Gators have big hole to fill after loss of Dominique Easley

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dominique Easley is listed at 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, but his presence in the middle of Florida’s defensive line this season dwarfed his official measurements.

Easley’s impact and the attention opposing teams gave him created plays for others.

Reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week Dante Fowler Jr. said Monday that he told Easley thanks for helping him win the award. Fowler forced two fumbles and was dominant in Florida’s 31-17 win over Tennessee.

“When they see everything clogged up [in the middle], the first thing they’re gonna do is bounce outside, and that’s all me,” Fowler said. “Yesterday I thanked him: ‘Thank you for letting me make all those plays.'”

Unfortunately, it was Easley saying thanks on Wednesday. The senior defensive tackled thanked Gator Nation on his Twitter account for their support during his career. That career likely ended Tuesday night when Easley turned to defend a screen pass.

His right knee buckled. The verdict: a torn ACL and medial meniscus. Easley is out for the season.

As Easley prepares for surgery and another long rehab process — he tore the ACL in his left knee in the final regular-season game of his sophomore season in 2011 — the Gators started to prepare for life without Easley on Wednesday.

The Gators lead the SEC in every major statistical category (total defense, run defense, pass defense, scoring defense) and while Easley put up modest stats (5 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 4 QB hurries) in the season’s first three games, he played an integral role in the defense’s overall production.

“Something we noticed in the box during the game is they were turning their protection to Dominique inside,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said after the Gators forced six turnovers in the win over Tennessee. “There’s no question Dominique commands a lot of attention.”

With Easley no longer part of the mix, junior-college transfer Darious Cummings is expected to eat some of the snaps Easley was taking. Cummings is listed behind Easley on the depth chart and had a 30-yard interception return against Tennessee.

He is 6-foot-1 and 309 pounds and transferred to UF from East Mississippi Community College, where he played a season after starting his career at Florida State.

At the nose tackle position Leon Orr and Damien Jacobs have split time. Orr is battling a shoulder injury but is expected to play at Kentucky on Saturday in the Gators’ SEC road opener.

The Gators also have true freshmen Jay-nard Bostwick (6-3, 305) and Joey Ivie (6-3, 270) available to move into the rotation on the interior line. Another option is to move defensive end Jonathan Bullard inside and move Fowler over to Bullard’s end spot and use Ronald Powell as the primary BUCK, Florida’s hybrid defensive line/linebacker position geared at rushing the quarterback. Bryan Cox Jr. is another young player who figures into the equation.

Muschamp and Gators defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin have proven they can adjust the pieces of the puzzle and still put a strong defense on the field. Powell missed all of last season, which allowed Fowler and Bullard to get significant playing time as true freshmen.

The Gators will turn to their “man down man up” mantra once again to find production for life without Easley.

Easley is the latest in a long string of season-ending injuries for the Gators this season. He is the sixth player to suffer a season-ending injury, joining receiver Andre Debose, linebacker Matt Rolin, offensive lineman Chaz Green, defensive back Nick Washington and quarterback Jeff Driskel.

Durkin is ready to see what the healthy Gators can do.

“I’m very confident in those guys,” Durkin said of the defensive linemen remaining. “The way we practice and prepare and test our guys every day, I feel confident with every guy we have.

“We recruit great players here and their job is to come in when their number’s called. I think our guys understand there is a standard in our room that we have to play up to. Not just coming from myself and our staff, but also from the other players in our room. They hold those guys accountable and to the standard.”

You can be sure Easley, perhaps the team’s most vocal player, has already reminder them of that.