Florida defense

With all 11 starters back from a unit that ranked ninth nationally in total defense and fourth nationally in scoring defense, Florida should be even better this fall.

In fact, the Gators could be much better. That's because they have much greater depth than a year ago. Guys like tackle Omar Hunter, linebacker Brandon Beal and safety Will Hill would start for just about any other SEC team but they're second-teamers in Gainesville.

In discussing how good Florida's defense is, the toughest question is: Where to start? Probably with 6-3, 258-pound linebacker Brandon Spikes, who just might be the NCAA's premier defender. His 2008 numbers included 8 tackles for loss and 4 interceptions. Many NFL Draft analysts pegged him as a top-15 pick if he'd come out after his junior year.

The Gators also return one of college football's premier cornerbacks in Joe Haden. The 5-11, 190-pounder recorded 87 stops last season, with 12 pass breakups and 3 interceptions.

You say it's what's up-front that counts? Fair enough. Florida may have the NCAA's top defensive end tandem in Carlos Dunlap and Jermaine Cunningham.

Dunlap, though blessed with tackle size (6-6, 290) recorded 9.5 sacks last fall and was Defensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game against Oklahoma. Cunningham is coming off a six-sack season that would make him the star attraction on most college defenses.

Given all of the defensive talent on hand, Florida is going to force a lot of punts this fall. That means a busy season lies ahead for Brandon James, who might be America's most dangerous return specialist. He averaged 18.1 yards per punt return in 2007 and 13.8 in 2008. He's also a brilliant kickoff-return man, having averaged 28 yards in '07 and 23.1 in '08.

Tennessee fans surely remember James. All he did last September in Knoxville was return the opening kickoff 52 yards to set up a short-field touchdown, then return a punt 78 yards for another TD as the Gators rolled to a 17-0 first-quarter lead en route to a 30-6 romp.

By the way, kicker Jonathan Phillips and punter Chas Henry return, as well. Phillips nailed 12 of 13 tries last fall and Henry averaged 43.4 yards per punt.

Bottom line: As difficult as it was to score on Florida in 2008, it could be even tougher in '09.


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