Spring breakouts on defense

Defense hasn’t been the problem for Florida in recent years, but the new defensive staff still needs multiple players to emerge this spring.

Defensive tackle Khairi Clark: After taking a redshirt last season, Clark heads into the spring at 6-2, 308 pounds. Florida lost Darious Cummings and Leon Orr after last season, but the defensive line played without the two multiple times last year when Cummings was suspended and Orr quit the team before the Vanderbilt game because he wasn’t in the starting lineup. The Gators need bodies at the position and should be able to get help from Clark.

A former Army All-American in high school, Clark had offers from everyone in the southeast and was a big recruit for the previous staff. He didn’t get on the field last year, but with a year in college under his belt, Clark has the size to be a run-plugger in the middle of the line this fall.

Safety Marcell Harris: The Gators return Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal that are higher on the depth chart at safety, and Duke Dawson could be, too. So how does Harris fit in? Let’s go back to the opening press conference with Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who said he likes to use a hybrid linebacker/safety defensive position.

The talk of Harris to linebacker has been there since he was a recruit. His 6-2, 210-pound frame makes him a candidate to move to linebacker, but he would prefer to safety and the new position could help him get there. Harris made a name for himself in 2014 on special teams and should play a much bigger role on defense this year, especially if the new position is a role he can fit into.

Defensive tackle Thomas Holley: In his first season on campus, Holley was forced to take a redshirt after needing surgery to repair a labrum tear in his hip that happened in high school. He should be ready to go for the start of spring practice, and the 6-3, 312-pounder has the elite athleticism to earn a spot in the rotation from the start.

Holley has a basketball background and only played one season and a half at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. The basketball background gives him explosiveness off the ball, but he was still viewed as a raw recruit that needed refining once he got to college. The injury might have slowed that some, making the spring an important time for him to show growth and get on the field this fall. The upside is really high on this one.

Defensive end Alex McCalister: This is the biggest reach for a breakout player on this list, but I put him here because I still think there’s a lot of room for growth. He was second on the team in tackles for a loss (nine) and sacks (six) in 2014, behind Dante Fowler in both categories. He was the beneficiary of the double teams that Fowler faced last season, and those won’t be there in 2015 since Fowler will be playing in the NFL. McCalister has to prove he can handle that and still lead the Florida pass rush, and it starts this spring.

Think back to a year ago and the kind of spring Fowler had. He was coming off two inconsistent seasons and was challenged by the coaching staff to be consistent in practice and watch how it changed his fall. It worked and Fowler turned himself into potentially a top-five pick in this summer’s NFL Draft. McCalister may not have the massive upside Fowler did, but he still has a lot of room to grow as a pass rusher and as a complete defensive lineman.

Linebacker Matt Rolin: The redshirt sophomore gets his first chance to make an impact this spring. Rolin came to campus rehabbing a torn ACL and re-tore it in fall camp before the 2013 season. The staff took it very slow with him last year and didn’t want to push him too hard in the fall. He heads into spring practice around 19 months past his last ACL surgery and should be turned loose in practice.

The 6-3, 223-pounder steps onto the field at a position the Gators need help with. Jarrad Davis and Antonio Morrison are the only two experienced returners at the position, and Morrison’s injury status is uncertain. Add Rolin to Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Jeremi Powell, and there is some depth at the position, but nobody has secured a position enough to keep Rolin off the field if he has a strong spring.

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