Spring Breakdown: The Defensive Line

This should be the year for the defensive line to mature into a difference maker. The Florida Gators started seeing the fruits of their recruiting labor along the defensive line at the end of last season and by the last game, some were really starting to make plays up front. This spring is all about polishing that experience up and building a little more depth along the trenches on defense.

At defensive end it will start with senior Jermaine Cunningham and junior Carlos Dunlap. Cunningham had a solid junior season twice earning "SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week" honors and also an AP selection as a second team All-SEC defensive end. He finished with 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks, a pretty solid season. This spring, he should be looking to turning solid into spectacular. The going should be a little easier against non-experienced offensive tackles. But Cunningham, should improve as he has every year.

We really started to see Carlos Dunlap flourish at the end of the season. The part-time starter has probably earned full-time starter status although the staff likes to move Dunlap around and have him strike where the defense isn't ready for him along the line. I think his role changes a little this season where he will be more of a 3-point stance guy and rush from the outside. There is no denying that Dunlap has more physical freaky tools as a defensive lineman than any other on the roster and should dominate this spring. However, he will be limited with an abdominal strain.

Junior Justin Trattou has played as much as any of the linemen along the line in the last two seasons and is one of the more versatile players on defense being able to play just about any of the positions along the line. Trattou is the high motor guy that could work on his quickness if anything this spring and his intelligence makes him a weapon that can be utilized in many different ways.

One guy that hasn't seen a lot of time but has shown flashes is junior Duke Lemmens. Lemmens has bulked up now and is in the 260 range and so this is a big spring for him as far as looking for playing time. At that weight, he could play either end position depending on the situation. Another high motor guy, Lemmens will have to fight the depth chart, but has the tools to make the difference and needs to show that this spring.

Sophomore William Green is a flash off the edge and his short stay at linebacker means they feel he will better utilized flying to the quarterback. Gaining some weight and strength have to be a priority in the off-season and he is up to 235 pounds from the 206 he arrived at. The word is he has had a tremendous spring in conditioning and they are looking for that to continue through practice.

This will be a huge spring for redshirt freshman Earl Okine. Okine looks the part at 6-6, 275 pounds and he has tremendous ability. He now has to show that ability against the big boys and his improved health from a nasty groin injury a year ago should help him immensely.

Gator defensive line coach Dan McCarney knows that this spring is very important for the growth and future of Okine.

"He's 275 pounds and looks the part, but are you going to look the part or come out and play the part," McCarney said last week. "I am anxious to see that. He and Omar (Hunter) are real important parts of this program. They have to step up and show this program that they belong here and should have been recruited. I am excited for both of them, but their redshirts are done and it's time for them to step up."

As with the entire defense in 2009, both starters return at the two defensive tackle spots. When the fall of 2008 started there were 10 players listed for the two spots, when the spring starts there will be five available with one being able to help out in spurts during the spring. The Gators got by using just four or five interior defensive linemen, but they would like to be able to find more before the fall.

At nose, senior Troy Epps saw very little playing time in 2008 when he transferred as a junior college graduate. Epps started the spring last year at the top of the depth chart, but didn't remain there. This will be his last go at it, so Epps needs to make a move this spring. He should be better with experience alone, but they would like to get something out of him before he does leave.

Junior Lawrence Marsh returns as the starter at nose and had a solid year as the space eater along the line. A position not really used to making plays, Marsh did finish with 28 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2008. Marsh was often cited as the highest grading lineman during the season so his play did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff. A bit more comfortable in this second year at the position, Marsh should be able to make a few more plays and wreak a little more havoc on the field this spring and in 2009. He will certainly face the best competition he will see all year when he goes against the Pounceys, James Smith, and Carl Johnson on Florida's offensive line this spring.

Maybe the most important spring for a defensive player has to come from Omar Hunter. The 6-0, 315 pound Hunter was sidelined with a bad back almost all of last year, but has been described as 100 percent by the coaching staff. When healthy, Hunter has the ability to make a huge difference and be a dynamic play maker from the nose tackle position. Coach McCarney is looking for a big spring from his redshirt freshman.

"He's having a real good winter," McCarney said. "I expect him to play and contribute. He's been here a year and just stood around and watched. It's time to step up, help this football team, get in the rotation, be a physical guy, be a presence, and be a guy that can make plays. It's his time since he has the redshirt off."

Terron Sanders is back as the starter at the defensive tackle position as well but will miss the start of spring drills and be limited throughout due to injury to his left calf. Sanders was another that had a solid year in 2008, but could stand to be more of a playmaker. At 6-2, and 300 pounds, Sanders is big for the position and he brings weight lifter's strength as well. Sanders could look to try and get quicker this spring and make more of an impact with his feet.

Junior college transfer Edwin Herbert was brought in to provide some depth. Down to 267 at one point already this spring, The strength staff has been building him back up and he will report in the 275 range for spring drills. As he fights through building muscle, he will also be trying to prove himself and make a spot for himself in the rotation at the three-technique position. Herbert should be playing at around 290 when the fall starts and needs to play relentlessly this spring to see playing time in the fall.

One player to watch big time this spring is sophomore Jaye Howard. At 6-3, and 305 pounds, he was on his way to the nose before now settling in at the three-technique. Howard made some plays late in the season after sitting out most of the first half of the year behind others. He is quick for his size and powerful and has gradually added the weight and worked in the weight room the right way. This could be a huge spring for Howard.

Junior Brandon Antwine will not play this spring. Antwine is recovering from a knee injury suffered last season and is questionable for a return in the fall. Plagued by injury a return for Antwine at all will be remarkable.

What I want to see...

The emergence of Omar Hunter. He has the ability to be a difference maker rather than a plugger at the nose. He brings intelligence, size, strength and quickness to the position.

More playmaking coming from the front four. The defensive backs are uber-confident now and that should allow the Gators to supply more pressure up front. However, it would be nice to rush four and get to the quarterback a little more often and this group should finally be gaining the experience, strength, and maturity to really not have to rely on others to put pressure.

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