Florida spring practice: Previewing the defense before the Orange and Blue Debut

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

After losing Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam, among others, can Florida's defense repeat its dominant 2012?

Yesterday, I previewed the offensive side of the ball for Saturday's Orange and Blue Debut. Today, I tackle defense (no pun intended) and special teams.

Of Florida's top five tacklers in 2012, four are preparing for the NFL Draft as you read this. The departures of Matt Elam, Shariff Floyd, Josh Evans and Jelani Jenkins (among others) leave a hollow interior, but a perimeter that is for the most part just the way it appeared in the Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville.

Whether that's good or bad is up for debate.

Defensive Line

Shariff Floyd is gone, taking with him a team high 13 tackles for loss. Floyd made his presence felt after transitioning from defensive end to defensive tackle, and his former partner in crime Dominique Easley will be doing the same this spring.

Muschamp talked to the defense Monday and informed them of the move. Behind him at nose tackle is Darious "Bear" Cummings. I can't wait to see the disruption each of these behemoths can cause opposing centers and guards, and they may perform like superstars on Saturday against the battered and thin offensive line.

On the exterior of the defensive line Jonathan Bullard is out for the spring game, and with Easley moved inside, Bryan Cox Jr. is next on the depth chart. I'm interested in just who gets plugged in at defensive end, whether it's Cox, or someone else.

Linebacker

At Buck, Dante Fowler Jr. is the stop-gap for the time being while the world awaits the return of Ronald Powell. When Powell gets back, he'll return to Buck and Fowler will move elsewhere in the linebacking corps, or shift to the line. Fowler is too good to sit the bench, and, on Saturday, I'll be looking for Fowler to show the speed and other abilities that have the coaches saying they must find a way to have him and Ronald Powell on the field at the same time. When Powell returns, I think Fowler flips to the other outside linebacker, and the tandem wreaks havoc on the perimeter.

Moving to the inside linebackers the depth is thin with Alex Anzalone out for spring as well as Neiron Ball battling an ankle injury.

I'm hoping for something like this out of Antonio Morrison Saturday (of course, with less hazardous effects to a Florida players' health):

That physicality will have to be clear as he steps into a permanent starting role. Darrin Kitchens, someone who delivered one of the most touching moments of last season, will also need to step up. There really isn't any Gator I want to see do well more than Kitchens, the embodiment of "in all kinds of weather," and just like Morrison, he'll need to assert himself as a consistent run stuffer.

I'll be searching for who emerges as a leader (if anyone) from this group. Jon Bostic's quiet brand of leadership is gone on the second level; someone is going to have to take the reins.

Secondary

This position group probably has the most potential to do well of any unit on the team. Depth, skill, and a massive get in Vernon Hargreaves III entering school in the fall are the cornerstones of Florida's great secondary.

The losses the Gators have suffered in the defensive backfield can't be overlooked, however. Josh Evans and Matt Elam leaving for the NFL is huge, they were Florida's two leading tacklers last season with 83 and 76 tackles. With those two gone, Cody Riggs will move from corner to safety and Jabari Gorman will step in at the other safety. Jaylen Watkins will also be moving from corner to safety, at least for the time being, and it's critical that the transplants do well Saturday, lest they get shipped back to the mix at corner, where playing time may be elusive.

Muschamp has said the secondary has been suspect at times; my best bet is that it's the newbies getting caught out of position while learning unfamiliar roles. I'll be paying special attention to Riggs and Watkins, who, much like Kelvin Taylor on offense, need not think Saturday, and instead try to simply do. They have the experience, but can they adjust to a new position?

Now that Loucheiz Purifoy is back at cornerback, Florida can do some different things in coverage. With No. 15 on the field, expect a lot more man coverage, as Purifoy's physicality allows the Gators to be much more aggressive in the secondary with Purifoy and Marcus Roberson battling with wide receivers instead of merely covering them. The rust is likely off for Purifoy at this point and I don't think he's been harmed at all by his foray at wideout. I expect more than a few big plays from Purifoy Saturday, on both sides of the ball.

Again, this group, just like the other two on defense has solid perimeter play, and a core that is a work in progress.

Kicker

Brad Phillips and Austin Hardin have the "OR" between them on the spring depth chart and neither is designated the starter heading into Saturday. They've got massive shoes to fill with the departure of all-world kicker Caleb Sturgis, who was a Lou Groza award finalist in his junior and senior year.

Sturgis also bailed the Florida offense out many a time when it sputtered last year in the red zone, where he hit 14 field goals and accounted for 36 percent of Florida's red zone scoring output. These kickers might need to do the same, and there have been hints that Phillips' accuracy on short kicks and lack of leg strength may produce a timeshare at the position.

Punter

It's fair to start comparing Kyle Christy to Chas Henry. In fact, Christy might be better at this stage in their careers: He was as a finalist for the Ray Guy award in his sophomore year and had a 45.8 yards per punt average, both better than Henry (43.4 yards per punt) did as a sophomore. Christy, however, is not participating in spring practice, because of a torn labrum, an injury suffered under interesting circumstances:

Todd Fennell will be the one punting Saturday and I'll be looking for him to do what punters are expected to do: Place the ball inside the 20 when possible, and, if not, kick it well enough to give the coverage team a chance to make a tackle.

Returners

If there's anything Andre Debose "gets," it's returning kicks. He has a return touchdown in each season he's played at Florida (including two his freshman year), and he is a threat every time he stands back to return. I'll be on the lookout for more of the same from Debose Saturday.

Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson, Trey Burton, and even Demarcus Robinson got work off the JUGS machine in Florida's open practice three weeks ago, so they're also in the mix to be Florida's main returner.

Other than running back, this should be the group that gives Gators fans the least amount of worries thanks to the known quantities it has.

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