"Our style of play is going to have to be different than it was a year ago," Meyer said during UF's media day. "We had the feeling on defense last year that we didn't have to do a lot. We let those four guys up front play. Ryan Smith was an excellent man-to-man corner, Reggie [Lewis] got better, and we had the best free safety in all of college football."
But the Gators now have sophomores starting at linebacker, defensive end and cornerback. And the defensive tackle rotation will most likely involve true freshmen.
"The defensive creativity from the defensive staff is going to be significant this year," Meyer said. "We don't have a Reggie Nelson, those are rare players. We don't have a Jarvis Moss, but instead of worrying about how that kid is not as good as Jarvis Moss, somebody is going to have to go out and play. And the coaching staff is going to have to pick up the creativity so these guys can go out and have a chance to win. Our defensive staff is going really going to earn their stripes this year."
Last year, the Gators relied on matchups for success, but this year they can't do that. But what the coaching staff can do is use history to put things into perspective for the younger guys.
"Coach Strong who has been here so long has great inside into it," Meyer said. "He talks about when Marcus Thomas and Ray McDonald first got here and they were like deer in headlights. To get Ray McDonald to take more than three steps on a play was a major accomplishment. He's the one who made the great play against Ohio State on fourth down with great effort. It's just coaching and staying on them and letting them know that there are great rewards for great effort."
One player the staff has had to stay on top of is sophomore Brandon Spikes. At middle linebacker, Spikes is the heart and soul of the defense and has some very large shoes to fill. His play will play a large role in dictating the success of the Florida defense in the fall, but things weren't looking to positive in the spring.
"I don't think he handled the January, February and March well," Meyer said. "Our offseason is real hard. We don't spend as much time teaching a guy how to bench press as we do backing them into a corner and see how they fight their way out. He did not pass that with flying colors, however, right now I would have to pass him with a B heading towards an A-minus because he is trying to keep that defense together. He is practicing very hard."
Coaching will also play a big role because there is a delicate balance between the creativity that Meyer is looking for and making sure they continue to coach fundamentally sound football.
"Jermaine Cunningham is getting better, but then you work on all of these blitzes and he's not learning to play fundamentally sound defensive end football," Meyer said.
The progression of the defense this year will be a slow process with a goal of moving things forward rather than backwards. Just in the last few days of practice, however, Meyer has seen things go in all sorts of directions.
"Two or three days ago, I walked off the field saying we were going to be real good on defense," Meyer said. "After last night, I said it's looking really bad right now. That's what you have when you have young players. We said competition, but I hope there is a lot more of it here in the next couple weeks or else we are going to have major issues. There's so much talent there. They are just so young."