GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On a recent afternoon inside the Florida football offices, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley listened as Gators head coach Will Muschamp discussed the upcoming NFL Combine.
Floyd, projected as a high first-round pick in April’s draft, stopped in town for a primer before heading to Indianapolis. Easley would like to be in a similar situation next year.
While his UF teammate the past three seasons will be gone, Easley is the most experienced player returning on the Gators’ defensive line and a key piece of Muschamp’s plan heading into next season.
Easley has 23 career starts and had the kind of game in Florida’s 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl — 5 tackles, 3.5 which resulted in lost yardage for the Cardinals — Muschamp would like to see regularly next season.
“He probably played his best football game in the Sugar Bowl,’’ Muschamp said. “He played really well.”
With Floyd and fellow defensive tackle Omar Hunter departed, Florida’s starting defensive line lost its interior foundation. The Gators enter spring practice searching for potential replacements and with the 6-foot-2, 280-pound Easley a candidate to move around.
“Dominique can play inside and out,’’ Muschamp said. “Depending on if we’re in a sub-grouping or in a nickel-grouping, he can slide inside. Some of the two-back teams, I like him a little bit more on the edge.”
Regardless of where Easley plays — he started at defensive tackle in 2011 and at defensive end last season — Florida will need him and others to fill the void left by Floyd, Hunter and starting buck Lerentee McCray.
That’s 75 percent of the starting defensive line. But unlike his first two seasons, Muschamp has more pieces of the puzzle entering Year 3.
Sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard both contributed significantly as true freshmen. Fowler Jr. played behind McCray and finished with 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Bullard backed up Easley most of the season and had 27 tackles and 5 tackles-for-loss.
And while he has been out of the spotlight after missing last season due to a knee injury suffered in the 2012 spring game, buck Ronald Powell is on schedule to be ready by the start of fall camp. Powell won’t be at full-speed for spring practice but after starting 12 games and recording a team-high six sacks in 2011, he figures prominently into the plans.
The biggest question the Gators face on the defensive line entering spring is in the middle where Floyd and Hunter got the job done last season.
Muschamp and first-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin will be looking closely at a group that includes senior Damien Jacobs, redshirt junior Leon Orr, redshirt freshman Quinteze Williams and junior-college transfer Darious Cummings, who started his career at Florida State before spending last season at East Mississippi Community College.
Cummings (6-1, 310 pounds), Jacobs (6-3, 284) and Orr (6-5, 305) offer the kind of size that can plug holes in the running game in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.
Three other young defensive linemen already in the program that could emerge this spring are redshirt freshman Bryan Cox Jr. (6-3, 235), redshirt freshman Alex McCalister (6-6, 222) and true freshman Joey Ivie (6-4, 269).
First-year defensive line coach Brad Lawing, who joined Muschamp’s staff after former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s departure to Seattle, has a talented group to work with in his first season. Lawing is a veteran coach with strong ties to the SEC and a reputation for developing talent.
“I feel very comfortable with where we are there,’’ Muschamp said of the defensive line’s prospects.
Meanwhile, there is more help on the way.
Besides early enrollees Cummings and Ivie, Florida added freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick, Caleb Brantley, Antonio Riles and Jordan Sherit up front in this year’s recruiting class.
In addition, a former teammate of Cummings at East Mississippi, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, also signed after a season in prep school and one in junior college. Reed is listed at 6-4, 305 pounds and was heavily recruited by Ole Miss and Alabama before opting to sign with the Gators.
He will have four years to play three seasons.
“He can be King Kong when he wants to be,” William Jones, former defensive coordinator at East Mississippi, told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger last month. “He can just pick up trees and move them. He’s still a little raw, but he can be an NFL guy without a doubt.”