Florida Gators 2011: Grading the Defense and Special Teams Through 3 Games
The Florida Gators went through a major makeover this off season. The biggest changes came on the offensive side of the ball, and in case you missed it, you can find my grades for the offense here.
Urban Meyer was always known as a great recruiter at Florida, and Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn are reaping the benefits of his recruiting, especially on defense. With Will Muschamp taking over the team and bringing in Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator, the young Gator defense now has two NFL-caliber defensive minds teaching them.
The defense is young, seeing as Florida started two freshmen in the secondary on opening day for the first time in school history. They have taken on the attitude of their Head Coach by playing with speed, intensity and passion.
Without further adieu, here are your grades for the Florida Gators defense after the first three games.
The Gator defensive line is athletic, fast and talented. The unit has been led so far by sophomore Dominique Easley.
After struggling through his freshman year with self-described "freshman problems" that almost caused him to transfer, Easley is relishing his second chance with a new coaching staff.Through the first three games, Easley has seven tackles, three of which for loss, and two quarterback hurries. He has brought a level of intensity to the Gators that is infectious and looks to have taken on a leader role for the defense.
Fellow sophomore Sharrif Floyd was forced to sit out two games due to violating NCAA rules and accepting "preferential treatment." Floyd made his return in the Tennessee game, posting three tackles, two quarterback hurries, and one pass break-up.
This was a good start for the young Gator, who will surely make an impact for the team the rest of the season. WIlliam Green and Earl Okine did a serviceable job filling in during Floyd's absence, and are sure to continue to be in the rotation on the line.
While the line has struggled to create as much of a pass rush as they would like, the line showed improvement in the Tennessee game, sacking quarterback Tyler Bray three times, while their pressure caused Bray to Force passes resulting in two interceptions.
The presence of Floyd will help the line continue to pressure the quarterback
For a point of reference, the "Buck" position is a hybrid end/linebacker position that was installed with Ronald Powell in mind by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
This is a position that was brought into the defense almost exclusively for sophomore Ronald Powell. Powell, the consensus No. 1 overall recruit in 2010, has the size and speed that enables him to be effective both rushing the quarterback, or in coverage.
Since it doesn't make sense to pigeonhole a player with this kind of talent, this position will allow Powell more freedom in the defensive scheme. Once he becomes acclimated to it the difference will be apparent.
There has been a slower-than-expected learning curve with Powell early on in the season. Will Muschamp came out after the UAB game and said the team needed more production out of Powell. The sophomore was listening. Powell was a major contributor for the defense, but not in plays that will show up in the box score. Powell had half a sack, and had two quarterback hurries, both ending in interceptions.
Powell brings a different dynamic to the Gator defense. The more comfortable he becomes with his new position, the more his confidence and production will grow.
The Florida linebacking core is led by redshirt sophomore Jelani Jenkins and junior Jonathon Bostic. The duo came into Florida as highly touted recruits, and waited their turn to run the defense. This is their time now, and the pair is making the most of the opportunity. Both were named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus award, an award given annually to the nation's top linebacker.
Bostic is the Mike linebacker in Quinn's new defensive scheme, and is leading the team in tackles with 16. He has also added three tackles for loss, and one sack on the season. Bostic combines size (6 foot 1, 243 lbs) with a speed rare for someone his size, and is a big leader on the Gator defense.
Jelani Jenkins is the other leader. Jenkins has superior speed for a linebacker, and it shows in his stats. He has compiled 13 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one quarterback hurry, and four passes broken up.
While the four pass break ups look good, several of those should have been interceptions. The dropped interceptions have to be frustrating for Jenkins, but it can easily be corrected. Expect Jenkins to spend some time in front of a jugs machine this week in practice.
The will linebacker is Lerentee McCray. McCray has stepped up and impressed this season. The junior made the move from defensive end to strong-side linebacker this off season, and the position seems to suit him better. McCray has seven tackles, three and a half for loss, one quarterback hurry, and two passes broken up.
