GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If asked four months ago to analyze the defensive line the way he was on Monday, Gators coach Will Muschamp would have undoubtedly been less enthusiastic.
Let’s rewind to that sunny afternoon in April when defensive end Ronald Powell went down with a torn ACL late in the Orange & Blue Debut spring game.
Powell, coming off an impressive late-season surge and stellar performance in Florida’s win over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, appeared primed for a breakout junior season. Next thing you know his knee is sliced open as surgeons repair the damage.
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Powell’s injury came just a few months after Dominique Easley, another of Florida’s promising young defensive linemen, blew out his knee in the regular-season finale against Florida State.
Suddenly, as the Gators broke spring camp, two of the players expected to be cornerstones in Muschamp’s second season were spending time together rehabbing major knee injuries.
With one of the Gators’ expected strengths crippled by a pair of knee injuries once considered career-threatening — the Gators also lost defensive tackle Jaye Howard in the NFL Draft — Muschamp and his staff opened fall camp closely watching how the defensive front performed.
Since walking off Florida Field in April and immediately checking on Powell’s status, Muschamp’s mood about the defensive line has gone from a frown to a smiley face.
A pair of true freshmen defensive tackles — Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr. — the addition of junior-college transfer Damien Jacobs, and the return of Easley, Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, Leon Orr and Earl Okine provided hope over the summer that the situation might not be as bad as it seemed.
Now that Muschamp has seen the group perform through 20 practices, his concerns about the loss of Powell have been downgraded from serious to stable.
“The luxury we have a little bit more this year is depth,’’ Muschamp said Monday. “We’ve got some guys that we are going to be able to roll into the game. Earl Okine has taken a good step forward for us. Leon Orr continues to progress. Damien Jacobs has done some nice things. My confidence level as far as our depth is concerned is much better than a year ago.”
In Powell’s absence, strong-side linebacker Lerentee McCray has moved into Powell’s “buck” position. Fowler is also working there. To fill McCray’s spot at linebacker, Neiron Ball and Darrin Kitchens are competing for the job with Gideon Ajagbe working as a reserve.
Meanwhile, if the season started today, the foursome of Hunter, Floyd, Orr and Jacobs would share snaps on the interior line with Easley moving to the end spot opposite McCray.
“Those are four guys we know we can count on, we can win with,” Muschamp said.
Forced to move to defensive end during stretches a season ago, the imposing Floyd (6-3, 303) is thankful to be back at his natural position. Easley’s move to the outside was partially due to the emergence of others inside and his experience at end in high school.
“It feels great. It’s like winning the lottery,” Floyd said Monday night. “I love what I can do for the team. I’m happy to be back where I’m comfortable at and still doing what’s best for the team. I know it’s more attacking on the inside than on the outside. It wasn’t a hard flip-flop.”
Center Jonotthan Harrison, after going against the defensive line all camp, can see why Muschamp is more confident in the group.
“We’ve seen such great improvement from the defensive line,” Harrison said. “Them going as hard as they do every single practice is just making us better as an offensive line. I can’t wait to see them out on the field.”
As for Easley, Harrison said the junior from Staten Island, N.Y., continues to regain the form that made him one of the country’s top recruits in the 2010 class. Easley has been eased back into the regular rotation to protect his knee.
“He’s definitely come all the way back. At first when I first saw him get out there, he might have been a little sluggish,” Harrison said. “It’s night and day since I what I saw when he came back.”
The wildcard of the defensive line could be Fowler, a 6-foot-3, 263-pounder from St. Petersburg who signed with the Gators after originally committing to Florida State. Fowler’s combination of size and speed makes him different than most freshmen.
“He’s been doing really good,” right guard Jon Halapio said. “He had the right mindset that he was going to play right away. I didn’t think he was going to perform at where he is performing now.”
Adding to Muschamp’s optimism is that Powell’s rehab is ahead of schedule and he is getting in football work daily along with weight training. The Gators are optimistic that the junior could be cleared by mid-October.
That is a good problem to have considering the way Muschamp felt that sunny April afternoon four months ago.
“We’re discussing that as a staff how we’ll handle all that [when Powell returns],’’ Muschamp said. “Bottom line at the end of the day the guys being productive will continue to play. Obviously Ronald is a very good player. He’ll have all the opportunity in the world.”