GAINESVILLE, Fla. — You can’t blame him if once in a while, first-year Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin takes a look at last year’s defense, grasps his chin as he studies the numbers, and then shakes his head.
A lot of tackles, sacks and interceptions have left The Swamp.
The Gators lost seven defensive starters from a unit that allowed just 14.5 points per game (No. 5 in country), didn’t allow a run of more than 25 yards (only FBS team in country), and surrendered only seven touchdown passes (second fewest in country).
Those seven starters from a season ago no longer here — Sharrif Floyd, Matt Elam, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins, Josh Evans, Lerentee McCray and Omar Hunter — combined for 367 tackles (48.3 percent of team’s total), 48.5 tackles for loss (56.4 percent) and 11 interceptions (55 percent).
For Florida’s defense to clamp down like it did in head coach Will Muschamp’s first two seasons — the Gators ranked fifth nationally in total defense in 2012 and eighth in 2011, one of five schools in top 10 both seasons — a large group of newcomers and inexperienced players must turn potential into production.
So far in fall camp Durkin likes where they are headed.
Durkin voiced an optimistic tone Wednesday when discussing several young players, including redshirt freshman safety Marcus Maye.
Maye was a standout safety/running back at Melbourne (Fla.) Holy Trinity Episcopal who chose the Gators over offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and LSU. A physical player who is listed at 6-foot, 206 pounds, Maye has stood out in practice.
“Marcus Maye has had an unbelievable camp,” Durkin said. “That guy has the talent to be as good as anyone around. The strides he’s made from the spring ’til now have been great.”
Durkin reiterated what Muschamp said earlier in the week about Maye, who sat and watched as Elam and Evans formed one of the nation’s top safety tandems last season.
“He’s really come on and done some nice things for us,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that’s been very productive and playing athletically and communicating.”
True freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is another player who has quickly caught Durkin’s attention. Hargreaves arrived from Tampa’s Wharton High to high acclaim, named National Defensive Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus (Ohio) last season.
While the Gators have a talented pair of returning cornerbacks in Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, Hargreaves has shown off his talent in practice.
“Vernon’s doing a great job. He’ll be playing for us this year,” Durkin said. “You see him out there and I can’t say he’s a pleasant surprise to us, that was our plan with him going in, but he has lived up to the expectations of him coming in here.
“We think he’s a phenomenal player. He takes the game very seriously, he understands the game, he learns defense well, he’s a smart player and a very talented player. So he’ll be out there.”
Other true freshmen competing for playing time include linebackers Alex Anzalone, Daniel McMillian and Jarrad Davis. Defensive back Keanu Neal has made a good first impression, too.
“He plays fast and physical,” Durkin said of Neal, who is from Bushnell (Fla.) South Sumter. “That guy has all the things you want a safety to have. We’re thrilled to have him. He’s got to keep getting himself in a position by the time we get through camp to where his mental mistakes are down far enough where he’s ready to play.”
A 6-foot-1, 225-pound blend of size and speed, McMillian has the tools to play on special teams and perhaps crack the rotation at linebacker. He enrolled in January along with Anzalone and fellow linebacker Matt Rolin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice last week.
A former linebacker at Bowling Green, Durkin is pleased at the way McMillian has developed since joining the program.
“D-Mac’s a guy that competes and loves football,” Durkin said. “He’s in the film room all the time. He’s always trying to get better, asking questions on the field, off the field. He really wants to be great. He wants to contribute and he will.
“You mix that with the ability he has, you’ve got something pretty special right there.”
Durkin also mentioned that junior safety Jabari Gorman is “having the best camp he’s had since he’s been here.”
While the Gators lost a lost of talent from last year’s defense, they could be deeper this season.
The veteran cornerback tandem of Purifoy and Roberson provide the unit some flexibility as the younger players gain experience.
“I love having those corners out there,” Durkin said. “That allows you to do a lot of things on defense, when you feel you can match up outside and be OK. That allows us to do more things inside, whether it be four-man pass rush or pressure a team or whatever it is. We feel real strong about that.”