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Florida Gators Mailbag: Is Florida losing too much on defense to contend in 2013?

Florida's 2012 defense was excellent. The 2013 version will be without Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, and Jelani Jenkins. Will that wreck Florida's national title chances?

Kevin C. Cox

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(Elam, Floyd, Jenkins) now NFL bound. Is this getting to be too many or will defense still be ok next year? (@crystalli0)

This question kind of conflates two things — Florida's losing four players to early NFL Draft entry in Matt Elam, Sharrif Floyd, Jelani Jenkins, and Jordan Reed, but only three play defense; Florida's also losing Jon Bostic, Josh Evans, Omar Hunter, and Lerentee McCray off that defense — but I'm going to answer it with just the easy answer: It is both a few too many for the Florida defense to be elite next year, and probably not enough to make the defense worse than okay.

Those seven defenders alone made a combined 85 starts (of a possible 143) in 2012, and only Jenkins and McCray, who missed time due to injury, didn't start every game. The returning defender who started the most games for Florida in 2012 is Loucheiz Purifoy, who doesn't exactly know how to play the ball in the air as a corner; second place goes to Jaylen Watkins, who just spent the Sugar Bowl getting roasted like a s'more, and Dominique Easley, who only came on late in 2012. I can understand that seeming dire, but Florida's got a secret: The guys behind some of those guys and the guys coming in have more talent anyway.

Ronald Powell is likely, I think, to be the star of Florida's defense in 2013: He's got more talent than Floyd and Elam did, and he's going to have had a year of refocusing, two years under Jeff Dillman, and three years under Will Muschamp and Dan Quinn coming into this redshirt junior season. If he's fully healthy — which he should be, more than a year after ACL surgery, despite a setback that cost him his slim chance of playing in 2012 — he could be the player Gators coaches and fans thought they were getting from Rivals' No. 1 overall prospect in 2010.

That would be a huge boost for Florida, which has lacked a pass rusher under Muschamp/Quinn; so would getting Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler Jr., Florida's two best defensive ends as freshmen in the fall, into the starting lineup. Antonio Morrison is ahead of where Jon Bostic was as a freshman, and should only get better with time and a move inside to middle linebacker; Purifoy, Watkins, and Marcus Roberson will get better because they will have to do so to hang onto starting jobs that Brian Poole and others want, and will have better wideouts to go against in practice, which helps. Recruits are going to help, too: Vernon Hargreaves III might be the best Florida cornerback by that first game against Toledo, and Caleb Brantley and Darious Cummings should be rotation players immediately up front.

And then there's the issue of hunger, which I doubt will be a problem for Florida after a lack of it contributed to the blowout loss in New Orleans. Florida won its championship game in 2012 when it beat Florida State, and Elam, Floyd and the rest of the departing players knew the most meaningful moment of their Florida careers had already come and gone with that game; against Louisville, they played like they had already done everything they wanted to do.

That won't be the case for the majority of the 2013 defense: The returning players who got burned will be trying to make up for it, the new crop of players that sat this year will be eager to shine, and Powell and Easley will be rebuilding NFL Draft stock that took a hit. There's not quite as much talent seasoned by experience going forward, and little chance that Florida's 2013 defense matches the incredible level of performance the 2012 iteration achieved (we'll get to that), but there's plenty to be excited about.

The biggest problem with Florida's defense in 2013 will be replacing the brains of the operation in the back. This leads me to our next question...

With Evans and Elam gone, who starts at safety? Do Showers/Gorman get a shot, or will Maye, Harris or others step up? (@JArnholz)

...which may be the hardest one in this set. Elam and Evans weren't just good safeties; they were near-ideal pieces in the Muschamp/Quinn defense that tries to keep everything in front of it and limit explosive plays. They communicated well, tackled well (with Evans learning that skill almost entirely in 2012 and Elam only forgetting it toward the end of the season), and played off each other well, with Elam serving as the enforcer and Evans as the cavalry. Additionally, Elam's versatility as a nickel back also allowed Florida to keep its base personnel on the field, and Evans' improved tackling ability allowed Elam to play in coverage. I don't know who's going to take their place, and I don't know that anyone knows, either: Reporters will complain that Florida's closed practices leave us all in the dark on things like how reserves look, but I think the safety race doesn't even have all its participants on campus yet.

Jabari Gorman, Valdez Showers, and Marcus Maye are the three front-runners for the two spots because of seniority alone, and Maye's the most talented of those three players, followed by Gorman and Showers in short order. But Florida commits Marcell Harris, Keanu Neal, and Nick Washington may not be far off, and any one of them having a fantastic month of fall practice could reshuffle the deck, too.

