The way to describe this version of the Gator defense is the sum of all the parts is greater than any one individual. Every player has a job to do and when they all hit their assignments, the defense is extremely stingy. Halfway through this 2005 season, the Gators are giving up just 3.1 yards per running play, best for a UF defense since the 2001 team gave up just 3.2 yards per carry. In the three previous seasons, the Gators gave up at least 3.7 yards per carry.
The improvement against the run shows in the overall defensive stats. This year's Gator defense is allowing just 4.4 yards per play, best since the 2001 unit gave up 4.5 yards per play. More importantly, the defense is getting the job done and getting off the field. So far, the 2005 defense is ahead of the 2001 team that was on the field for 712 plays. If we double the outcome of the first six games of 2005, the Gator defense will finish with 706 plays, a full 229 fewer plays than the 2003 team.
While the defensive tackles are not reeling in the personal stats, the team statistics are on a positive trend. The coaches have been very happy with the play up front and it starts with them being unselfish. Thomas sees personal improvement as the season has progressed and he believes the entire interior defensive line has gotten better.
"As the season is going on you are always getting better," Thomas said. "With the new technique and everything, I think I am taking the right steps."
Thomas understands his role in the defense and does not try to make all the plays. Gap assignment --- or lack there of --- plagued Florida's defense the last three years. Now he says that particular problem is a thing of the past.
"Basically the guys being sound and knowing what is going on, we know when it is going to be a pass and when it is going to be a run," he said. "Last year we jumped our gaps trying to make plays. Now we stay in our gaps and have faith in one another that they will do their job."
Harris agrees with Thomas about the trust issues. He sees a unified defensive team that trusts each player to carry out his assignments.
"That is the part of playing defense," he said. "There are other people on the field. You have to do your assignment to the best of your ability."
Thomas has come on real strong lately and is making life miserable in the backfield for opponents. Harris jokingly takes the credit.
"They are double teaming me and that is why he is getting the sacks," Harris said with a huge grin and Thomas only a few feet away. "He just doesn't give me the credit."
The two have really bonded and always leave the practice field together. They have become a tight-knit duo whether it's on or off the field.
"It's fun," Harris said. "He and I hang out all the time, so on the field, it's like we don't miss a beat together. The communication and knowing our assignments are better."
Both players added weight in the off-season to get to their respective weights of 305 (Thomas) and 285 (Harris). Both feel they are more substantial presences in the middle and the added weight allows them to do a better job. Harris looks to even add more to his hulking frame.
"This year I put on a little more weight so I can hold my ground a little better," Harris said. "I just feel like I know a lot more football learning from the football staff. I am trying to get a little heavier, I can carry 300. I went up about 50-60 pounds on my bench press when I started gaining weight."
For Thomas it was an early season struggle with recovering from back surgery, but his play lately has been indicative of his improved health. Thomas knows his added weight has helped him be more of a force in the middle.
"My back is getting better, it's 100%," Thomas said. "Last year I felt like I was stronger but I have a little more weight, so I am packing a little more punch now."
The Gators are going to need all of the punch Thomas and Harris have to offer as they travel into Baton Rouge Saturday to take on LSU. The Tigers are a top ten team with a massive offensive front and plenty of offensive weapons. Thomas and Harris know it will be a chore to come out of Baton Rouge with a victory.
"They are going to be a big load," Harris said. "They always give us a good run. It is going to be a matchup of two really skilled teams, so we will just have to see what happens on the field."
Whatever happens, Gator fans should be rest assured that the defensive running game woes of last season should be cured and that the Tigers should have to earn everything they get on Saturday. The team concept on defense should make the Gators a very hard team to beat.