SPRING FOOTBALL: Cautious Optimism On Defense

Cautious optimism would be the best word to describe Florida's defense going into spring practice on Wednesday. Florida had some moments last year when the defense looked like it was going to become dominant. There are some positions where depth is an issue going into the spring, but the increased enthusiasm of Coach Urban Meyer and the coaching staff lends cautious optimism to the prospects for improvement on defense next year.

In the scheme of co-defensive coordinators Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison, everything begins with a commitment to stop the run. Much of Florida's base defense will remain the same, but expect the Gators to blitz more and take a few more chances to make big plays.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Stopping the run starts with the defensive line and in the spring, the Gators will need to take a long look at the defensive tackle position. With Marcus Thomas (6-3, 290) out with back surgery and redshirt freshman Michael Brown (6-4, 288) also out for the spring, some younger and inexperienced players will have to step it up to play along side two-year starter Ray McDonald (6-3, 285). McDonald needs to practice harder and become a leader this spring, particularly in the absence of Thomas. Expect Michael Hill (6-2, 280) to make his presence known early. He is big, strong and fast with loads of potential. Clint McMillan (6-1, 275) saw a lot of action in the second half of the season returns. Brandon Daniel (6-3, 302) comes off a redshirt freshman season when he came to UF in bad physical condition and in need of strength training.

DEFENSIVE END: Sophomore Javier Estopinan (6-1, 270) will miss spring practice with a torn ACL. He got in some action at linebacker last year, but he has outgrown that position. Starters Joe Cohen (6-2, 270) and Jeremy Mincey (6-4, 258) return. Cohen was always praised by the coaching staff last year for his consistent play against the run but he was never able to get a pass rush up the field. He needs to come in a little lighter and work on getting to the quarterback. Mincey may have played the best of all the defensive linemen last year, showing signs of being a dominant pass rusher. Steven Harris (6-4, 267) and Tree Morant (6-5, 255) are supply experienced backups. Harris got better as the season went along and there is a rumor that he's a sculpted 280 or so coming into the spring. Morant got fewer opportunities than Harris, so the spring is his chance to step up his game. He's tall and has good speed. Sophomore Jarvis Moss (6-6, 225)came in as an all-world defensive end out of high school but he has battled with a lack of weight and tendonitis problems since his arrival. Derrick Harvey (6-4, 227) will be one of the more watched players this spring. The redshirt freshman was the prize recruit of the freshman class of 2004. He has tremendous speed and the potential to be a disruptive pass rusher. Junior McKenzie Pierre (6-4, 253) and sophomore Julian Riley (6-2, 267) need this spring to make a mark or else face the possibility of being passed up forever on the depth chart. Riley has been battling a knee injury and Pierre has been battling the potential tag.

LINEBACKER: Depth is the key issue at this position. There are three experienced linebackers, two who have shown enormous potential. Junior Earl Everett (6-2, 224) brings the most experience. He started last year and some during his freshman year. He has excellent speed and can do a lot of things such as rush the passer or drop in coverage. Sophomore Brandon Siler (6-2, 230) is coming off a freshman All-America/All-SEC season where he often looked like a dominator in the middle. Senior Todd McCullough (6-5, 230) should start at the Sam linebacker position. He has battled injuries but he's been a contributor when healthy. His health could be a key element in what happens with the defense this year. Behind those three are three players that have moved over from the offensive side of the ball. Brian Crum (6-3, 232) moves over from tight end although he spent his first two years as a linebacker. He needs to show toughness and a willingness to hit. Last year's fullbacks, junior Billy Latsko (5-10, 230) and sophomore Eric Rutledge (6-0, 241) played on offense last year but in high school both were outstanding linebackers.

SAFETY: When the 2004 season began, safety looked like a team weakness but coming into this spring it should be a team strength. End of the year starters Jarvis Herring (5-11, 201) and Kyle Jackson (6-0, 191) are back. Herring was never spectacular but solid. It was his interception of Chris Rix that sealed Florida's win over FSU in Tallahassee. Jackson came on late to start the last few games as a freshman last year, showing star potential and an ability to go after the football in the air. Junior Terrance Holmes (5-11, 200) will back up Jackson at free safety. He's known for crushing hits. He had a groin injury that kept him off of the field late last season but he is healthy again. Sophomore Tony Joiner (5-11, 190) saw little to no action on defense but has the tools to play the position. Junior Nick Brooks (6-0, 194) seems to have faded into the background. He needs this spring to make a name for himself.

CORNER: The cornerback position may the most important in the defensive scheme the new coaching staff wants to run. Junior Dee Webb (5-11, 190) will anchor one of the starting spots. He was playing at an all-SEC level at the end of the season last year. The other side will see stiff competition from a group of players. Senior Vernell Brown (5-8, 165) has the most experience but he lacks prototypical size for the position. He has been a star in the weight room in the offseason. Senior DeShawn Carter (6-0, 211) has battled injury and sickness since his arrival so he's never been productive. He needs to step up this spring or be left behind. Juniors Jermaine (5-9, 180) and Tremaine McCullom (5-8, 173) will add speed and depth but their most important roles may be on special teams where they stand out. Redshirt freshman DaWayne Grace(6-0, 175) will be one of the more looked at players on the roster. He came in a little light, but with some other good tools to play at the college level.

ANALYSIS: The defense will be mainly playing a cover-1 defense this year and we should see a lot more blitzing than we have been accustomed to seeing. If I had to compare it to a defense in the past it would be more like the Bob Stoops'defenses of the mid 90's when the Gators were really putting pressure on the quarterback all the time. This defense places a lot of pressure on corner backs and it is imperative that the Gators find four to five corners for next season to run the defense like they want to.

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