The Gators allowed 369 passing yards to Kentucky in the first Southeastern Conference game of the season. The next week, Florida gave up 449 yards through the air to Alabama with Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper pulling down 201 yards and three touchdowns.
The defensive coaching staff was searching for answers. They made changes in practice, sliding Brian Poole from cornerback to nickel and trusting freshmen Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson opposite of All-American Vernon Hargreaves III. As the young players got more time on the field, the defense started to find its stride because of the strong play in the secondary.
“There’s a lot of future NFL players back there in that back end,” Durkin said. “What they have to fight is complacency -- which is one of the hardest things in football or in any field for that matter when you have success. We’ve kept our thumb on them every day and continue to do that. We coach our guys really hard.”
No one questioned Hargreaves. He has been one of the best cover corners in the country for the last two seasons and will likely be a high draft pick after next season. But it’s the other players that started to stand out last season. Tabor earned SEC co-Freshman of the Week honors in his first start at Tennessee, and Wilson eventually earned starts over him later in the year.
Those two had big years, but fellow freshman J.C. Jackson was actually the most impressive of the three during open practices in fall camp. A shoulder injury forced Jackson to miss the year and take a redshirt, but he’ll be another important part of the secondary in 2015.
“Seeing the progress they made throughout the year, they’re all still young guys,” Durkin said. “They can be as good as any we’ve had if they stay on that course. They’ve competed well at practice.
“When you see guys make the progress they’ve made throughout the season, you know they’ve practiced the right way, prepared the right way and bought in to what’s going on in terms of preparation. Those guys continue to do that. They’ll be as good as they want to be.”
FOWLER’S DOMINANCE: The Florida coaches challenged Dante Fowler in the offseason. He showed flashes of brilliance on the field and was unblockable at times. But going into the 2014 season, those times weren’t frequent enough. They challenged him to give his best effort every day on the practice field in the spring.
That’s when he started to dominate and show his potential as a consistent pass rusher.
The 5.5 sacks he totaled in the 2014 regular season only tell part of the story. He led the Gators with 15 hurries, forcing opposing offenses to game plan around him and often double-team him.
"It's not often you get a great player that is so willing to be coached and always just wanting to take in coaching, ears open, listening to what you're saying,” Durkin said. “It's real easy to see the improvement that he's made because he's coachable. He played his best football this year. He's got unbelievable ability. For a guy his size to move as well as he does on his feet and do all the things he does.”
The Florida coaches were able to move him all over the field. Durkin said they used him as the nose, 3-technique, 5-technique, and a stand-up rusher. He handled it well and showed NFL teams that he can fill different roles, helping his value as he enters the 2015 NFL Draft.
“He's very versatile,” Durkin said. “When you flip on the tape as someone evaluating the next level, anything you may want him to do in the scheme that you run at your franchise, you can see him do on tape because he's done it. The main thing is his versatility. He's very coachable, he understands the game, he picks things up well and he can do a whole lot of things for you and do them really well.
“He's a unique guy. He's got a great personality. I've had a blast coaching him for three years. They've been awesome. Great family, great person. He's everything. He's a star."
HARRIS IS HEALTHY: Will Muschamp mentioned near the end of the year that Treon Harris had a hand issue that impacted his accuracy. Durkin said that’s no longer a problem for the freshman quarterback. He said all players are dealing with different bumps and bruises this late in a season, but Harris isn’t dealing with a serious injury as the team prepares to play in the Birmingham Bowl on January 3.
“He’s another young guy I think has a bright future ahead of him,” Durkin said. “He’s doing well with the practices and we expect him to play great.”