The unit is responsible for getting the plays in from the sideline, and relaying the call to the rest of the team. Being able to communicate amongst themselves is an area where they have excelled. This unit has been solid this far, and Gator fans should expect them to remain solid the rest of the year.
The starting Gator corner backs feature a sophomore and a freshman, both coming out of St. Thomas Aquinas high school in Ft. Lauderdale.
While the duo is young, they have been up to the task at hand and have done a very good job at holding their own. The defense that Muschamp and Quinn have installed is not an easy one for a corner to play. The young corner backs are routinely asked to play bump and run, and man to man, leaving the corners on an island where any mistake will be on display.
Cody Riggs received a lot of playing time last season due to injury. He is a little undersized (5 foot 9,179 lbs), but plays behind his pads and plays bigger than what he is listed at.
Roberson has faced the toughest challenge. He became the first freshman to start the season opener at cornerback since Joe Haden, and those are pretty big shoes to fill.
Riggs and Roberson have both had their share of penalties this year, but that is to be expected with the aggressive style of defense that is being asked of them. These two are a pair to watch for Florida with the sky being the limit for their production.
Junior Josh Evans has stepped in for injured corner back Jeremy Brown. Evans has started the season better than any other he has had at Florida, recording six tackles, one quarterback hurry, and one interception. With Brown ruled out Saturday (sprained knee), Evans will continue to get playing time.
There have been a couple instances where various mistakes have led to big plays and a couple touchdowns and plenty of penalties, but the young unit will continue to grow as the season progresses.
Sophomore Matt Elam has emerged as a leader on the defense this season, earning praise from his defensive coordinator. Through the first three games, Elam has recorded 13 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, and one pass break-up. Elam has embraced his role as the starting strong safety, and assumed his role as a team leader.
De'Ante 'Pop' Saunders has stepped in as a freshman and become the starting free safety. Quinn has been impressed with Saunders cover ability and has even played the safety as a nickel back. Saunders has recorded six tackles and looks more comfortable every game.
Overall Defensive Grade
The Gators defense has been stingy all season.
They started off strong, allowing FAU only three points while surrendering only 137 yards of offense. They bettered that performance against UAB by shutting out the Blazers while allowing 212 yards of offense. The defense did what they were supposed to do in shutting down their lesser counterparts.
The first test was supposed to come in the form of Tennessee and SEC-leading passer Tyler Bray. The Gator defense passed its first real test, even though they allowed 23 points the defense held the Volunteers to under 300 yards of total offense and held the Vols to negative nine rushing yards (factoring in sacks) and hauled in their first two interceptions of the season.
The young secondary was helped out by the amount of pressure the front seven was able to create.
The Gators are ranked first overall in rushing defense (30.7 yards per game), and seventh overall in total defense (209.3). This unit has started strong and will have one more game on Saturday against Kentucky before they get ready for the October 1 meeting with No. 2 Alabama.
Special teams can often be overlooked by teams, but not at Florida. Under Meyer's special team players would get special treatment, including being first in line when the team would eat together. The trend has continued even with a new coaching staff.
The sign of this came on the very first play of the season. Jeff Demps took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown (the play was called back due to holding). The Gators have continued to be strong on special teams, but not only in the return game.
Through three games, Florida has blocked two punts, returning one for a touchdown. Blocked punts have a huge impact on changing the momentum in a game.
Special teams are a staple in the program and will continue to be strong throughout the year. So good in fact that it has coaches around the SEC talking.
Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips brought to light how effective the interior linemen on the Gators special teams unit are, and how strong and fast that they can move players, allowing "little guys with world class speed" to get in there and block punts. This is an issue that has become a trend in the annual Florida-Kentucky matchup.
In 2008 Florida blocked back-to-back Kentucky punts, scoring on the very next play after both, and went on to beat Kentucky, 63-5.
While the return game is leaving something to be desired, every kick and punt return feels like it could be taken to the house at any moment.