The Gators can use him as a stand-up rusher or with his hand in the dirt off the edge. The number that has to take the next step is the sacks. He had 3.5 sacks as a sophomore, usually because opposing offenses focused on slowing him after Dominique Easley was lost for the season.

He has to still find ways to make an impact because he'll see more double teams this fall, and it looked like he did that this spring. The coaches kept him from taking a large number of reps, mostly because he didn't need them, but he looked stronger and ready to have a massive junior year.

What other defensive ends can provide a pass rush?

Opposing offenses will key on Fowler in the pass rush this year. He'll see double teams, running backs and tight ends designed to focus on him and try to take him out of the game. The Gators need to find other players that can provide a pass rush from the defensive line, and it looks like they found it this spring.

In the second half of the spring, Alex McCalister emerged as a player the coaches talked about a lot. His 6-6 frame is now up to 245 pounds and able to hold his own at the line of scrimmage. Bryan Cox, Jr. also broke out this spring and currently looks like the starter at defensive end opposite of Fowler.

The interior line will also provide pass rush. Jonathan Bullard's move inside gives him an athletic advantage against slower guards and centers. He created havoc in the backfield during the spring game. Senior Darious Cummings also had a strong spring and showed he can be disruptive.

How will Vernon Hargreaves respond to his strong freshman campaign?

If there were any concerns about the accolades going to Hargreaves' head, those were erased early in spring. The Gators lost four heavy contributors from last year's secondary, and Hargreaves didn't waste time jumping into a leadership role for the secondary. He's only a sophomore but acts like an upperclassman on the field.

Hargreaves hasn't changed one bit on the field. He doesn't have the ideal size for a cornerback, but his instincts more than make up for it. He's as technically sound as you'll find a cornerback at the college level, and he'll be one of the best cornerbacks in the country this season. Nothing has changed for him. That's great news for a Florida defense that needs him to be a lockdown cornerback.

Can the linebackers bounce back?

Contact is limited more in the spring, making it tougher to judge these positions, but the linebackers looked much better this spring. Part of that comes with the defensive line. Florida coach Will Muschamp blamed part of the linebackers' disappearance last season on the defensive linemen not being able to hold the offensive linemen from the second level.

Even with that being true, the struggles at linebacker were still evident last season. They spent the spring working on disengaging from blocks. Florida played between 70-80 percent in the nickel formation last season, leaving just two linebackers on the field. This spring, those two on the first team were Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison. Michael Taylor will also see time with the first unit.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin mentioned Daniel McMillian as one of the most improved players on the defense.


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