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Gator Spring Football Guide: Defense

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RETURNING: At end, senior Jeremy Mincey, redshirt junior Steven Harris, redshirt junior MacKenzie Pierre, junior Joe Cohen, redshirt sophomore Tranell Morant, redshirt sophomore Jarvis Moss, redshirt sophomore Julian Riley, redshirt freshman Derrick Harvey; at tackle, redshirt junior Ray McDonald, redshirt junior Todd Bunce, redshirt sophomore Clint McMillan, redshirt sophomore Michael Hill, redshirt freshman Brandon Daniel.
OUT WITH INJURY: Junior Marcus Thomas (back surgery) redshirt freshman Michael Brown (bad shoulder) redshirt freshman Javier Estopinan (ACL)
GONE: Kenny Parker, Eric Holcombe.
OVERVIEW: With 13 scholarship players, the Gators have the depth to survive the only position hit with injuries for spring practice. McDonald, Cohen and Mincey are returning starters, and Morant was part of the rotation at end. McDonald led the team with 10 tackles for loss in 2004, making 39 total stops. Thomas matched his 39 tackles, but his absence in the spring will give the younger players a chance to develop. Hill's five tackles were the most for the returning backups. Mincey was the tackles leader among the defensive linemen with 51 at right end. Cohen came on late to finish with 28 tackles, with Steven Harris making 23. Morant had 12.
MEYER: "There's a couple of defense ends that have the word Parade in front of 'em, or five-star, nine-star or 27-star, whatever that means, that haven't played a down. There's going to be some pressure on those guys. It's time to put up or shut up, as they say."
KEY QUESTION: Can the ends live up to their high school hype?
Cohen and Moss, UF's two Parade All-Americans on the defensive front, combined for zero sacks a year ago as UF's ends were invisible on the pass rush and ineffective against the run. Cohen's freshman year was wasted at fullback, where he had no clue what to do, and he took a long time to get comfortable after moving to his natural end spot as a sophomore. Moss has struggled to gained weight and been plagued by tendonitis in his knees. He eventually was moved to linebacker a year ago but rarely got on the field, making one tackle, and has returned to defensive end. Morant did not make many plays, either, accounting for 12 tackles and zero sacks. All three of them are entering their third year and second spring. As Meyer said last week, it's time to put up or shut up.
RETURNING: Senior Todd McCullough, junior Earl Everett, redshirt junior Brian Crum, redshirt junior Billy Latsko, sophomore Brandon Siler, sophomore Eric Rutledge, walk-on sophomore Alvin Butler, walk-on redshirt junior Richard Brown.
GONE: Channing Crowder.
OVERVIEW: It's like the comment I received on a in-class English essay I wrote in 10 minutes after a case of writer's block as a senior in high school: "What you've written is very good. I just wish there were more of it." Florida has an All-America caliber linebacker in Siler and a linebacker with All-World speed in Earl Everett. Siler, whom Meyer labeled his favorite player on the team last week, made a team-high 77 tackles as a true freshman. The defense actually improved after he replaced an injured Crowder at middle linebacker. Everett was right behind him with 74 stops, including a team-high 4 ½ sacks (he shared the honor with Thomas). Siler and Everett are an excellent duo, but the rest of UF's linebackers come close to a collective zero. Oft-injured Todd McCullough, who made 23 tackles a year ago, rounds out the list of 2004 linebackers returning for the spring.
MEYER: "We have two guys that have earned their keep around here, and that's it."
KEY QUESTION: Will anyone emerge to complement Siler and Everett?
McCullough has started six times in his career with a high of 36 tackles in 2002. He made eight tackles against Mississippi State last season. The spring is his big opportunity to prove himself before a talented group of freshmen arrive in the fall. The other candidates are newcomers. Crum will get a second shot after played sparingly at linebacker in 2003. He has spent the rest of his career at tight end. With fullback obsolete in Meyer's scheme, Latkso and Rutledge will get a chance on defense. Rutledge was named the Gainesville Sun's Class 2A co-defensive player of the year in 2003. In a best-case scenario, McCullough will play well and one of the other three scholarship linebackers will show potential.
RETURNING: Senior Vernell Brown, senior Deshawn Carter, junior Dee Webb, Lewis, redshirt junior Tremaine McCollum, redshirt junior Jermaine McCollum, redshirt freshman Dawayne Grace.
GONE: Reynaldo Hill.
OVERVIEW: After a shaky start, Webb matured into a solid corner while starting all 12 games in 2004. He made 61 tackles, had three interceptions and broke up a team-high 10 passes. The Gators are set at his spot, but the other corner position is wide open. Brown has the most experience, playing 228 downs as a backup a year ago and making 12 tackles. Meyer mentioned Grace and Lewis, who has been moved from wide receivers, as the other primary candidates.
MEYER: "We've got to find two or three that can cover people fulltime."
KEY QUESTION: Other than Webb, who can be a lock-down corner?
Co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong want to play plenty of man coverage, but they need reliable corners to do it. Brown plays hard, but his size (5-8, 165) always will present problems as receivers shield him from the ball. Grace is an unknown after redshirting. Lewis is new to the position. Everyone else is a long shot. Watch these corners closely in the spring. Their development will play a role in the type of scheme UF uses in the fall.
RETURNING: Senior Jarvis Herring, redshirt junior Terrence Holmes, redshirt junior Nick Brooks, sophomore Tony Joiner, sophomore Kyle Jackson.
GONE: Cory Bailey, Tre Orr.
OVERVIEW: No depth concerns here. Florida has four starter-quality safeties. Herring, a free safety with solid instincts, led the Gators with four interceptions last season and had 55 tackles. Holmes, a physical hitter, picked off three passes while making 24 tackles and starting three times in UF's nickel package. Jackson started the last four games at strong safety in a case of a true freshman supplanting a senior (Bailey). Jackson had 24 tackles and two interceptions, showing an immediate knack for the ball. Joiner, another true freshman, played sparingly in the fall (nine tackles) but was impressive in preseason drills.
MEYER: "The safeties are as good a looking group as I've been around with Holmes, Herring, Kyle Jackson and Joiner. We'll have to see how that's going to shake out at spring practice."
KEY QUESTION: What will the depth chart look like at UF's deepest spot?
Except at quarterback, it's rarely a bad thing to have an abundance of quality starters at a position. The competition should be intense, with Herring and Jackson trying to keep the starting status they held under Zook's staff. Meyer is higher on the safeties than any other position on defense.
RETURNING: Junior punter Eric Wilbur, walk-on senior punter Nick Fleming, walk-on junior placekicker Chris Hetland.
GONE: Matt Leach, Matt Piotrowicz, Casey Griffith.
OVERVIEW: Meyer will serve as his own special teams coach, the same thing he did at Utah even though one of his coaches had the title. He inherits a quality punter in Eric Wilbur, who finished third in the SEC with an average of 42.3 yards a year after averaging 44.8 yards. UF will not have a scholarship placekicker on campus until the fall, when Jonathan Phillips arrives. The Gators also need a longsnapper to replace Griffith.
KEY QUESTION: Does Meyer obsess about blocked punts?
Zook, a special teams coordinator at UF and the NFL, has some strange fixations. He was worried so much about getting punts blocked that he used Ingle Martin as his punter for almost all of 2002 even though Martin kicked short, low line drives almost every time. He defended his punt returners catching the ball inside the 10-yard line by explaining that surveys revealed more than 50 percent of those punts were downed before they reached the end zone. Meanwhile, his punt and kick returners never scored a touchdown in three years while his coverage units allowed eight touchdowns. If Meyer can teach these guys how to set up a decent return this spring, he's ahead of the game.