McCarney Sees Improvement

One of the big question marks before this 2008 football season was how much or even if the defensive line would improve over last season. So far, with a couple of games with respectable teams under their belt, the Florida Gators can point some success up front.

Defensive line coach Dan McCarney likes what he is getting from his troops so far and is expecting his unit to get better as the season progresses.

When the Gators opened the season against Hawaii, they were facing a team that last played in a BCS Bowl in January. Hawaii is not quite the same team they were a year ago, but they had a really stout and physical offensive line to deal with. When the Miami Hurricanes came to town in game two, they brought a very athletic and huge offensive line. McCarney saw enough from his team against those two to believe his unit has matured a great deal since last season.

"Hawaii may not be as good as last year but they were still in the Sugar Bowl," McCarney told the media last week. "Miami has a lot of talent and a number of players we tried to recruit here. Those are two good tests to start the season. Now here we go in the SEC and it's the best of the best."

The Gators were able to hold Miami to 140 yards of total offense and a lone field goal on the night. McCarney really loved the effort his guys gave against their in-state rival.

"I think we played physical against a better offensive line," McCarney said comparing the Miami line against the Hawaii version from a week earlier. "We always talk about 'don't stay blocked', they are going to have angles but don't stay blocked. Use your hands and rip off as fast as you can and run to the ball like a wild dog. I think we got a lot of that from our kids. They are getting better and I didn't play as many as I wanted to, but seven or eight guys gave us a great effort.

"High school, college, or NFL...three points and 140 yards...that is a tremendous effort by all those kids. Charlie Strong put a great plan together as a coordinator. Miami is going to win some games this year, that is a very talented team on both sides of the ball. We were pleased, but we know we have a lot of room to improve. We made some mistakes, but if we play that hard every week we will have a real shot as this season goes on."

The star of the Miami game for the Gators was junior Fox defensive end Jermaine Cunningham. He finished with two tackles for loss, a sack and second on the team in tackles with seven. McCarney said Cunningham has been a work horse since McCarney's arrival in February.

"Cunningham practiced last week like he played and didn't surprise me that he was the defensive player of the game because that is how he practiced," McCarney said. "That is a great example and what preparation is all about."

The trust is there between Cunningham and McCarney who knows a little bit about building trust with his players since he has over three decades of coaching experience.

"I think it takes time to build mutual trust and respect," he said. "I didn't come here the first week and become best friends. I drive guys and push them hard. I don't try to imitate anyone I am just myself. I have been that way for 30 something years as a coach. I think he really trusts me and he knows in the end we want the same thing...a real successful Gator football team. If I can help him be a better man and a football player, then we are going to get along fine and so far this year it is working.

McCarney says that Cunningham has improved in everything he does on the field from his play as a sophomore where he started every game last season.

"Everything imaginable," he said about Cunningham's improvement. "I thought he was a solid guy last year who didn't make nearly as many big plays as he needed to. I talked about it the first day on the job in February and he has responded. He is playing physical, playing faster, playing with confidence...he has to continue that. He has to make big plays for us to be the football team we want to be."

McCarney knows a little bit about coaching up successful football players. Last season he was the defensive line coach at South Florida where George Selvie finished second in the nation and set a school record for sacks in a season with 14. Cunningham is on a nice pace himself having 2.5 sacks in two games so far. McCarney isn't ready to pour that much praise on Cunningham just yet.

"I think there are some similarities and some differences," he said. "George was measured through a season, 13 games. I will continue to measure Cunningham. Check back with me at the end of the year and I will let you know. George got off to a real good start last year, Jermaine is off to a really good start. Can he sustain and keep improving? Time will tell"

The Gators have also seen a lot of improvement from the interior of their defensive line. Sophomore Lawrence Marsh has been a force since fall camp started and has played well in the first two games He had two sacks in the opener and has provided a lot of push that was non-existent last season up front.

Sophomore Terron Sanders is another interior lineman that played well against Miami. Again McCarney wasn't surprised because Sanders played that well leading up to the game.

"There isn't much to compare it to, because he only played 11 snaps in the Hawaii game," McCarney said about how much Sanders improved. "He definitely improved. He showed on Saturday and that is what he was doing in practice."

One player that didn't see time against Miami but is really making a move is true freshman Omar Hunter at nose tackle. Hunter came into fall camp with a bit of back pain, but McCarney says that is history and Hunter and junior college transfer Troy Epps are pushing each other to get on the field.

"He's fine, there is no issue there," McCarney said of Hunter's back injury. "He and Epps are battling for that number two spot and Marsh is the starter. Those two guys will continue to battle. The open week is real important evaluation wise. We scrimmage...we have long positional drills...long one on one drills. We're grading as much as we can to try and evaluate and continue to make those decisions."

So far he likes what he sees with a rotation of eight or nine players up front. He can shuffle players in to stay fresh and keep the pressure on opposing defenses. According to McCarney, the players are really buying into it as well.

"The more depth, the more competition, the better the morale and the more guys you can roll in there," McCarney said about his troops. "You want to really establish the attitude that they are all starters. They aren't a one or a two, not a swing, you are a Gator defensive lineman. If you take the field you have to play like a starter. If there is a big drop off we are in trouble. Then I lose trust and we aren't going to be as good as we need to be. I am trying to sell it and I think they are buying it.

"I have always liked to play eight to ten guys and I think we can do that if we stay healthy and keep improving. I would certainly like to do that as the SEC season moves on...There are a lot of people in that locker room that feel like they can make a valuable contribution on the defensive line."

With all the positives McCarney is assured there are no big heads among his group. It is a hungry focused, and still young and inexperienced group of linemen he is coaching. They also know the toughest road of the season is still ahead of them.

"Come sit in one of our defensive meetings or individual meetings and there is not a problem with that," McCarney said of his troops getting over confident. "Our guys know they have to be driven, they have to be pushed, and we have to improve a lot. This is the SEC now."

If the transition continues from last season as it appears to be now, the defensive line could very well be a team strength in 2008. The season is young and everyone knows the big tests are in front of them, but they are already playing heads and shoulders above last season.

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