Florida's defense looks to be as good as last year despite the loss of two first rounders, a second, a fourth, and a sixth rounder to the NFL. With those losses comes a lot of change both in personnel and how they will attack opposing offenses. It all starts up front where they don't have the same size inside at defensive tackle.
With the loss of Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter to the NFL, the Gators moved Dominique Easley (6-2, 285) inside to tackle. The senior returned for his senior year despite the fact he could have been drafted in 2012 and will play his more natural position of defensive tackle. He is as quick as you will find at the position and really forces a lot of mistakes for offenses up front even if he isn't the one collecting the stats. The Gators should start junior Leon Orr (6-5, 302) at NOSE, but look for them to switch to a 3-4 alignment a lot and also moving their ends inside to get even more speed up front. Easley and Orr are backed up by junior college transfer Darious Cummings (6-1, 305) who is coming off of a suspension from game one, and senior Damien Jacobs (6-3, 300) who will fight Orr for that starting spot all season long.
The Gators are blessed with two of the best defensive ends in college football and both are only sophomores. Dante Fowler (6-3, 266) and Jonathan Bullard (6-3, 270) are both big enough to slide into different places along the line and both have continued to wreak havoc from a year ago where they earned freshman all-conference and all-American honors. Fowler is the starter at the BUCK position and could displayed as a linebacker at times in the right defensive call.
The top back up at end is Bryan Cox (6-3, 260) from Ft Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. Cox had a tremendous spring and fall camp and graded out very high last week despite not showing up on the stat sheet. Starting SAM linebacker %Ronald Powell will also play some BUCK at times and is a terror rushing the quarterback as well.
This unit hasn't been tested much against the run and that could be a problem given the situation inside. The Gators counter that with deception and a bigger look at linebacker.
We already mentioned junior Ronald Powell (6-4, 240) but he is one of the better stories on this Gator squad. The number one player in high school in America coming from California in 2010, Powell tore his ACL in the spring of 2012. Just before he was expected to return late last season, he tore the same ACL. Now, he looks no worse for the wear. He is moving fast and does not seem to be favoring the knee at all. He has great size as a linebacker and blazing speed off the edge as a pass rusher.
The Gators also welcome the return of their best linebacker. Sophomore Antonio Morrison (6-1, 230) missed the first game with off-the-field issues in the off-season and is being welcomed back big time by his teammates. He isn't listed as the starter at MIKE, but he will play a lot and most likely the bulk of the snaps. He and junior Michael Taylor (6-0, 233) will call the plays for the defense, whichever one is in the game at the time.
The Gators have a quality dup at WILL as well. Junior Neiron Ball (6-3, 235) may be the fastest linebacker at Florida in the last few years, which says a lot. He has played exceptionally well this fall after playing through a foot injury all of the 2012 season. Senior Darrin Kitchens (6-2, 237) from Homestead would start for many teams at linebacker and has always been productive when he sees the field for the Gators.
This unit lost a ton of experience from 2012, but Powell is a guy with a lot experience that wasn't counted in the group a year ago and the overall size and speed of the group have both been upgraded. They have to perform well against the run to help out the interior defensive line.
This is the position where the Gators just have riches to spare. The Gators will likely start a mostly South Florida secondary in junior cornerback Marcus Roberson (6-0, 195) from St. Thomas Aquinas, senior cornerback Jaylen Watkins (6-0, 188) from Cape Coral, junior Cody Riggs (5-9, 190) from Aquinas at safety along with Marcus Maye (6-0, 206) from Melbourne Holy Trinity Episcopal freshman.
This unit helped shut down a pretty high powered Toledo attack and held them out of the end zone for 60 minutes.
The safety position was supposed to be a weak link, but Riggs and Maye have had better than expected fall camps and look to improve on things as the season progresses.
The Gators will add junior Loucheiz Purifoy (6-0, 190) this week after his one-game suspension. Purifoy was on most All-American lists this fall and is working his way back into the good graces of the staff following his miscues. He is also one of the top kick returners on the squad.
Even more depth comes from freshman Vernon Hargreaves (5-11, 192) who is playing so well he is likely pushing for a starting spot himself at cornerback. Sophomore Brian Poole (5-10, 205) is listed as the starting nickel and can also play cornerback. Former Miami Monsignor Pace star Jabari Gorman (5-10, 194) is also pushing the starters at safety and is a quality player the Gators have in the secondary.
The scary thing about this group is that they are young and pretty inexperienced at safety. They will be a lot better by seasons end, but are already playing at a very high level.
Place kicker and freshman Austin Hardin (5-10, 208) won the job this fall but missed a fairly easy 39-yard field goal in game one going 1-2 on the day. Backup Brad Phillips 5-10, 195) has some experience and there is no doubt that the competition is heated up this week at the position.
Junior punter Kyle Christy 6-3, 198) is an all-American candidate and spent most of his day kicking away from super punt returner Bernard Reedy last week only averaging 38.2 yards in his four punts. Expect him to pick that number up when called upon this week.
Kick returners for the game should be between three players in Solomon Patton, Valdez Showers, and Loucheiz Purifoy. All three bring good speed top the position, Marcus Roberson showed he can be a quality punt return man after finishing with 72 yards in punt returns and long one of 38 yards.