If you quickly think of the phrase "Florida Gators," the first thing that probably pops into your mind is Tim Tebow, and understandably so, with all of the media coverage devoted to him these days.
But when you really sit down and take a few minutes to think about what defines the Florida Gators football team, a strong (or Strong, as in Charlie Strong) defense is what has made the Gators one of the best teams the past several seasons.
The unit has seen the likes of Reggie Nelson, Brandon Spikes, Derrick Harvey, Joe Haden, Carlos Dunlap and Jarvis Moss terrorizing opposing offenses, only for those offenses to see the next superstar step into the void left behind by his predecessor. With those stars and others (Major Wright, Jermaine Cunningham) gone from the Gators and left for the history books as national champions, it's time for the new crop of defensive talents to step up and take over for the Gators.
There are a lot of holes to fill, but rest assured, there is an unbelievable influx of talent heading to Gainesville to take their place (Have you seen their recruiting class? You might have heard something about it). The Gators will be fine and ready to continue their tradition of defensive excellence. The only question is which players will attempt to fill the mighty large shoes left by crews that have taken two national championships in the past four seasons.
So who is expected to be an X-Factor for Florida's new-look defense in 2010?
Ahmad Black is by no means one of the new kids on the block for the Gators, but when you think of the mighty Gator defenses of late you think of a strong-willed leader that will raise the talents of his teammates into a menacing unit. Guys like Reggie Nelson, Brandon Siler and Brandon Spikes have walked into that huddle when the defense made a stop, and you knew if someone did not make that play, he would not want to return to the sideline to face that leader.
Accountability. That's what a football team needs to succeed, and you don't have that accountability without one of those demanding leaders. With Spikes gone, someone needs to step into that position.
There is no better man to fill that void than Ahmad Black, the savvy senior safety who always seems to make a huge play for the Gators.
One of the keys to Florida's defense last year was Joe Haden, the shutdown corner that is a crucial factor in making a good defense great. Haden's supreme cover skills had opposing quarterbacks scrambling for another option when the locks were on his favorite receiver, leading to forced throws in other directions.
That ability to erase an offense's top option is something the Gators need to see from Jenkins next year. With much of Florida's talent in the defensive backfield very green, Jenkins has to take the starting cornerback job and make it his own. Jenkins has shown a knack for making plays since he saw major playing time in his freshman season at Florida.
Now, with Haden out of the picture, it is time for Jenkins to step up and prove that all that talent will come together in the form of Florida's next shutdown corner. With the likes of Julio Jones and A.J. Green taking the field for two of Florida's biggest games next year, Jenkins may have a big say in how high in the polls the Gators finish next year, depending on how successfully he plays the role of shutdown corner, and how he fares in those types of heavyweight matchups.
Perhaps the biggest question mark heading into 2010 for the Florida Gators is how their defensive line will perform. With the likes of seniors Justin Trattou, Lawrence Marsh and Duke Lemmens expected to start, at least in the early going, Florida has the veterans but may not have the talent they are used to rolling through the front line.
Of course, there isn't a huge concern from a talent perspective, with the likes of uber-talented incoming freshmen Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd, and Dominique Easley entering the picture for Florida very soon. But as is always the case with freshmen, there is a huge question mark, and a huge unknown in the adjustment period they will need before they are ready to contribute in large doses in the collegiate game.
Hunter, one of those former high school beasts, hasn't had a breakthrough yet for the Gators and is nearing the now-or-never stage in his career. Hunter has the size (6' and 308lbs) and talent to be a supreme disruptor on the defensive line, but he still hasn't figured out how to translate that ability to the actual games yet.
If Hunter does turn the corner this year, the Gator defense may not have much of a drop off at all from last year's dominating group. If not, a lot of very green linemen will be eating up all the defensive line's minutes as the season progresses.
Major Wright was a solid force for the Gators in the secondary the past few seasons and his talent level was unquestionable, as evidenced by his selection in the third round of the NFL Draft.
But with Will "The Thrill" Hill, the Gators will be inserting a supreme talent into the full-time starting role at safety. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hill has the chance to be a truly special player for the Orange and Blue, with the talent level to surpass even recent Gator great Reggie Nelson—a feat that will not be easy to accomplish, but if anyone can do it, Hill can.
The Gators scored an absolute coup when they snagged Hill (ranked No. 3 overall in the 2008 class by ESPN) from New Jersey, and they have been biding their time as Hill developed over the past two seasons before truly unleashing him on the rest of the nation this season.
Expect highlight plays that few other players are capable of making at the collegiate level when Hill takes the field. He is perhaps one of the truest definitions of the term "X-Factor," with the speed and hard-hitting ability to completely erase plays or send them heading back the other direction.
Charlie Strong was the one constant on the Florida defensive side of the ball since 2003. Strong's defensive unit was the reason the Gators won the championship in 2006 and a big reason why the Gators have been one of the top teams in the nation during the past five years.
It was only a matter of time before that success translated into a head coaching job for Strong. Enter Teryl Austin. He has an enormous shadow over his position following the man who had a huge hand in bringing two national championships to Gainesville, but Austin's NFL pedigree and calm demeanor make him the perfect candidate to continue the tradition of excellence on Florida's defensive side of the ball.
It will be very interesting to see the Gators defense headed by a new face on the sideline, and although there will probably be a few changes in schematics, don't expect the product on the field to drop off too dramatically. I see Austin as a coach that players will love playing for, and one that coaches them up to their highest potential.
Austin has garnered a reputation as a supreme defensive backs teacher in his stops at Seattle and Arizona in the NFL. He coached a unit of Marcus Trufant, Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware—all drafted by the Seahawks—and created a unit that helped lead the franchise to its only Super Bowl. He performed this feat even with 19 missed games due to injury in his defensive backfield.
In 2007, Austin's Arizona defensive backfield led the lead in interceptions returned for touchdowns, with six. Austin was also the defensive backs coach when the Cardinals made their only Super Bowl appearance.
Expect to see huge dividends in Florida's defensive backfield under Austin's tutelage. He not only has ready-made talents in Hill, Black and Jenkins to torture opposing offenses with, but he will be able to teach incoming freshmen Joshua Shaw and Jaylen Watkins from day one.
The Florida defense may look different under Austin, but the only differences will be the formulas used to get that winning equation.
Keep an eye out for these guys to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball for Florida this year.
To see part one (the offensive X-Factors for Florida): http://bleacherreport.com/articles/396302-floridas-top-five-offensive-x-factors-heading-into-2010
Look for my next article on the Gators, coming soon.