While the departures of Keiwan Ratliff and Johnny Lamar are a hit to Dan Disch's secondary, it's the glaring loss of Guss Scott and Darryl Dixon that the Gators could be reeling from come September 18th in Knoxville.
Scott was third on the team with 91 tackles and led the Southeastern Conference in forced fumbles, a sure-fire sign of his effectiveness at laying the wood. He registered 14 tackles against Georgia, and 10 in Death Valley. Scott was the Gator's best open field tackler for the past two years in my opinion, and he will be missed as one of the best run supporting strong safeties to grace The Swamp.
Opposite Scott, Darryl Dixon led the 2003 defensive squad with a team high 115 tackles. He had a career night at No. 3 Miami, totaling a team-high seven tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a pass deflection and an interception. Perhaps the biggest role that Dixon served wasn't on the field, but off. He was revered by a majority of the squad as a team leader. So much so that when he was injured and red shirted as junior, the team requested he travel with them. This came to light his senior year as he was elected as captain for a team-high nine times.
Former Nickel back and current team leader Cory Bailey and Jarvis Herring are the leading candidates to take over at the safety spots. "I think Bailey and Herring are the two, leadership-wise, who have really stepped to the front," said Dan Disch, Florida secondary coach. "I'm excited about what they've done."
Cornerback and punt block specialist Jermaine McCollum echoed Disch's sentiment when I interviewed him this Spring. "I just want to get better as the spring progresses. I'm getting a lot of help from the older guys Bailey and Herring. A lot of the guys just came in last year, but we are in this all together."
Tony Joiner and Kyle Jackson are about 10 pounds away from being absolute beasts in the secondary, and could eventually be the next great tandem to set foot on Florida Field. At the same time, not enough can be said of Keiwan Ratliff as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year takes his services back to Ohio with the Cincinnati Bengals. He and Johnny "On The Spot" Lamar pave the way for the next great Gator corner, Dee Webb.
I remember watching Keiwan taunting P.K. Sam before the snap in this past years game and wondering who could match that swagger. Apparently Webb has fined tuned his confidence as well. When I asked him who wouldn't he want to cover in crunch time, Webb replied quickly without hesitating. "It really doesn't matter who you match up on me," he said. "I can cover anybody and everybody."
The coaches think so too as Zook made a point to test his up and coming star during the Orange and Blue game.
On the other island lies Reynaldo Hill. He is on the hot seat to step up and perform as a senior already on the squad. With a year of learning after not being able to lock up the job in 2003, he should be fine tuned for a solid year in the SEC.
In my opinion, the Gators secondary will definitely have its bumps and bruises this season, but it might not come till October 9th when LSU rides into town.
With the improvement of a revamped and rejuvenated defensive line, the secondary should be able to adjust in a short period of time to play in the SEC. Not to be left out is the fact that Casey Clausen and his Hollywood style, Matt Mauck, Jared Lorenzen and Eli Manning have all left the 2004 schedule for the NFL.
Photos courtesy of UF Sports Information & GatorZone.com.