There's also the possibility that Florida could opt to move a corner to safety (I would think the physical Purifoy is the best bet for that, but Poole could play safety, too) and allow some combination of Harris, Neal, and Washington to redshirt, but it's really too early to tell for sure. If I had to lay money, I'd bet on Gorman and Maye being the two starters against Toledo, but I feel more comfortable making the observation that Pop Saunders would have been one of the starters had he not transferred and predicting that one of Gorman and Showers will probably transfer between now and the first game.

Who's gonna be our starting running back next year? (@_slotkin)

This is a much easier question to answer: It's gonna be Matt Jones.

I considered Jones something of a disappointment midway through the year, because I didn't think he had the burst to gain yards in the SEC or enough power as a big back to compensate for it. I said this to a friend in the stands against Jacksonville State literally minutes before he started doing all the things I was waiting on, and he was a lot better in Florida's last three games than its first 10.

  • First 10 games: 33 carries, 113 yards, 3.42 yards per carry average, three runs of 10+ yards, one touchdown
  • Last three games: 19 carries, 162 yards, 8.53 yards per carry average, seven runs of 10+ yards, two touchdowns
  • Jacksonville State and Louisville didn't have great run defenses, but Florida State did, and Jones ran his best against the 'Noles, showing both power and burst. And I think Florida's coaches trusted Jones as a receiver and blocker more than they did Mike Gillislee even early in 2012, as witnessed by Jones being in on shotgun snaps all year.

    Jones is clearly the best returning running back, and he'll have a full year of Dillman's conditioning on early enrollee Kelvin Taylor and more than that on Adam Lane (or Alex Collins, should Florida somehow add him to the ridiculous recruiting class it is building). I like both Taylor and Lane, and Taylor's been SEC-ready for a couple of years even without the weight he'll need to add to be really good, but Jones is already good, and his stats from those last three games are frighteningly similar to what Gillislee's were as a freshman in 2009, when he averaged 8.61 yards per carry on 31 carries.

    Florida probably won't go nine years between 1,000-yard rushers with Muschamp running the Gators and Brent Pease their offense, but Jones might prevent Florida from going one year without one. He's the starter. Remember to yell his name when you hear "WHO?!"

    Even without Robinson coming to UF, don't ya think we'd be ok at WR? Dunbar, Pittman, Bailey, Fulwood, Taylor..etc. (@MitchellMason96)

    This question was asked before Demarcus Robinson committed to Florida for good this Monday, but the answer doesn't change: It was always yes. Florida's struggles in the passing game have been acute in recent years, and the Gators were going to get better at throwing the ball at some point in the near future even if it was only because they had run out of ways to get worse.

    The wide receiver corps reached a nadir in 2012: Frankie Hammond was an excellent representative of the University of Florida, but he was not an SEC-caliber starting wide receiver; Trey Burton probably shouldn't be a wide receiver at all; Quinton Dunbar hadn't put together his talent until late in the season; Andre Debose was either using up valuable snaps or being completely misused, depending on your perspective; Omarius Hines was somewhat criminally underused; Solomon Patton had been reduced to a situational player even before his injury; neither Latroy Pittman nor Raphael Andrades were trusted to be pass-catchers in their freshman seasons. Jordan Reed was Florida's best receiver in 2012, and he was only a wide receiver in the sense that he sometimes lined up in the slot and outside.

    That was one big issue, but two more were in the backfield: Florida's pass blocking was woeful at times in 2012, with Xavier Nixon and Chaz Green each struggling in one-on-one situations against the elite pass rushers every SEC team seems to have, and Jeff Driskel, first-year starter, is not consistently good as a passer yet. Combine all three, and you get a bizarre passing offense that couldn't go deep without signaling it was going deep (bringing Debose, Hines, or Purifoy off the bench) or wiping out the play with a penalty, turned to having Driskel throw high fastballs to get receivers vertically open when it couldn't reliably get players in green spaces (I'm frankly surprised that no one else mentioned this all year, but it totally happened, whether intentionally or not), and essentially served as a complement to the running game that Florida clung to for dear life.

    Having new blood of any sort was going to make that passing game different, and likely at least marginally better; having players like big possession receiver Ahmad Fulwood and one-note speedsters Alvin Bailey and Chris Thompson — and that's only what they're likely to be as freshmen — was going to make it better almost by fiat. Replacing Aubrey Hill's "coaching" and Bush Hamdan's best efforts with Joker Phillips' nearly two decades of experience coaching receivers will almost certainly produce better wide receivers (Debose, if he doesn't transfer, might learn a second route!)

