Notebook: Young Florida defense rebounded

The Florida defense had a bye week to bounce back after giving up the most yards in school history against Alabama on September 20. The response was exactly what Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin wanted.

The Florida defense allowed Tennessee to put up just 233 yards, with only 28 of thosecoming on the ground. The Gators focused on taking the run game away early, allowing Tennessee running backs to average 3.1 yards per carry. The defensive line was able to dominate the line of scrimmage against an inexperienced Volunteer offensive line.

The secondary played well throughout the game, and when the front seven swallowed up the run game early, the inexperienced defensive backs were able to hold their own on the back end.

“It was good to see a lot of our young guys playing mistake-free football and being on the same page and communicating,” D.J. Durkin said. “Like anything else, you learn from things. You like to still win and learn, but sometimes when you take a defeat like (the Alabama game), you learn some good lessons from it. I feel like our guys did. They knew the urgency they needed to play with. It was just good to go see those guys go out and execute.”

The challenge now extends to this week. Even with the recent struggles and quarterback uncertainty for LSU, the Tigers still have the seventh best passing offense in the SEC. It’s not as bad as it looks in recent weeks. LSU head coach Les Miles hasn’t announced whether Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings will start on Saturday, but both can run and take shots downfield to LSU’s tall receivers.

The Gators passed their test against a deep group of receivers for Tennessee, but this week brings a new, difficult challenge.

“Obviously our older players know that and understand that, and we count on them too for their leadership to make sure guys prepare and practice the right way knowing that every week you’re facing some tough matchups and you’ve got to be locked in on it,” Durkin said. “I think we’ve had good preparation this week, we know what we’re up against and we got a great challenge ahead of us.”

COX’S BIG GAME: Bryan Cox, Jr. posted three of Florida’s total six sacks against Tennessee last week. With Leon Orr out, Jonathan Bullard was forced to play inside at defensive tackle, giving Cox more of an opportunity to make plays off the edge.

He did just that, dedicating the game to his grandfather, who passed away earlier that week. Now the coaches want him to take that breakout effort into this weekend’s game against LSU.

“He’s always a high-motor guy, great energy,” Durkin said. “A lot of those plays that he made were just because of relentless effort. He was always prying through it — it wasn’t always pretty. He continues, he plays hard. He’s getting more and more snaps with us, and I think his production is showing.”

FRESHMEN IN THE SECONDARY: The fix for the secondary in the bye week was to insert two freshmen. The Gators wanted to get Brian Poole in the nickel, a position that was a big issue in the early weeks of the season. That meant Jalen Tabor had to handle the outside cornerback position opposite of Vernon Hargreaves III.

He made plays in pass coverage and brought one of the biggest defensive plays of the game, a strip-sack that gave the Gators the ball back to start the 10 straight points that wont he game.

“Obviously, he played well,” Durkin said. “Made some very big plays in the game. He definitely did some things to clean up and correct. I just like his urgency to do what we’re asking him to do, and try to execute the techniques we coached on. There’s plenty to clean up on it he went out there and makes a lot of plays.

“He had a great pass breakup in the end zone there the one sudden change situation and got the ball off the quarterback and had another pass breakup on third down. He was productive, made some plays, keeping going and getting better.”

The second freshman to get involved was Duke Dawson. He took over at safety for senior Jabari Gorman, and the freshman delivered. His stat sheet wasn’t as impressive as Tabor -- totaling four tackles -- but he was in position and made plays from the safety position.

“That was the most snaps he’s played so far and handled them really well,” Durkin said. “Like anyone, there’s definitely some things to clean up and do better. He was locked in, communicated well and was on the same page with his assignments. I thought he played really well. I think he’ll gain a lot of confidence from that performance.”

NEAL AROUND THE FOOTBALL: Sophomore safety Keanu Neal has been the most productive safety on the team. He’s fourth in tackles, adding three interceptions, two pass breakups, and one fumble return for a touchdown. Neal always seems to be around the football, and according to Durkin, that’s not a coincidence.

“He has a nose for the football,” Durkin said. “He’s a very fast person, he’s a very violent person. He likes being around the football. Any time a guy plays as hard as he does and runs that way, he’s going to find himself in good situations where the ball is.”

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