Dante Fowler and Antonio Morrison will look to become leaders on the defense heading into their sophomore years.
Despite their performance in the Sugar Bowl, the Florida Gators defense was still the strength of the team this past season. Florida finished in the top five in total defense, scoring defense and run defense in 2012 and will return a solid group of players in 2013.
The news that Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam are taking their talents to the NFL shouldn't come as a surprise but it will be a challenge to fill the holes that those two players will leave. Fortunately for the the Gators, Will Muschamp has been working his tail off on the recruiting trail and the Gators have a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Let's take an early look at what the defensive depth chart will look like for the 2013 Florida Gators.
Jonathan Bullard really came on in the second half of his freshman season.
Starter: Jonathan Bullard
Backup: Bryan Cox Jr.
With Sharrif Floyd leaving a vacancy at defensive tackle, expect Dominique Easley to shift back inside to defensive tackle. Easley was more productive in his sophomore season at tackle than his junior season at defensive end.
Good news for Will Muschamp is that sophomore-to-be Jonathan Bullard is more than ready to fill in and be the starting defensive end. Bullard finished his freshman campaign with 27 tackles, five for a loss, 1.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Bullard should be able to build on a solid freshman campaign and come back even better in 2013.
Cox Jr. is a wild card. While he was originally committed to play the BUCK position, Cox could end up finding more playing time at end this season. Cox was able to redshirt this season, so as a redshirt freshman he should be ready to make an impact next season.
Starter: Dominique Easley
Backup: Damien Jacobs
Dominique Easley didn't file paperwork to see where he is projected to be drafted with the NFL but that doesn't necessarily mean the junior will be back next season.
After tearing his ACL against Florida State in 2011, Easley had to have his knee drained this season and he missed two games with lingering knee soreness. Easley should return for his senior season to shed the red flag of being an injury prone player before testing the NFL waters.
Coming back for his senior season could also allow Easley to move back to defensive end, a position he played as a sophomore and show the kind of versatility that NFL teams love.
Juco transfer, Damien Jacobs, was the backup to Sharrif Floyd this season and he was more than serviceable as a backup. Jacobs will play a similar role in 2013 and he gives the Gators great depth on the defensive line.
Leon Orr chasing down Connor Shaw this season.
Starter: Leon Orr
Backup: Darious Cummings
Leon Orr battled a kidney infection that caused him to miss almost a month of the season in 2012, but he is the next man up inside.
Orr did a good job of backing up Omar Hunter in 2012 and if he can stay healthy this offseason, he should be able to fill in as the starter at nose guard.
Darious Cummings is a juco transfer who will have two years of eligibility left. Cummings stands 6'2", 301 pounds, so he obviously has the size needed to play the position at Florida. Cummings will bring a lot of experience to the Florida Gators defensive line in 2013.
Ronald Powell was having a great Spring before tearing his ACL.
Starter: Ronald Powell
Backup: Dante Fowler Jr.
Ronald Powell was playing as good as anyone this past spring. Powell had seemingly turned the corner in his career during the 2012 Gator Bowl and was starting to look like the player who was rated the No. 1 overall recruit in 2010. Then Powell tore his ACL during Florida's spring game and just like that, his season was done.
Powell will be back next season and despite how good Dante Fowler looked in his freshman season, the BUCK position is Powell's to lose.
Fowler had a great freshman campaign and he has definitely earned playing time. Fowler could continue to bulk up and make a move inside, but he is so explosive as an edge pass-rusher that it would be wise to keep him on the outside.
Injuries could lead Jenkins to stay for his senior season.
Starter: Jelani Jenkins
Backup: Jeremi Powell
Jelani Jenkins battled injuries this season and despite having filed paperwork with the NFL, it would be wise for Jenkins to return for his senior season. His most recent foot injury would limit what he can do to prepare for the combine and Florida's pro-day and his stock would greatly improve with a solid senior campaign.
Jeremi Powell used a redshirt this past season but the coaching staff is really excited about this young player. Powell earned scout team defensive player of the week honors twice this season and if he can continue to add more size this offseason he should be able to contribute next year.
Michael Taylor is the next man up in a long line of great middle linebackers at Florida.
Starter: Michael Taylor
Backup: James Hearns
The Florida Gators have been spoiled when it comes to middle linebackers. Florida has gone from Brandon Siler to Brandon Spikes to Jon Bostic.
Taylor has played well in his limited role and will bring a physical presence to the middle of the Gators' defense.
James Hearns is a 4-star commit (according to 247 sports) from Tallahassee Florida. The addition of Hearns will give the Gators another true middle linebacker and much needed depth at the position.
Antonio Morrison will need to bulk up in the offseason but he needs to be in the starting lineup.
Starter: Antonio Morrison
Backup: Darrin Kitchens or Neiron Ball
After enrolling early last season, Antonio Morrison quickly impressed the coaching staff with his physical play and tackling ability. Morrison was the primary backup to Jelani Jenkins at will LB this season but can play any linebacker position.
With another year in Jeff Dillman's strength and conditioning program, Morrison should be able to add the necessary size to make the move to sam linebacker next season.
Neiron Ball won the starting job in 2012 but Darrin Kitchens played significant time as well. Both are solid backups and are more than capable when called upon.
Roberson had a solid sophomore campaign and is poised to breakout next season
Starter: Marcus Roberson
Backup: Loucheiz Purifoy
Some people consider Loucheiz Purifoy to be Florida's best cover-corner but Marcus Roberson is Florida's best true corner. Roberson finished the season with 23 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and 12 passes broken up. Roberson played a great game in the Sugar Bowl and he should cement his place as the Gators No. 1 corner in 2013.
Purifoy will likely get an increased role on offense as the Florida Gators continue to look for playmakers on that side of the ball. Purifoy will play plenty of time at corner but a talented freshman will beat him out for the starting cornerback spot opposite Roberson.
Starter: Vernon Hargreaves III
Backup: Loucheiz Purifoy or Jaylen Watkins
Vernon Hargreaves is the top rated cornerback (according to 247 Sports) and is ready to step in right away and start as a freshman.
Hargreaves is the type of corner that you can play in man coverage all game and he will take his man completely out of the game. He is a special player and will quickly remind Florida Gator fans of Joe Haden.
I add Purifoy as the backup here because Purifoy will receive plenty of playing time next season. Jaylen Watkins could be moved to safety if one of the new recruits or current safeties don't pan out.
Brian Poole (24) could see an inreased role in the defense with the departures of Matt Elam and Josh Shaw.
Starter: Brian Poole
Backup: Jabari Gorman
Brian Poole impressed the coaching staff as a freshman, playing mostly nickel, but was cross-trained at safety as well.
Poole is a talented player who, given the opportunity, will become a great player for the Florida Gators defense.
Jabari Gorman served as Josh Evan's backup this season and will likely start the spring as the starting free safety. However, Poole is a little bigger than Gorman and better in pass coverage.
Starter: Marcell Harris
Backup: Jaylen Watkins or Keanu Neal
Will Muschamp has shown that he isn't afraid to start freshman and with the talent coming in the 2013 recruiting class, that trend should continue.
I first saw Marcell Harris play this summer at The Opening and knew right away that this kid was going to be special. Harris has a UF pedigree, his dad Mike "Mud" Harris played at Florida in the 90's, and is talented enough to step in right away and start as a freshman.
Jaylen Watkins was listed as the backup to Matt Elam for most of the season but he will be challenged by another freshman,Keanu Neal.
Neal excels up near the line of scrimmage and can cover slot receivers with little trouble. He is a physical player who will gives the Florida Gators great depth in the secondary and a great player for the next four years.