Impact freshmen: Defense

Standout freshmen have been a theme on defense since Will Muschamp took over the Florida program. This year shouldn’t be any different.

Defensive lineman Taven Bryan: When Bryan committed to the Gators as a part of the 2014 recruiting class, there were a lot of questions from those following it. The Casper, Wyo., native made it to Gainesville to work out for the coaches during their camp and committed shortly after leaving. Bryan knew where he wanted to go and didn’t waste time making that commitment known.

After that, there was no flirting with other teams and no thoughts of going elsewhere. Despite Florida’s four-win season, Bryan remained firm and enrolled at Florida for the spring semester, giving him an extra semester to get acclimated to college. On the field, he looked like a natural. With questions about his competition, Bryan had an impressive spring for a freshman from Wyoming.

His teammates chalked it up to his experience as a wrestler in high school. The 6-5, 260-pounder was stronger than normal early enrollees, and with the wrestling experience, he knew how to use his strength to get past offensive linemen. Wrestling taught him about hand usage, and even veteran defensive linemen talked about how Bryan helped them with their hand placement.

With the lack of productive depth behind the top five on the depth chart on the defensive line, there’s room for Bryan to earn a spot in the rotation.

Defensive back Duke Dawson: After committing to Florida last season, Dawson was similar to Bryan. There wasn’t much talk of him wavering or looking at other schools -- he did take a visit to Alabama -- and there wasn’t much of a serious threat for Dawson to look elsewhere. Because of that and his early commitment, he didn’t come to campus with much hype.

That started to change during fall camp. The 5-11, 194-pound cornerback plays physical at the line of scrimmage and is strong enough to push receivers off their routes at the line. He has the ball skills to impact the opponent’s passing game, too. Dawson has the build that could fit better as a nickel, but he showed natural coverage abilities in the spring.

The second cornerback job remains open next to Vernon Hargreaves III. Dawson and Jalen Tabor are freshmen that should be in the running for the job, but both make sense to see the field.

Defensive back Jalen Tabor: One of the stranger stories from last year’s recruiting season, Tabor committed to Arizona on national television at the Under Armour All-American Game last season. Just over a week later, he flipped to Florida. Tabor wanted a spot with immediate playing time and the losses of Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson solidified that as possible.

In the spring, he proved ready to handle that immediate playing time. The 6-0, 193-pound cornerback has long legs and arms, and he’s a fluid runner down the field with fast wide receivers. He makes a lot of sense as the starter in the season opener, but that will be determined by performance in fall camp. Dawson and Tabor should battle for the starting job, but neither of them looks destined for a redshirt.

Defensive lineman Gerald Willis: The only one of the four on this list that didn’t enroll early, Willis can help at any of the positions on the defensive line. At 6-2, 255 pounds, he is physically ready to play on the line in the Southeastern Conference. He wanted to enroll early, and that would’ve been a big boost to his role as a freshman, but the New Orleans native wasn’t able to make it work.

The top five defensive line -- Jonathan Bullard, Bryan Cox, Jr., Darious Cummings, Dante Fowler, Jr., and Leon Orr -- all have secure spots for playing time on the defensive line. There are no clear answers behind that, allowing Willis to earn a spot if he plays well during fall camp.

It’s an important year for him to get on the field and get used to playing in the SEC. With Cummings and Orr set to graduate this year and Fowler likely heading to the NFL, Willis will especially be counted on during the 2015 season. Getting reps and playing well this fall is important for the future of the Florida defensive line.

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