As if losing to Louisville wasn't bad enough, the Florida Gators were dealt another blow after the Allstate Sugar Bowl Wednesday night when juniors Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam declared for the NFL draft.
Losing both star defenders on the same night that his team was embarrassed 33-23 had to hurt Will Muschamp, but Florida's head coach must work with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to figure out how to replace the Gators' two best defenders from 2012.
Both Floyd and Elam had career years for the Gators and will leave behind sizable holes on Florida's Top Five defense.
After spending his sophomore season at defensive end, Floyd shifted to his natural spot at three-technique defensive tackle and dominated.
The 6'3", 303-pounder finished his breakout campaign with 46 tackles, including a team-best 13 for loss, and three sacks. His combination of lower-body strength, hand usage and explosion off the snap made him the Gators' best defensive lineman and one of the premier interior players in the SEC.
Replacing Floyd is easier said than done for Muschamp and Quinn. No player on the roster has his combination of size and freakish athleticism, but there is one guy who fits the three-technique spot even better than the NFL-bound Floyd: Dominique Easley.
Floyd and Easley swapped spots this season, as the 6'2", 280-pound junior moved to the edge in order to accommodate Floyd's move inside.
Coming off a late-season ACL tear, Easley took some time to get back to form, but anyone who watched the Sugar Bowl (and Louisville's offensive line for that matter) understands just how quick and explosive the former 5-star recruit is.
Should Dominique Easley return for his senior season?
While Easley's numbers declined with his position switch, he came alive Wednesday night, posting a team-high 3.5 tackles for loss. Although he certainly is solid at defensive end, Easley could be special as a three-technique. His rare first step causes huge issues for slower-footed guards, and he has enough strength and leverage to overpower smaller interior linemen.
Moving Easley back to defensive tackle would not only ensure there's no drop-off at that position, but it would also allow Muschamp and Quinn to harness their depth at defensive end.
Freshmen Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard earned heavy snaps late in the season, and both former 5-star recruits have the makings of being excellent SEC defenders.
Fowler displayed the most promise and should replace senior Lerentee McCray at Buck linebacker, while Bullard can slide into Easley's role at defensive end. In this scenario, Florida would be able to get its best defensive linemen on the field while maximizing each player's talent in a particular role.
With Fowler flying off the edge, Easley penetrating up the middle and Bullard stopping the run, Florida's defensive line would still be one of the best in the country.
Matt Elam's decision to take his talents to the NFL shouldn't be a surprise; the hard-hitting junior was the unquestioned leader of UF's defense and put together a highlight reel of big plays in his second season as a starter.
Lining up at both safety spots and in the slot as a nickel corner, Elam's versatility makes him a coveted prospect.
Florida will have a hard time replacing him at safety, let alone as a nickel corner.
However, the Gators have done a tremendous job in building depth in their secondary and currently have commitments from three 4-star safeties.
With Josh Evans (graduating senior) and De'Ante Saunders (released from program) also out of the picture for 2013, Florida's depth at safety will be tested. While Jabari Gorman looks to be the replacement for Evans, it appears as though the Gators' safety recruits will be battling rising sophomores Marcus Maye and Rhaheim Ledbetter for the starting strong safety spot.
Who Should Replace Matt Elam next season?
Neither Maye nor Ledbetter recorded any stats in their first season with the Gators and haven't separated themselves as favorites to replace Elam.
At first glance, Harris appears to be the best fit at Elam's strong safety spot, as the 6'1", 209-pounder is one of the hardest-hitting safety prospects in the nation. With 4.58 speed and a knack for making big plays, Harris could be a bigger version of Elam, although he probably won't be asked to play the nickel spot.
Luckily, Florida has a wealth of cornerbacks on the roster and has secured a commitment from the No. 1 corner recruit, Vernon Hargreaves III, but replacing Elam will be a team effort for the Gators in 2013.