The Gators are losing key contributors from a defense that stymied opponents, including South Carolina.
Few people saw Florida's immensely successful 2012 season coming.
This really should come as no surprise. The team was coming off a disastrous 7-6 season under first-year head coach Will Muschamp, and he would be forced to hand the offense over to a sophomore quarterback. There were many occasions where the offense had looked flat, and the defense had looked soft. The Gators were supposed to be better last season, but a BCS bowl seemed out of the question.
Of course, it's apparent that the Gator defense had other plans.
The end result was an 11-1 regular season and a Sugar Bowl appearance. It was made possible by a variety of factors, but none bigger than the team's highly talented defensive unit. This group shut down the likes of LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina en route to becoming the fifth-best scoring defense in the nation.
Unfortunately for the Gators, many key defensive contributors are now gone. Matt Elam, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins and Sharrif Floyd are just some of the names they will have to replace for next season.
However, help is on the way with the arrival of their latest recruiting class. Littered amongst the team's list of committed players are defensive prospects that have the potential to become stars. With so many others departing, the Gators will likely need to rely on this new talent crop next season.
Here are the five recruits that are most likely to make a significant impact during their first season as a Gator.
The Gators made a killing at the linebacker position in this year's class. One of the studs they landed was Daniel McMillian of First Coast High School in Jacksonville. Like fellow recruit Alex Anzalone, he should be right in the mix for early playing time.
Rivals.com tags McMillian as the No. 5-ranked linebacker in the country. The U.S. Army All-America Game alum merits such a ranking based on his skills. He has quick recognition that allows him to beat opposing blockers. He is terrific on run defense for that reason. His 6'2" frame is imposing, yet he is surprisingly nimble for a big backer. He can move side to side with efficiency.
The biggest problem for McMillian will be the fact that he will have to compete with other talented freshmen. Anzalone and fellow recruit Matt Rolin have as good a chance of seeing game action next season as McMillian possesses.
Still, he is a 4-star prospect that had offers from Alabama and Ohio State, among others. He is very talented and should see the field at some point.
Keanu Neal of Bushnell, Florida is one of the most highly regarded safety prospects in this year's freshman class. Luckily for Gator fans, he'll be suiting up for the team's home opener against Toledo in the fall. He certainly has the potential to make a name for himself sooner rather than later.
According to Rivals.com, Neal is a 4-star player and ranked 64th nationally. As that rating would suggest, he has multiple characteristics that make him an intriguing defender. ESPN points out that Neal is excellent in zone coverage. He shows good instincts while in coverage, and that allows him to adjust and take the right path to the ball.
His 6'1" frame allows him to be very physical in the secondary. Yes, he can cover passes, but he can also stop ball-carriers that have reached the second level. He doesn't have exceptional speed, but he is fast and capable of recovering once the play has developed.
The Gators have had many safeties that performed at an extremely high level, the latest being Matt Elam. Keanu Neal could be the next name added to that list.
In a way, the manner in which Alex Anzalone fell into Florida's lap is somewhat remarkable. What's even more remarkable is his skill set.
As fellow Bleacher Report writer Timothy Rapp informed us over two weeks ago, Anzalone was going to South Bend but had a change of heart. No matter the reason for his rejection of Notre Dame, he decided that the Gators were the right fit. He has even enrolled early in preparation for next season.
He was a star on both sides of the ball at Wyomissing Area. Rapp's report also includes a link to a piece by Eric Epler of Pennlive.com. Epler points out that Anzalone not only recorded over 100 tackles, but also rushed for almost 1,500 yards during his final season.
Of course, the Gators will only need him to play linebacker. They should be more than pleased with what Anzalone brings. He is as good a run-stopper as you will find anywhere. His terrific recognition skills allow him to read plays and take appropriate action. On top of that, he is solid in coverage. This dual-threat capability gives him the potential to become an absolute force.
With Jenkins and Bostic out of Gainesville, Anzalone has a good chance to work his way through the depth chart and get on the stat sheet this season.
The Gators lost a dynamic pass-rusher in Sharrif Floyd to the NFL draft. With his departure, the team will be looking for someone to step in and fill the void. Defensive tackle prospect Caleb Brantley could be the man for the job. As the video points out, Brantley is the No. 6-ranked defensive tackle recruit, according to the team at ESPN.
The Florida native has a few qualities that make him stand out. Most people like to measure a tackle's success based on his number of sacks. Brantley is capable of putting a significant dent in the sack column, even while playing through pain.
This profile on Gatorsports.com describes how he made key plays in a near upset of St. Pete Catholic. He is disruptive and capable of getting his hands on the quarterback.
He is also a terrific run-stopper. As the same profile points out, his first step is powerful and allows him to burst into the backfield. With the caliber of running backs dispersed throughout the SEC, the Gators could definitely use someone like Brantley on their defensive line.
He has both power and quickness. That could spell disaster for Florida's conference foes, even as early as this season.
The consensus among experts seems to be that Vernon Hargreaves III is the biggest defensive prize in Florida's 2013 recruiting class. He has the potential to make a huge impact during his first year in Gainesville.
Considered the third-best recruit in the entire country by ESPN scouts, Hargreaves has all the skills of a shutdown corner. He's good in any type of coverage, and he has a deadly combination of ball skills and football instincts.
His abilities were put on full display in the Under Armour All-America Game. After recording five tackles, two pass breakups and an interception, Hargreaves was named the game's most valuable player.
His performance drew immense praise from ESPN's Jeff Barlis, who went so far as to say Hargreaves can be a better player than Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins.
The Gators already have a surplus of talent at cornerback. Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson have already made their fair share of plays. However, Hargreaves is likely to be thrown right into the mix this season and challenge for playing time. He is that good.
There are very few recruits that can be labeled a "sure bet." Hargreaves, however, fits right into this category. He's fast, deceptive and intelligent. Most importantly, however, he is a dangerous playmaker that SEC quarterbacks will come to fear down the road.