After Further Review

As the fourth ranked Florida Gators head to the finish line on what looks to be a hugely successful season, I wanted to reflect and see why the Gators improved so much from last season. There's no doubt that youth was a big issue on defense in 2007 and most of that youth has come back and improved, but these Gators have a chance to be the best ever and not many thought that was possible in August.

This is where I usually break down a game and talk about every little thing I like and dislike, but with such a monumental thrashing like the Gators handed the South Carolina Gamecocks, I thought it would be better to reflect on the season as it has unraveled so far.

The Gators came into 2008 optimistic that an offense that was extremely explosive in 2007 would be able to take it to another level with a huge contingent of its play makers and line back for another season. The Gators started off a little slow on offense this season, but have mustered a string of games and scoring that will go down in the annals as one of the all time best.

The defense, to put it frankly, was awful in 2007. Youth was everywhere with departures of four players early for professional football. Freshmen and sophomores were asked and needed to start in the rugged SEC and the inexperience and youth was too much. The offense had to carry the load.

This season the defense has made huge strides while the offense is right on par to where it was a year ago, however using different means to complete the same tasks and actually averaging a lot more points in the process.

Here is my look at the top five units (in order) on this Gator team that have improved the most since 2007 and so far have helped make this a very special team for Gator fans.

Defensive Backs – We actually saw this one coming in the Spring. Anyone that went to practice every day back in March and April could tell that the play of the secondary was going to be so much better than it was last year. The four starting defensive backs have 11 interceptions among them this season including six from sophomore safety Ahmad Black. The starting defensive backs had six the entire season in 2007.

But, it isn't just the starters playing well in the secondary. True freshman safety Will Hill has played extremely well off the bench and cornerbacks Markihe Anderson and Wondy Pierre-Louis are capable enough to start if need be.

Running Backs – In 2007, it was the lone position on offense that seemed to under perform. The running backs accounted for 661 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games last season. Through 10 games, the Gator running backs have doubled both numbers tallying 1,237 yards and 12 touchdowns.

They have done it with only one returning player that had any experience and Kestahn Moore has barely four percent of the yardage among the backs in 2008. Freshmen Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey have provided over 2/3 of the yardage and exactly 2/3 of the scoring in the group. The backs have also eclipsed last year's totals in receiving yards by 100 yards and scored two touchdowns through the air compared to one.

Defensive Tackles – The linebacker tackles have fallen off this year especially the numbers for All-American Brandon Spikes in the middle. Much of that can be attributed to the play of the interior of the defensive line. Sophomore Lawrence Marsh has been a main stay at the nose tackle position all season while freshman Matt Patchan and sophomore Terron Sanders have shared the duty at the defensive tackle spot. The entire group of interior defensive linemen are only two tackles off from reaching last year's total of 57and that is with 280 less total plays to make those tackles from the entire season last year. The group has already eclipsed the sack total where they tallied 2.5 sacks for the season in 2007, they already have four for 2008. They also have 10.5 tackles for loss as compared to 7.5 for the entire season in 2007. These numbers coincide with the fact that there are almost 300 plays less to rack up these stats.

Special Teams – I lumped all of these together, because as a group they have just been so special. It all starts with return dynamo Brandon James. He has improved both his punt return average from 15.1 yards to 17.0 yards per return and his kick off return average from 20.7 to 23.9 yards per return.

The Gators kickoff coverage unit has improved just a little, but they have seen it improve dramatically over the last few games. Still, for the season, the Gators have improved their kickoff coverage from 21.7 yards per return to now holding teams to 21.1 yards per return. Look for this statistic to drop even more as the season progresses.

The Gators have been highly efficient in the red zone this season thanks to an offense that just keeps rolling. However, part of that efficiency has to do with Jonathan Phillips being 9-for-9 on field goal attempts on the season. The Gators were only 10-for-15 last season.

The Gators have had a block party season this year blocking punts and field goals throughout the year. Those blocks have led to the opponent field goal accuracy going down from last year. In 2007 opponents hit on 20-of-26 field goals for a 77 percent accuracy. In 2008 they have hit on 7-of-11 field goals for 63 percent accuracy.

The only category on special teams that hasn't improved is net punting. Even though punter Chas Henry has improved his punting average from 39.3 per punt to 42..5 and he leads the SEC in punting average, the net punt average has gone down by a yard for this early season fro 38.7 to 37.7. This is in part to a few touch backs Henry has had, something he never had as a freshman.

Overall the improvement all around in special teams is pretty indicative of the entire team's improvement this season.

Linebackers – As mentioned above, the play of the line up front and also the sheer drop off in number of plays has caused a drop off in the tackle numbers for the linebackers. Where the linebackers have made significant improvement that show up in the statistics is in pass defense. Brandon Spikes has three interceptions already this year including two he has run back for touchdowns. Dustin Doe also has an interception this season. The linebackers went all of last year without an interception. The backers finished with 10 pass breakups in 2007 and are just two shy of that in 2008 with eight. This is another sign of the improved pass defense by Gator linebackers.

The bottom line...

Coming into the season we expressed the need for drastic improvement in pass defense, gradual improvement along the defensive line, and for a running back or two to take some pressure off of quarterback Tim Tebow and wide receiver Percy Harvin from having to carry the load on offense, If everything held status quo, this could be a very good year.

Well, the three needs were surprisingly successful even under the tutelage of all new coaches. Throw in the improved play of all of the special teams and some of the nation's best linebacker pass coverage, you have the makings of a team that nobody else wants to face...a team that Gator fans are likely to remember for a long time.

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