Chomp, chomp!

Although a high-profile quarterback played a pivotal role in Florida's march to the 2008 national title, the Gators did some of their best work when he was on the sidelines.

Fans tend to forget it, but Florida's defense played at a championship level last fall, too. The Gators led the SEC in scoring defense (12.9 points per game), pass defense efficiency (96.7 rating), interceptions (26) and red-zone defense (allowing just 18 touchdowns in 39 red-zone opportunities). Moreover, Florida ranked No. 2 among SEC teams in sacks (34) and No. 3 in total defense (285.3 yards per game).

Incredibly, the top 22 players from that stop unit - the first- and second-teamer at each of the 11 positions - are back for 2009. That means this fall's defense could be extra special.

"It really could," head coach Urban Meyer said at the recent SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "I'm real excited about that. More important, our defensive players are real excited.

"Last year, we gave some yards, but our guys would stop them (short of the end zone). The national championship game was a perfect example about not letting them in. Our red-zone defense was phenomenal a year ago. We can certainly improve in a lot of other areas."

Not really. Florida ranked in the top half of the 12-team SEC in every defensive category last fall. The Gators' worst marks were a fifth-place finish in third-down defense (allowing foes to convert 32.8 percent of the time) and and a sixth-place finish in pass defense (allowing 179.9 yards per game).

With virtually everyone back from a unit that had no real weaknesses last fall, Florida projects to field the NCAA's strongest and deepest defense in 2009.

"The best thing we have going is rotation and depth," Meyer conceded.

There's plenty of versatility, as well. The Gators are loaded with players in the 250-pound range who could play end in a 4-3 alignment or linebacker in a 3-4 alignment.

"That's a problem for the offense," Meyer noted. "Right now we're very comfortable with having those kind of athletes that can play a defensive down position (or) stand up and play a walk-around guy. You're going to see a lot of that in college football. You already do. I would think that's the next cycle of defensive football, is the ability to go three-down, four-down quite often."

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