    But it's not all on the wide receivers. Adding more talent on the offensive line (D.J. Humphries is good, and is going to be a fantastic left tackle as soon as he adds 20-30 pounds; Tyler Moore and Max Garcia should push Green at right tackle) should allow Driskel more time to throw. Kent Taylor and Colin Thompson both being available will give Florida more versatility in multiple-TE sets that Pease likes, and reduce the number of times converted defensive ends Clay Burton and Tevin Westbrook are asked to catch things. And Driskel will probably progress like a second-year starter does, and perhaps be able to do more as a passer without looking over his shoulder at Jacoby Brissett or being asked to win games as a runner.

    I think that's a sunny future, and I can't make an argument that it isn't at least a significantly less stormy one, and you'll note that I wrote all that without mentioning Robinson, who should be as valuable a freshman as Florida has had on offense since Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. (I could say Xavier Nixon and also technically be right, but I don't wanna write that argument today.) He's that good, and already has a higher floor than any Gators receiver, and it's not a stretch to predict that he'll help resurrect Florida's passing game in major ways from early on. Don't worry about the passing game now; at least, there's a ton of promise that we're going to have to wait to evaluate.

    Is it cool if I let the choices of 17/18-yr old high schoolers determine my level of happiness for the next month? (@JZWilliams)

    I think it is, and I think it's perfectly fine to be very into recruiting — I have been, this year more than any other, and not just because it's part of my job now. Florida's been doing exciting things on the recruiting trail, both more exciting and more in sheer quantity than it was doing at its best under Urban Meyer, and the explosion of recruiting coverage has made it even easier for fans to get wrapped up in it. I know where Demarcus Robinson's from, have watched several of his highlight tapes, know his high school coach's name, have seen the Gators necklace his mom got for Christmas, know his Instagram username, and so on; in 2006, I think I knew that Percy Harvin was good, from Virginia, and had gotten into fights as a senior.

    But I also try to keep things in perspective, and I know that kids who are making these decisions are a) kids and b) trying to make very difficult decisions about the rest of their lives, usually with less help than I had when I was making a similar decision. There are very few bad reasons for a talented football player to choose a college to go to, even for those who choose to go to Florida State or Georgia or another blighted university of evil: There are only reasons that partisan fans disagree with. It's fine that Alex Anzalone was committed to Ohio State and Notre Dame before apparently deciding he'd be more comfortable at Florida with a coach who doesn't publicly flirt with the NFL; it's fine that Caleb Brantley and Roderick Johnson had to step back before recommitting to Florida for ... well, whatever reasons they had.

    I think following recruiting works best when you remember that these are children being asked to make decisions about their adulthood in public, with far more pressure on them and, often, far less aid rendered to them than most children are given. If you do that, you're probably free and clear to enjoy the insanity with a clear conscience.

    Which team has the better defense: Florida football or Florida basketball? (@jasandlee1)

    You know you've made it in a small, small world when you field questions about football from people you competed with in elementary school geography bees, I think. The answer here is Florida football's 2012 defense, no contest.

    Consider this: Florida's defense allowed more than 20 points just once in the regular season ... and did that against Florida State, the No. 1 offense in terms of yards per play entering that game, on the road at Doak, and only after the 'Noles mounted a touchdown drive that had absolutely no impact on the game and put six points on the board as time expired.

    Georgia, the final 2012 leader in yards per play, managed 17 points on Florida despite six Gators turnovers; Texas A&M, No. 2 in that category, had the Heisman Trophy winner and 17 points at halftime, and couldn't score on Florida (or move the ball, really) in the second half; Louisiana, No. 8 in offensive yards per play — because Louisiana was actually kind of good, you see — needed a touchdown from a punt block to get to 20 points. (Florida needing a touchdown from a punt block to win that game was on the offense, obviously.)

    And despite playing against the No. 1, No. 2, No. 4, and No. 8 offenses in yards per play (and only getting No. 8 at home, mind), Florida was No. 4 in yards per play allowed. That's astonishing, and a big part of why Florida's defense was not just the best of 2012 according to advanced stats, but the best collegiate defense since 2007 according to advanced stats. And that's even after being outfoxed by Louisville, in part because it's easy to give up 26 points on defense when your offense continually puts you in bad spots. Louisville should have probably scored more than 40 points last Wednesday, really, after a defensive touchdown and with the fantastic field position it got all night, but the Gators' defense (and special teams) prevented one drive that started at the Florida 2 and another that reached the Florida 9 from producing points, even on a very bad night that featured full-field drives and repeated losses on third down.

    Florida basketball's defense is very good in its own right, and has made good teams (Wisconsin, Marquette) look bad and bad teams (Alabama State, Florida State, and Georgia) look entirely unfamiliar with basketball, but there's really no comparison, unless Billy Donovan's charges put on a show every single night in SEC play.

    Historic greatness can really only be bested by better historic greatness.