2011 Florida Gators Football: Time for the Defensive Line to Shine

John PattonContributor IMay 3, 2011

Jaye Howard is Florida's most productive returning defensive lineman.
Jaye Howard is Florida's most productive returning defensive lineman.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When they signed national letters of intent with the University of Florida, their names were accompanied by a constellation of stars.

Yet, so far, the prep All-American defensive linemen the Gators have inked in recent years haven't lived up to their considerable billing.

That statement probably isn't quite fair to sophomores-to-be Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd, all 5-star signees from the Class of 2010. The heavily recruited trio combined for 52 tackles (including 11 for-loss) and a sack last season.

And that statement definitely isn't fair to 4-star defensive tackle Leon Orr and 4-star defensive end Lynden Trail, each of whom redshirted last season as freshmen.

However, it certainly is fair to fourth-year junior defensive tackle Omar Hunter, once rated as the No. 2 nose tackle in the country by rivals.com, and fifth-year senior defensive tackle Jaye Howard, a one-time 4-star prospect.

No doubt former coach Urban Meyer placed far too much early pressure on Hunter in 2008 by referring to the Buford, Ga. product as the "Tim Tebow" of his signing class.

That said, Hunter should have produced more than the 23 tackles and three tackles-for-loss he recorded in 2010's 13 games. And even if much of his job description entails tying up blockers, there is no way with his strength and quickness that he still should be looking for his first career sack.

Howard, meanwhile, has shown flashes of brilliance, but not sustained excellence. Despite missing two games with an injury, his three sacks in 2010 were second on the team to former defensive end Duke Lemmens' four.  Howard's seven career sacks are the most of any returning Gator.

The 2011 season should provide ample opportunity for these players—and perhaps also seniors Earl Okine and William Green—to make plays on the front end of UF's defense. The addition of California transfer Chris Martin, a former 5-star end prospect who will be eligible to play in 2011, should add to the potential riches.

Auburn's Nick Fairley is gone. Alabama's Marcell Dareus, too. LSU's Drake Nevis also recently was drafted into the NFL.

The door is cracked for one or more of these Gators to become the Southeastern Conference's next great defensive lineman. The big question is will they kick it open and announce their presence to opposing offenses?

After all, true stars shine.