GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There’s a part of Gators coach Will Muschamp that probably relishes the challenge the way a chef looks forward to creating a new dish.
The ingredients are known, but figuring out the right mixture and cooking time must be determined before testing it on the public. That is similar to the state of Florida’s defense heading into the 2013 season.
The Gators are seasoned in some spots, raw in others.
As a former defensive back and SEC defensive coordinator, Muschamp is heavily involved in whatever the Gators do defensively. He knows defense. He loves defense.
When you hear him talk about the Gators’ talent on defense, it’s obvious Muschamp likes what he has.
The task now is to try and recreate the unit’s success from last season – Florida finished fifth nationally in total defense – with some fresh faces in new places. Florida lost seven regular starters off last season’s defense, leaving some question marks heading into next season.
With spring practice in the books, here is a look at the prospects for Florida’s defense heading into summer:
Any time you lose a player that is projected to be a top-five pick in the NFL Draft there is a hole to fill. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd’s departure a year early for the NFL created a void up front, but the Gators have recruited well enough that Floyd’s loss might not have as much impact as you might expect.
Following the spring game Muschamp said if the season started today that senior Dominique Easley would move back to the interior line from end, where he spent the majority of his reps last season. The Gators also lost space-eater Omar Hunter at nose tackle.
Without Hunter and Floyd on the interior line, Easley, Leon Orr, Damien Jacobs and junior-college transfer Darious Cummings give the Gators some big bodies to get the job done.
“Those guys can play good football for us,’’ Muschamp said. “We just need to be more consistent.”
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Orr has an intriguing blend of size and athleticism that could cause a lot of trouble if he fulfills his (here is that word Muschamp doesn’t like to use) … potential.
Cummings drew positive reviews from Muschamp over the spring and Jacobs gained valuable experience last season as a reserve. True freshman Joey Ivie, one of eight early enrollees this spring, moved from end to the interior line and could be a factor if he shows significant progress in fall camp.
The prospects at defensive end and the BUCK position are promising thanks to the combination of sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard. Both played regularly as true freshmen and the buzz around Fowler’s play at BUCK this spring was palpable.
Fowler, who backed up senior Lerentee McCray at BUCK in 2012, has the look of a player who could one day reach double-digit sacks and be a real pain for opposing offensive linemen. Meanwhile, Bullard was slowed by a hamstring injury during spring camp but is expected to be recovered well before fall camp opens.
A pair of redshirt freshmen expected to contribute in the fall is Alex McCalister and Bryan Cox Jr. Muschamp said Cox showed significant improvement this spring and coaches have talked promising of McCalister since he arrived on campus and started putting on weight.
He has been out of the spotlight for the past year but don’t forget about redshirt junior Ronald Powell, who missed last season with a knee injury. Powell led the Gators with 6.5 sacks in Muschamp’s first season and will be a factor somewhere on defense next season.
The Gators lost starting middle linebacker Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins on the weakside after last season. While Jenkins was hampered by injuries, Bostic developed into a rock for Florida’s defense in Muschamp’s first two seasons.
Enter sophomore Antonio Morrison, who hits like a rock.
“He wants to knock your head off,’’ Fowler said.
The intense Morrison emerged this spring as Bostic’s likely replacement next season. The 6-foot-1, 229-pound Morrison was around the ball regularly during Saturday’s Orange & Blue Debut and plays with the kind of blue-collar attitude that Muschamp drives home to his players.
Muschamp said senior Darren Kitchens will also play in the middle and true freshman Alex Anzalone, who missed most of spring practice following shoulder surgery, is a candidate to see time there in his first season on campus.
In fact, Anzalone and fellow true freshmen Matt Rolin and Daniel McMillian all are part of the mix at linebacker according to Muschamp. Rolin missed spring due to a knee injury suffered his final prep season but should be healthy come fall.
“We’ve got to continue to develop depth there and it’s going to be freshmen,’’ Muschamp said. “Those guys are going to get opportunities. I think we recruited the right guys based on the three we have on campus.”
Another freshman, Jarrad Davis of Camden County (Ga.) High, will also be here in the fall.
Redshirt junior Neiron Ball started two games last season at strongside linebacker (SAM) and remains a player the coaching staff considers a potential playmaker. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Ball is big, fast and still improving after missing the 2011 season due to a congenital vascular condition.
Redshirt freshman Jeremi Powell has the speed to be an intriguing pass rusher and should be able to crack the rotation as he grasps the defense better. Finally, redshirt junior Michael Taylor is back and is likely a key reserve for this young unit.
Taylor packs a punch when he squares up ball carriers and saw extended playing time during Jenkins’ absence. A former standout at Westlake High in Atlanta, Taylor finished with 32 tackles last season, second to Morrison’s 34 among returning linebackers.
On paper this group has the look of a top-flight secondary despite the loss of starting safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans. Of course, Muschamp will be the first to say how they look on paper doesn’t mean much.
He does like the cornerback trio of Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins.
“We have three that can play,” Muschamp said. “All three are guys who can line up and get us to Atlanta. That’s the goal.”
The bigger question is at safety.
Redshirt junior Cody Riggs, who has started at cornerback, has moved to safety to provide the position with experience. Watkins may also split time between corner and safety although Muschamp said he would prefer that others step up rather than having to rely on Watkins full-time at safety.
The group of young players vying to replace Elam and Evans includes redshirt freshman Marcus Maye, sophomore Brian Poole, junior Jabari Gorman and redshirt sophomore Valdez Showers.
Muschamp wants to see better communication between the young safeties in fall camp compared to what he saw in the spring.
Meanwhile, incoming freshmen Vernon Hargreaves III, Nick Washington, Keanu Neal and Marcell Harris could all factor into the equation once fall rolls around.
There is a lot of talent in the secondary but Muschamp wants to see more development.