Notebook: Consistent secondary improvement

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The Florida secondary struggled during the first three games of the season, but a slight change helped them improve throughout the second half of the year. They’ll face one of their biggest tests of the year in the Birmingham Bowl on Saturday.

East Carolina brings the nation’s third best passing offense into Saturday’s game. That would have been a massive problem for Florida at the beginning of the season. The Gators allowed 369 passing yards to Kentucky to start SEC play and 449 yards to Alabama before realizing they needed to make a change.

The coaches simplified things for a young secondary, giving them less to think about and allowing their talent to take over on the field. Brian Poole also moved from cornerback to nickelback, pushing freshmen Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson into the mix to start opposite of Vernon Hargreaves III. The moves solidified the secondary and helped the Gators to play well down the stretch.

“Those guys were true freshmen a lot of them hadn’t played together,” Durkin said. “Sometimes if you have one young guy playing, he gets some help in terms of communication with veteran players around him but then you get two or three of them back there at one time, there’s no one you can really count on in that way.

“We made a decision as a coaching staff after the third game that we needed to make things simpler in what we were doing to give them a better opportunity and chance.”

Durkin credit the competitive attitude of the members of his secondary, helping them to work hard in practice against each other. They decided who started at the positions in the secondary based on the week of practice and challenged the young players to prove they deserved a shot.

They did it, and now the Florida secondary looks like the most talented group on the team heading into the 2015 season.

“They’ll be as good as they want to be,” Durkin said. “There’s a lot of future NFL players back there in that back end.”

BRANTLEY IMPROVING: The defensive coaches felt good about the interior depth on the defensive lien going into the season. Then Leon Orr quit the team, and now Darious Cummings is suspended for a violation of team rules and will miss his final game in a Florida uniform.

Despite that, the coaches still feel good. It’s the emergence of Caleb Brantley that made that happen. He worked off the bench throughout the season but has proven capable of handling extra reps. He’ll earn the start in place of Cummings on Saturday.

“He's made tremendous strides in how he plays and how consistently he plays,” Durkin said. “That was the big question going into the year.”

The youth on the line needed to mature and prove it could handle more reps. Brantley and Joey Ivie both proved they could by playing hard on every snap, something that can often be a challenge for young linemen.

“I think those guys have really responded and played well throughout the year and played consistent for us,” Durkin said. “And Caleb is one of the biggest guys I'm talking about when I say that. He's played really well for us in big games, and we're going to need him to play well again tomorrow."

RETURNERS: Andre Debose returned punts and kicks for Florida this season, but he chose not to play in Saturday’s game and leaves the position open. Durkin didn’t give any hard answers on who would take over for the senior, but he mentioned Chris Thompson, Vernon Hargreaves III, Kelvin Taylor and Demarcus Robinson as four players that could see return opportunities.

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