"When you look at the three games we lost, we didn't play well on defense," said Strong after an abbreviated Thursday practice. Coach Urban Meyer and most of the coaching staff took off early to get a head start on recruiting. Since the Gators are off this weekend, the staff will be hitting the recruiting trail hard before returning Sunday to get Florida ready for the November 26 game with arch-rival Florida State at the Swamp.
"You take a look at those games and know that we could have played much better," said Stong. "You look at the Alabama game … big plays beat us. Look at the South Carolina game last week … we find a way to get back in the game at 20-19 and then we give up that 64-yarder.
"Just looking at things overall, we feel like we could have played much better. We have given up too many big plays at inopportune times in big games. That's the difference in winning and losing."
Like Meyer, Strong won't allow Florida's injury situation to be an excuse for the defense, but injuries have factored in to what he's been able to do in big games. Ray McDonald went down with a knee injury in the Tennessee game. At the time when he went down, McDonald was on his way to an All-SEC and perhaps All-America type of season at defensive end. He came back to play in the LSU game but the number of snaps have been limited since then and he's been largely ineffective.
When Vernell Brown broke his leg in the Vanderbilt game, it forced Strong to shuffle the deck in the secondary. Reggie Lewis was moved from the nickel position to corner and Reggie Nelson, who had played outstanding football in the Georgia game at free safety, was moved back to nickel. True freshman corner Avery Atkins was also force-fed in game situations.
Middle linebacker Brandon Siler has been slowed by a sprained ankle and some other dings. Outside linebacker Earl Everett has had some problems with a couple of deep bruises and strong safety Jarvis Herring has played despite a number of bad bruises and bumps the last few games. Defensive tackle Marcus Thomas tweaked his back against Georgia and that has limited his effectiveness in the last two games.
"If you look at game one, we were healthy," said Strong. "Look at the last few games when we haven't been healthy and it's showed. Ray McDonald went down in the Tennessee game, Vernell Brown went down against Vandy, and we've had nicks, bruises and things like that with Brandon Siler and Marcus Thomas, for example.
"Injuries are part of the game for everybody so it's not an excuse but when you have them it does change what you can and can't do. At the early part of the season when we were much healthier than we are right now, we could do a lot more things."
Injuries have exposed some depth issues that the Gators have at linebacker and in the secondary, issues that will have to be taken care of with a strong recruiting class this year.
"The main focus of recruiting is going to be in just getting in the best players we can find," said Strong. "We need them everywhere. We'll need to sign a good group of defensive linemen because we're going to lose so many next year because they will be seniors. The only defensive lineman we lose this year is Jeremy Mincey.
"We're going to lose Vernell and Jarvis Herring in the secondary but we've been able to play Avery Atkins, Reggie Nelson and Reggie Lewis. We lost (Jon) Demps and (Ryan) Stamper to injuries but those guys will be back and we'll only lose one linebacker in Todd McCullough. We need to bring in quality players at all the positions, though. We need to bring in some good players."
Since the Gators lose only four senior starters, the core of a defense that has been ranked as high as fifth in the nation in total defense will be returning. With a year of experience playing under this defensive staff, the Gators could have a dominating defense next year. Thomas, Siler, Everett, Nelson and Jarvis Moss are all players who could have All-SEC or even All-America types of seasons.
"We have nearly everybody back," said Strong. "We lose Jarvis, Todd, Mincey and Vernell and those are tough guys to replace but we have a lot of guys coming back. Overall, we've played well as a group so there's a chance we could be pretty good.
"If our defensive front plays well next year we should be pretty good. Everything starts up front and that's where we'll have some experience next year. I hope that we'll be pretty good."