Matt Elam is one of the key players that Florida needs to replace.
The Florida Gators' resurgent turnaround last season was the result of stout defense. Will Muschamp's squad allowed only two opponents to score more than 20 points in a game last season. Furthermore, his defensive unit held four opponents to single digits. In the end, the Gators ranked fifth in the country in points allowed per game.
If Florida hopes to replicate that success in 2013, it will have to replace some key contributors on defense. Sharrif Floyd, Jon Bostic, Matt Elam and Jelani Jenkins are a few of the big names that will no longer be making plays for the orange and blue.
However, their departures will give a few underclassmen the opportunity to be a starter and make a big impact of their own. If they can rise to the challenge and make plays, the Gators will once again be a competitor for the SEC crown. If they cannot do so, it can potentially be a long season for the Florida faithful.
Here are five new defensive starters who need to step up next season.
There is no Gator freshman recruit garnering more attention and hype right now than Vernon Hargreaves III. The ESPN 5-star prospect should start next season, even though he will only be a freshman. He has the talent to be an absolute star in Florida's secondary.
Hargreaves has everything one would want in a terrific corner. He has great speed that allows him to run stride for stride with anyone. He has terrific ball skills that could make him a takeaway threat in both man and zone coverage. Perhaps most importantly, he has arguably the best football instincts of any defensive recruit in this year's class.
Some of the best Florida teams in school history have had a shutdown corner capable of shifting momentum with one play. Joe Haden is one player that immediately comes to mind. Hargreaves has the skills and drive to be as good as Haden and some of the other terrific corners that have come through Florida.
The Gators need an immediate payoff from their investment in Hargreaves. He doesn't need to become a superstar this season, but he does need to make a few plays. If he can do this, the team will be on the right path toward having a feared secondary.
Bullard thanks the Gator fans after a win against South Carolina.
With Sharrif Floyd's departure, there is a very good chance that Dominique Easley will shift back to defensive tackle. If this is indeed the case, sophomore Jonathan Bullard is going to have to carry the load at defensive end.
The good news for Gator fans is that Bullard is more than capable. As his bio on Gatorzone.com points out, Bullard was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. He finished the season with five tackles for a loss and 27 total tackles. The former Rivals.com 5-star recruit is a tall and explosive lineman. He only had 1.5 sacks as a freshman but that number could skyrocket next season if he refines his game a bit.
The absence of Floyd leaves the Gators with no choice but to change things up at the line. Even with him on the line, the team struggled to rush the passer on many occasions. This leaves Bullard with no choice but to bring his game to the next level. His production is urgently needed on the defensive line.
Antonio Morrison will need to fill a void at linebacker.
As the primary backup to Jelani Jenkins last season, Antonio Morrison played well when Jenkins was sidelined due to injury. Now that Jenkins has departed, Morrison is the clear-cut favorite to anchor his vacated position next season.
Like Bullard, Morrison was also named to the SEC All-Freshman team. He made three starts in place of Jenkins and made a significant impact. Overall, he recorded 34 tackles with two tackles being for a loss. He also recovered a fumble.
Morrison is not particularly an imposing figure, but he is as solid a linebacker as you will find. He showed during his time in the lineup that he can wrap up the ball-carrier and deliver a forceful tackle. His coverage skills could use some improvement, but he is consistently productive against the run.
Jenkins was an underrated player in Florida's defensive scheme, and Morrison is the perfect replacement for his role. Morrison not only needs to perform well, but also be a respected general of he defensive unit. Significant improvement in his game is crucial to the success of this Gator team.
The free safety position looks like it will belong to rising sophomore Brian Poole. He will have to bring his game up a notch if he wants to make the same impact that Josh Evans did last season.
His main competition for the spot is Jabari Gorman, but Poole is the overall better prospect. He is more reliable in coverage than Gorman, and he has a slight size advantage as well.
Poole was deemed a 5-star recruit by Scout.com out of high school. He is specifically gifted with a strong burst and toughness. He is able to establish his position early in the play's development and then impose his presence on opposing receivers with great success.
Poole made only three tackles last season because Florida's free safety spot was sewn up. However, he needs to eclipse that number by a huge margin next season. Luckily for coach Muschamp and staff, Poole has the talent needed to do so.
Ball intercepted his first career pass against Georgia.
With Bostic and Jenkins now out of the picture at linebacker, there are holes that need to be filled at the position. One of the backers that should benefit as a result is Neiron Ball.
After missing all of 2011, Ball returned last season and made a nice dent in the turnover column. His first interception came against Georgia, and he also recovered two fumbles last season.
He is a talented player, which is evidenced by his Rivals.com 4-star rating. Ball is very tall and is a physical defender. He has made a spot start here and there as well, so he does have some experience already.
At this point, however, the Gators need him to take the next step and become a reliable producer. There is a talented group of freshmen waiting to capitalize should Ball fail. Because he has more experience, however, Ball needs to play at the highest level possible next season.