Gators defense chasing more than lofty rankings

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley is not impressed.

He is not impressed at Florida leading the SEC and ranking third in the country in total defense, limiting opponents to 208.5 yards per game — or nearly five football fields fewer than Oregon’s offense (687 yards) rolled up against Tennessee.

He is not impressed that Florida leads the country in third-down defense, holding opponents to a measly 8.3 percent (2-for-24) on third-down conversions.

And Easley is definitely not impressed by Florida’s defensive effort at Miami, holding the Hurricanes to 201 fewer yards (413-212) than the Gators gained.

“I don’t like losing,” Easley said. “There is not much you can really do but just move on.”

As the Gators tried to put some distance between themselves and their 21-16 loss at Miami, Easley turned up the volume in defensive meetings preparing for Saturday’s SEC opener at home against Tennessee.

He is stressing perfection — or as close as you can get to the impossible — to his fellow defenders.

“He talked to us about that,” sophomore defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. “He is talking about correcting the little stuff to make us a great defense.”

Two games into the season, the Gators have a great defense statistically speaking. But they only have one win and two forced turnovers.

Those numbers don’t fly with a unit that finished in the top 10 nationally in each of the past two seasons. The Gators have the look of a defense that could lead the country in 2013 if everyone stays healthy and plays up to their potential.

Don’t tell Easley that, though. He is after something that can’t be defined as easily as rankings.

“Our goal is to not let an offense score, period,” Easley said. “In my life, I strive for perfection. If there is no perfection, there is no greatness. We’re supposed to be great.”

Even the vaunted 1985 Bears gave up a few touchdowns, so there is no such thing as defensive perfection, but Easley got his point across.

Florida’s defense can win games when it plays well and cleans up some of those little things like miscommunication here, a missed tackle there.

“They have a lot of Sunday bodies in their program, a lot of players that will play on Sunday,” first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “It will be a good test for us. We have to establish the line of scrimmage and this week it will be a tremendous challenge with their defensive front.”

On Florida’s side, much of the talk this week has been about Tennessee’s massive offensive line, which Gators coach Will Muschamp called the best his team will face this season.

There will be a lot of scratching and clawing in the trenches Saturday as the Vols visit in search of their first win over the Gators since 2004. The Gators’ eight-game win streak in the rivalry has been a popular storyline, but don’t expect Florida’s defensive players to get too excited about the past.

No, they don’t care about the win streak, they don’t care about how Oregon moved up and down the field against the Vols in a 59-14 win last week, and they don’t care about Florida’s trouble in the red-zone in the loss to the Hurricanes.

They care about playing the way they are capable. That should take care of the rest in their view.

“We always try to make sure that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do,” Gators defensive tackle Damien Jacobs said. “We know with the talent we have on defense, if everybody does their job, we are going to make big plays and it’s going to be real special.

“The standard has to be high for everyone. That’s how we run it around it because that’s how it’s been ran.”

First-year defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin pushes the group in practice and demands productivity on Saturday afternoons. As part of this week’s preparation, the Gators had to take into account the uncertainty surrounding the Vols’ quarterback situation.

Jones said that junior Justin Worley, who started the first three games, could start, and so could redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman or true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs.

The Gators talked about the possibilities, but in the end, it all goes back to one of their favorite expressions: do your job.

“We’re very demanding on defense,” Durkin said. “Our guys see it the same way and we’ve pointed it out a lot. A lot of that stuff statistically falls where it may, but it’s not by any means what we talk about or our concern. It’s really about what we know we’re capable of doing.

“We’re not meeting the standard we set for ourselves all the time. Obviously, there are times when we are.”

Durkin wants to see better execution on defending third down despite the lofty success rate through two games, and Muschamp singled out the defense’s slow start at Miami — the Hurricanes grabbed a 14-6 lead in the first quarter — as the primary reason Florida lost.

“It was a missed opportunity,” Jacobs said.

Linebacker Michael Taylor agreed. The defense’s early letdown proved too costly to overcome. Taylor also understands where Easley is coming from with Tennessee coming to town and the Gators hungry for a win.

“If they don’t score, they can’t win,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to come out with that execution and that fire we had in the second half [at Miami]. We can’t start slow. We have to start fast and finish even faster. That’s what we took from that.”