Inside the Florida Defense

Florida has one of the top rushing defenses in the country. Mark McLeod of GatorCountry.com gives us a look inside the Gator defense.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Last season, Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss led the team and finished fifth in the league in sacks (7.5) despite coming off the bench as a reserve. The Southeastern Conference (and team) leader with .88 sacks per game is Florida reserve defensive end Derrick Harvey, who has seven sacks on the season.

The former Roosevelt High School (Md) All-American only posted seven total tackles as a redshirt freshman last season. He has exploded into one of Florida's hardest working defensive linemen. You could see Harvey's growth during fall practice and into the season. He is not your typical pass rusher though. Harvey is also very good against the run. The sophomore has also forced two fumbles.

The Big Uglies

Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That fact has not been lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. They have been able to get pressure on the quarterback though.

This group is nasty against the run. Florida ranks fifth nationally having allowed just 67.3 yards per game.

Senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) has amassed 26 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. He is second on the squad with four sacks. Thomas has an explosive first step, tremendous quickness, speed, and athleticism that is certain to help the Gators. Thomas led the Gators in tackles against both LSU (8) and Auburn (10). He was not at full speed last weekend.

Florida co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said that he should have played true freshman reserve noseguard Brandon Antwine (6-0 271) more in the Auburn game. He felt that he could have helped keep Thomas fresh and that Antwine has progressed well enough to warrant additional playing time. Expect to see him more often, especially if the time of possession is clearly in the Commodores favor.

Playing alongside Thomas, senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 290) has racked up 16 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, including ½ a sack, a forced fumble, and has forced a fumble. He has also broken up a pass. Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen struggled to find his niche at Florida. He has seen time at fullback, defensive end, and finally, at defensive tackle where he said that he is most comfortable. Cohen has played well all season. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has six tackles, including a tackle for loss. He has also been credited with half a sack. Harris has also played well. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Both Cohen and Harris earned champions club status for their play last weekend in Jacksonville.

The Gators are set at defensive end. Experience coupled with strength, speed, and good quickness on one side. There is also tremendous speed and athleticism on the opposite side and with the reserves.

Ray McDonald (6-3 280) has really begun to turn the corner after returning from having both knees surgically repaired. McDonald has 23 tackles, including three sacks among his four tackles for a loss. He is one of Florida's leaders. McDonald played his finest game as a Florida Gator last weekend recovering a fumble and returning it for a score for the Gators defense. He was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the week for his play against Georgia.

You can't begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 255). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss' quickness is reminiscent of Georgia's Quinton Moses. The junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, which includes 3.5 sacks, and a team high eight quarterback hurries. He also has forced two fumbles.

Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) might as well be labeled a starter. He is known for his speed and quickness, yet his intensity is one thing that appears to be his most significant improvement. He doesn't have Moss' first step, but he is quick. Harvey leads the team with seven sacks. He has notched 17 tackles, six quarterback hurries, and has recovered two fumbles.

Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-2 231) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators in that game with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 51 tackles, four tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.

Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who seemingly plays his best football in big games. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He finished with nine stops against Auburn, second best in the game. He is currently second on the team with 49 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, including two sacks, two quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery, and a forced fumble.

Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in '03 where he saw very little action. Crum has 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, which includes .5 sacks. He also has secured a quarterback hurry.

There is plenty of talent playing behind the starting linebackers. They are getting limited experience in the games and several snaps on special teams. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) (six tackles) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) (14 tackles) will be key challengers for starting jobs next season.

Overview: The Florida defensive front has limited opponents to just 2.5 yards per carry and 67.2 yards per game on the ground. That is tops in the conference and fifth best in the nation. The Gators have 23 sacks on the season, which is tied with Georgia and Arkansas as the third best in the conference. The Gators have recorded 395 of their sacks the past two games against Auburn and Georgia.

That seemingly wouldn't bode well for a Vanderbilt offensive line that has already lost All-SEC right tackle Brian Stamper and left guard Josh Earnes. Statistically though, the Commodores haven't lost any ground without the pair. The ‘Dores have averaged 149.5 yards rushing per game, while only yielding four sacks.

Granted those opponents included Ole Miss, Georgia South Carolina, and Duke- all of whom have had problems getting to the passer at times. Vanderbilt has faced only two teams that have recorded more than 20 quarterback sacks this season. Michigan sacked Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson six times. However, Arkansas was only able to record one sack on the mobile quarterback.

Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing just six touchdowns and six field goals in 19 opportunities. That is third best in the SEC. The Gators had allowed far too many third down conversions against quality opponents. Tennessee (6 of 13), Alabama (8 of 15), and LSU (7 of 13) had a much higher success rate (51.2%) over the other teams on Florida's schedule. However, Auburn was only able to convert 6 of 16 (37.5%). Last weekend, Georgia converted only 3 of 13 (23%).

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Secondary

Despite the loss of 2005 All-Southeastern Conference quarterback Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt wide receiver Earl Bennett has hardly skipped a beat. Bennett ranks among the nation's best in receptions (54) and receiving yards per game (83.7). The sophomore is one of the nation's most outstanding talents. He will present the most difficult challenge a Florida corner has faced this season.

Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve, as he has a fine understanding of the defense from his days at Utah. Smith has 29 tackles. He has intercepted five passes in Southeastern Conference action (leads SEC with Simeon Castille) with two each against Alabama and LSU. If there is one area that Smith needs to shore up it's his hands- he has dropped two sure interceptions. Smith would have taken his third pick against the Crimson Tide to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass.

Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game, which sealed the Gators 49-42 double overtime victory over Commodores a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has two interceptions, one of which he returned for 35 yards. The other occurred last weekend against Georgia. Lewis has 14 tackles and has also knocked down three passes.

Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) leads the team with 47 tackles. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss, has broken up three passes, two interceptions, and added a safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.

The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 195). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama and followed up with another outstanding performance a week later against LSU. He returned a John Parker Wilson (Alabama) interception 70 yards for a touchdown. He is tied for second in the conference with four interceptions.

Overview: The Florida secondary had a solid performance against heralded Georgia freshman Matt Stafford. However, you can't possibly ignore the dropped passes by Georgia receivers who were open. Stafford finished 13 of 33, but could have easily would up with 19, maybe 20 completions.

Nickson has not struck fear in the hearts of opponents with his pinpoint passing ability. However, his ability to scramble and either find an open receiver who has found a hole to settle into or a seam to run for yardage has improved. You can bet it is a concern for Florida's defensive staff.

Add to that the two year headache that is Earl Bennett. This truly sensational talent will have plenty of passes thrown his way- and he won't drop the ball like those Georgia receivers. The Florida secondary has to keep him bottled up though.

His importance to the Vandy attack is obvious. Bennett has 54 receptions. That is exactly 50% of the Commodores receptions, minus h-back Steven Bright, who was lost to injury in the South Carolina game.

ADVANTAGE: Florida

Injuries: Sophomore defensive tackle Javier Estopinan (6-1 282) has been lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Analysis: This game has Reggie Nelson written all over it. He simply must be at his best to help Florida defend Bennett and quarterback Chris Nickson, who presents the Florida defense with a unique challenge. He is not a good runner, as a couple of the quarterbacks the Gators have faced throughout the 2006 season. Nickson has evolved into a tremendous runner. He is currently seventh on the Southeastern Conference rushing list with 564 yards on just 106 carries. He earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors after ripping the Duke Blue Devils for 150 yards on only 15 carries.

Nickson completed 14 of 25 passes against the Blue Devils for 250 yards and a pair of touchdowns. On the season, he has completed 53.2% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.

Florida will have to play disciplined football this weekend. Nickson and Bennett are dangerous to play sloppily against. Hopefully, the Gators can correct those mistakes that allowed Georgia's Martrez Milner to slip into the open area. Milner dropped three passes. If Bennett has a similar opportunity, school will be in session.

If Florida jumps out to a solid first half lead- look out. The Gators have allowed just 46 second half points all season. Comparatively, the Vanderbilt defense has allowed 53 points in just the fourth quarter.

Florida has one of the best run defenses in the country. In fact, it will be the best that the Commodores have faced to date. The Gators had given up just one rushing touchdown this season, until the Bulldogs ran for two last weekend. They also have the sixth best scoring defense in the nation at 12.3 points per game. It's not often that Florida can boast such lofty numbers, but this is one of those years.

The Gators job would be much easier if they can get pressure while containing Nickson with their four man front. If they are forced to blitz, Vanderbilt would have an opportunity. One of the best match-ups will be Florida's Jarvis Moss against Vanderbilt left tackle Chris Williams, who was SEC Lineman of the Week after shutting down Georgia's Quentin Moses. 


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