After arguably one of the worst seasons, as far as defense goes, the young Gator defense can't use inexperience as an excuse anymore.
At the start of 2007 practice, Head Coach Urban Meyer and Defensive Coordinator Charlie Strong knew they had some pretty big shoes to fill. Losing nine starters from a dominating National Championship defense, the Florida staff knew they had some work to do.
Losing four of the five defensive line rotation, losing both corners, losing an All-American Safety, and losing all three starting linebackers had the Gator coaches experiencing a little bit of anxiety.
Opening the 2007 campaign, three true freshmen, five true sophomores and one redshirt sophomore were named starters to the Florida defense. All of these players were making their debut as defensive starters.
We all know what the outcome was at the end of the season.
A Florida defense hasn't given up those kind of numbers through the air since the 1970s.
When you have no pass rush or not one experienced cornerback, what else can you expect?
Since spring practice, Urban Meyer has seen his young defense grow up to be more mature football players.
The corners, Joe Haden and Wondy Pierre-Louis, actually look like they know what they're doing. Last year, they had to learn the steps and were constantly thinking about not "screwing up." But now they have the steps down, and they know what to expect this year.
According to Pierre-Louis, who is now a junior, they are going to try to make plays and not just go through the motions like last year. Sophomore Joe Haden is also confident about the upcoming season.
Being placed on the freshman all-SEC team in 2007, Haden suddenly looks like an experienced corner.
Haden came out of high school as a quarterback and started as a cornerback his first year as a college player. If you've never played football, you don't know how hard it is for a player to switch schemes, or in Haden's case, switch positions.
Haden received some high recognition from Coach Meyer this August. Meyer said Haden is now playing like an SEC corner.
When Meyer praises you, that's when you know you've done your job.
The Gators have two solid corners, and new cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford is awfully excited to see them play.
True freshman Janoris Jenkins and true freshman Jeremy Brown are competing against Markihe Anderson and Jacques Rickerson for playing time at the cornerback position.
Safety is probably the one position that Coach Meyer is still skeptical about.
With only two scholarship safeties on the roster, some changes had to be made by the Florida coaching staff.
Ahmad Black has now been moved from corner to strong safety. Wide Receiver Justin Williams has also made the transition to safety.
It looks like the free safety position has been locked up by sophomore Major Wright.
Wright, who started last year as a true freshman, showed the capability he has deep in the secondary. If Wright stays healthy, the free safety position should be in good shape.
True freshman Will Hill enters the competition for the other safety job. Hill, who was voted the No. 1 athlete by rivals.com, is trying to get used to the speed of college rather than high school. Once Hill does adjust to SEC speed, he will be lethal and should make an impact in 2008.
Williams showed immediate skill during a scrimmage in the second week of practice. Williams will be a quality backup if he doesn't step up and grab the starting free safety position.
Because of Ahmad Black's experience in the secondary, I look for him to start on Aug. 30 against Hawaii.
Defensive line coach Dan McCarney has been fortunate enough to bless the Gator coaching staff with his experience. The departure of Greg Mattison left McCarney with the opportunity to coach a defensive line unit with plenty of depth.
Jermaine Cunningham returns at starting defensive end. The junior showed potential to be a great DE at Florida last year, recording 17 tackles against LSU.
Cunningham will be joined by true sophomore Carlos Dunlap, who has freakish size and speed. Dunlap's 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame and 4.6 forty speed will have quarterbacks constantly worrying about the backside.
Dunlap and Cunningham could be the best pair of defensive ends in the SEC.
Sophomores Duke Lemmens and Justin Trattou are joined by true freshmen Earl Okine and William Green to compete for the backup defensive end positions.
Defensive Tackle really struggled last year due to injury and lack of depth. But things have really turned positive over the past couple of months.
With the arrival of Omar Hunter, the second-best DT in the 2008 class, and Matt Patchan, the defensive tackle position will be a hard job to win due to the level of competition.
John Brown looks to show his skill as a redshirt freshman. Brown missed last season due to academics, but he received a redshirt and is ready to contribute.
Terron Sanders and Brandon Antwine both suffered injuries last season and look forward to playing this season.
Ronnie Wilson joined the team as a walk-on after an off-the-field incident in 2007. Wilson was a guard and played on the 2006 National Championship team.
Wilson showed good footwork and explosion this off-season and may receive a decent amount of playing time on the defensive side of the ball.
Jaye Howard made the move from end to tackle and looks like he will do some damage this season. He came to Florida at 230 pounds and is now at 270. He may be a huge surprise in 2008.
My projected starters are redshirt sophomore Lawrence Marsh and JUCO transfer Troy Epps. Marsh has the size, (6-foot-5, 305 pounds), and he showed the coaches he really wanted to make an impact this season. Epps impressed the coaches in the off-season and will be a big part of the defensive line unit.
As you can see, we have plenty of depth on the defensive line. Torrey Davis and Javier Estophinan are two other names in the defensive tackle mix.
The linebackers are probably the most experienced group in the whole defense.
Led by second-team All-American Brandon Spikes, this unit looks to raise some eyebrows this fall.
Spikes, a junior, led the team in tackles last season with 131 and earned a spot on the SEC first team. He is considered the leader of the defense and will remain at middle linebacker in 2008.
Dustin Doe has really impressed Coach Meyer and Coach Strong this summer. Doe started all 13 games last year and will be someone running backs will look out for. Doe will hold off the outside.
The other Outside linebacker is still in the air.
AJ Jones will look to keep his spot, but Lorenzo Edwards and Brandon Hicks may have something to say about that. All three know what it will take to win the job. I honestly have no clue who the starter will be come Aug. 30.
Overall, the defense has made a complete 180 since last year. Signs of maturity and leadership have impressed the entire coaching staff.
Even Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow can notice better play by the secondary. Tebow says they are playing with a higher confidence level and it shows.
If this defense stays healthy, especially in the secondary, they will help the Gator offense put up more numbers.
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