Breakout defensive candidates for the Gators

The Florida defense returns plenty of talent from last season, but it could also use some breakout players to emerge. Here are the likely candidates.

Just like with the offensive list, freshmen and redshirt freshmen are not included on this list.

Linebacker Alex Anzalone: With questions about Antonio Morrison’s knee and when he could return, the Gators are going to need someone to step up at linebacker. Jim McElwain said at SEC Media Days that Morrison won’t be full-go when Florida opens fall camp on August 6, and there’s no clear answer for when he’ll be back in practice, much less in a game.

Without him, Anzalone makes perfect sense as a breakout candidate. He worked with the first team defense during the entire spring, and Florida coaches and players praised his comfort with the defense and his improving vocal leadership to get everyone lined up before the snap. The depth at the position isn’t great, but the unit has enough talent when Morrison returns. That’s especially the case if Anzalone has a strong start to the fall.

Defensive tackle Caleb Brantley: The Gators were deep at defensive tackle last season and didn’t have to lean on Brantley, but he still made four tackles for a loss and three quarterback hurries. This year, Florida needs him to break out and become an All-SEC type in the middle. At 6-2, 314 pounds, Brantley still has the agility and quickness to create havoc in the backfield.

With the graduation of Darious Cummings and Leon Orr plus the transfer of Gerald Willis, Florida lost a lot of snaps from last year’s group of defensive tackles. Jonathan Bullard is the wildcard that could play inside or outside, but there’s no question the Gators need Brantley to carry the load as a starter this fall.

Defensive back Duke Dawson: Here’s the forgotten guy from last year’s crop of freshmen defensive backs. Cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson stole the show last season, splitting starting duties opposite of Vernon Hargreaves III. After enrolling early and going through spring practice in 2014, Dawson split time at cornerback and safety. When he got on the field last season, it came at safety and some as the nickel.

His size fits either position well. However, Brian Poole has played best at the nickel position in the last two years and seems like the favorite to fill the role again this fall. With Marcus Maye and Keanu Neal the likely starters at safety, it might take an injury for Dawson to work his way into consistent snaps. He has the talent to help the Gators in multiple spots in the secondary if needed.

Defensive end Alex McCalister: There’s a strong argument that the breakout for McCalister came last fall, but it was still in the shadows of Dante Fowler. In 2014, he was second on the Florida roster with nine tackles for a loss and six sacks. Fowler had 15 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. After Fowler was the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, the Gators need McCalister to pick up some of the production left behind.

No one is expecting McCalister to be a top-three pick next season, but there’s still room for improvement. He struggled against the run at times last fall and can improve there. He also has to prepare for double teams, something usually Fowler only dealt with last season. Having Bullard on the line will help take some of the pressure off McCalister, but the Gators will lean on the 6-6, 239-pounder to lead the team’s pass rush.

Cornerback Quincy Wilson: After many wondered whether he was a cornerback or safety during the recruiting process, Wilson answered those questions with ease as a freshman. At 6-1, 209 pounds, the challenge for his sophomore season is repeating it. His size makes him a difficult matchup for opposing receivers, and he showed enough quickness to run with even the fastest receivers he faces.

Wilson made one interception as a freshman, coming in the regular season finale while diving to pick off a pass from former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. He added three pass breakups, one tackle for a loss and one forced fumble during his freshman year, but all of those numbers should go up during his second year with more consistent playing time.

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