Is The Florida Gators' Defense Still Their Achilles’ Heel or the Real Deal?

Joe MorganSenior Analyst ISeptember 3, 2008

The major weakness for the 2007 Florida Gators was their dismal defense, a unit that returned only two starters from the BCS Championship squad the year before.

The defense performed well against the run, ranking first in the SEC, but finished last in the conference in pass defense. However, a portion of the blame for Florida’s inept pass defense can be attributed to their lack of a legitimate pass rush throughout the 2007 schedule.

Motivated by a lack of tenacity and success on defense in 2007, the Gators worked hard with defensive coaches Charlie Strong and Dan McCarney during the offseason to complement Florida’s high-powered offense.

Head coach Urban Meyer also did his part to improve the Gator defense on the recruiting trail.  Safety Will Hill and defensive linemen Omar Hunter and Matt Patchan headlined one of the nation’s top classes.

Coming into 2008, the questions still remains: Will the Gator defense improve enough to allow Urban Meyer and Florida to compete for another national championship?

While one game cannot determine whether or not the defense has improved significantly, the Gators made great strides toward that goal this past Saturday in “the Swamp.”

Florida’s defensive line showed signs of promise, but struggled with penalties early and often.  The Gators’ front four racked up five offside penalties in the first half alone. The coaching staff even pulled defensive end Jermaine Cunningham from the game due to some mental miscues.

The trip to the sideline was a wakeup call for Cunningham. The rest of the way, he helped the defensive line battle back from its slow start, recording two sacks and a forced fumble that led to an eventual Gator touchdown.  

While Florida’s defensive line has shown signs of improvement, the major question marks remain with the secondary. Fortunately for the Gators, the play of safety Ahmad Black and cornerback Joe Haden was quite encouraging.

Haden played a phenomenal game against Hawaii, recording five and a half tackles, half a sack, forcing one fumble and recovering another. Haden even broke into the backfield on the game’s first play from scrimmage to knock down a pass attempt by Warrior quarterback Greg Alexander.

Black, filling in for the injured Dorian Munroe, made a great first impression in his starting debut. Black recorded two interceptions Saturday, taking his second pick 80 yards to the end zone, increasing Florida’s lead over Hawaii to 56 points.

Sophomore safety Major Wright had a good day at the office as well, returning an interception 32 yards for a touchdown, upping the Gator lead to two touchdowns early in the second quarter.

Although the Florida secondary put on a great performance against Hawaii, their main goal is to consistently perform at a high level to help Florida compete for the SEC and BCS Championships.  

A good game against the Miami Hurricanes would certainly be a positive step towards realizing that goal. The Hurricanes should present a tough challenge for the Gator defense. Miami accumulated 416 yards of total offense against Charleston Southern without the services of starting quarterback, Robert Marve.

Granted, Charleston Southern isn’t exactly a top-tier football program, but Miami benefits from the nation’s top-ranked 2008 recruiting class ( as well as a team of very talented athletes. It would be a mistake for Florida, especially the defense, to overlook the ‘Canes in this weekend’s contest.

The expectations for the Florida defense are high and the time to step up is now. The Gator defense certainly cannot afford to let up on the gas pedal now, especially with their tough schedule up ahead.

Only Saturday’s game with Miami, as well as the rest of the season, will determine if the Gators’ new and improved defense really is the real deal.