Florida Football: How Will the Gators Replace Departing Defensive Players?
The Florida Gators turnaround from a 7-6 football team to one that finished 11-2 was fueled by a tough, hard-nosed, physical defense. As the offense struggled throughout the season, it was the defense that regularly kept the Gators in games and was the biggest reason for Florida's success in 2013.
With success comes opportunity and a chance to play at the next level. The opportunity to enter the NFL Draft was too good to pass up for Sharrif Floyd, Jelani Jenkins and Matt Elam as all three chose to forgo their senior seasons. The Gators will also be without Omar Hunter, Lerentee McCray, Jon Bostic and Josh Evans.
If you're keeping score at home that's seven starters including five of the six leaders in tackles from 2012 that Will Muschamp needs to replace heading into next season.
Do the Gators have the depth necessary to continue playing defense at a championship level? Let's take a look at how the Gators will look to replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball.
Lerentee McCray, Buck LB
Of the seven departing starters, finding a replacement for Lerentee McCray will be the easiest for the Florida Gators.
That's not a slight on McCray's production. The senior finished last season with 25 tackles, one interception and three sacks.
However, Florida will be getting back Ronald Powell who started as a sophomore and was having a great spring practice before tearing his ACL. Powell should be up to full speed by spring practice and will compete with Dante Fowler Jr. for the starting position.
Speaking of Fowler, the sophomore-to-be will give Powell a run for his money this offseason. As a freshman, Fowler finished the season with 30 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
Powell and Fowler will both be counted on to be key contributors next season.
Omar Hunter, Nose Tackle
While the Florida Gators might not have much trouble replacing Larentee McCray at Buck LB, finding a replacement for Omar Hunter will be a little more difficult.
Hunter played a key role for the Gators defense, and nose tackle is a position the Gators will be thin at in 2013.
The early favorite to replace Hunter is Leon Orr. Orr finished the 2012 season with 15 tackles, one sack and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
Behind Orr, things are less clear for the Gators. Florida could use JUCO-transfers Jarran Reed or Darious Cummings at nose tackle, but both players are better suited at defensive tackle.
Sharrif Floyd, Defensive Tackle
Replacing Sharrif Floyd is a tall task for Will Muschamp and D.J Durkin. Floyd's numbers don't show the actual presence that he had on the football field. He spent much of the 2012 season taking on double teams, but still managed to come up with 46 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, three sacks, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Not to mention two blocked field goals.
Fortunately for the Florida Gators, they were able to add some good depth at the position with the 2013 recruiting class. Florida added Darious Cummings and Jarran Reed from junior college along with Jay-nard Bostwick, Joey Ivie and Caleb Brantley in the class. All four of those players could see playing time this season along with Damien Jacobs.
The Gators may not have a player that can make the same type of impact as Floyd, but they will be deeper at defensive tackle in 2013.
Jon Bostic, Mike LB
Replacing Jon Bostic will be more than just replacing his 67 tackles, two interceptions, three sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback hurries. Bostic was the leader of Florida's defense, responsible for getting the plays from the sideline and relaying it to his teammates.
Fortunately for the Florida Gators, they have a lot of options at linebacker. Antonio Morrison had a fantastic freshman season and he has the physicality to make the move to inside linebacker. Morrison would need to add some bulk this offseason in order to make the move, but he has the frame to support additional mass.
Along with Morrison, Michael Taylor could be another option to replace Bostic. Taylor is a big, physical linebacker, but really struggles in pass-coverage. Taylor has a lot of experience backing up Bostic, and if he can improve in coverage, he should see a significant increase in playing time this season.
The Gators also added four linebackers in the recruiting class, and both Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian could end up playing inside linebacker at some point in their careers.
Jelani Jenkins, LB
Jelani Jerkins' departure came as somewhat of a surprise. Jenkins battled injuries in 2012 and missed time in six games including the Sugar Bowl. Jenkins was the Florida Gators best cover-linebacker and replacing that athleticism will be difficult.
The favorite to replace Jenkins would be Antonio Morrison if he were to stay at outside linebacker. The coaching staff also like Jeremi Powell a lot, and he should be a factor on the defense in 2013. Powell earned scout team player of the week honors four times during his redshirt year, and he is an athletic player who is better in coverage than Morrison.
In addition to those two, Alex Anzalone and Daniel McMillian are both extremely talented freshmen who are already on campus and competing for playing time. Both Anzalone and McMillian are too talented to not get playing time as freshmen, and depending on how quickly they adapt to the new playbook and speed of the game, they could even earn starting time this season.
Josh Evans, Free Safety
Josh Evans saved his best football for his senior season. Evans led the team in tackles with 83 while adding three interceptions, five tackles for loss and two-and-a-half sacks.
The Florida Gators are extremely deep in the secondary, and there are a number of players who can fill in for Evans.
Brian Poole really impressed the coaching staff last season and spent time at both nickel and safety. Poole only finished the season with three tackles, but played in every game except the season opener.
Both Cody Riggs and Jaylen Watkins have been cross-trained at safety and could wind up there this coming season.
Freshman Marcell Harris and Keanu Neal will enroll this summer and could contend for playing time early.
Matt Elam, Strong Safety/ Nickel
Like we mentioned before with Jon Bostic, replacing Matt Elam is more than just replacing statistics. Elam's intensity on the field and knack for coming up with a big play when the Florida Gators needed it are traits that no one player on the roster can match.
Like replacing Sharrif Floyd, the Gators will need to count on a couple of players to fill the void that Elam is leaving.
Florida will look to Jabari Gorman, Jaylen Watkins, Keanu Neal, Marcell Harris, Cody Riggs and Rhaheim Ledbetter to fill in at strong safety.
The competition for the starting spot with be hotly contested this offseason, but with as much nickel as the Gators play, there will be plenty of playing time to go around in the secondary.