Florida defense solidifying as spring continues

Last Friday, one day before the Florida Gators‘ Saturday scrimmage, head coach Will Muschamp provided a number of updates about his players and discussed some hot topics concerning the team.

REBUILDING THE PASS RUSH

Once Florida lost defensive tackle Dominique Easley to a season-ending injury in 2013, the Gators pass rush suffered. With Easley now headed for the NFL, UF is on its way to ensuring that it will be able to pressure the quarterback this season.

Leading the pack, of course, is junior Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr., who led Florida with 10.5 tackles for loss and finished second with 3.5 sacks as a sophomore. “Dante Fowler continues to play extremely well, hard, tough. He’s practicing with a purpose every day. He goes out there every day and really competes,” Muschamp said. “I think we have a special rusher in Dante.”

Junior defensive end Jonathan Bullard, long expected to be Fowler’s bash brother coming off the edge, played well in 2013 but continues to be worked inside at tackle as well in order for the Gators to build depth and get as much top-tier talent on the field as possible. Muschamp likes how Bullard matches up against guards because of his athleticism and is able to play him inside because of how redshirt sophomore Bryan Cox, Jr. has developed as an edge rusher.

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3/25: Florida defense years ahead of offense, Gators injury and depth chart updates

Spring practice remains underway for the Florida Gators with the team participating in workouts, many of which have been open to the public, for the second-straight week. Head coach Will Muschamp discussed practice, provided injury updates and went over a number of hot topics when he met with the media Tuesday afternoon.

FOUR DAYS VS. FOUR YEARS

Twice on Tuesday, Muschamp made it a point to note that there is quite a disparity between the respective preparedness of Florida’s offense and defense.

“Our team, let’s see, has had four days of installation offensively…and about four years of installation defensively. I think that puts things in perspective a little bit about where we are,” he explained.

Though the Gators defense lost most of its best players to graduation and the NFL Draft, the remaining student-athletes are all familiar with the system and simply building their knowledge base from one season to the next. In fact, Muschamp said Florida has “not cut back at all defensively” with formations or play calling, trying to make things “as hard as possible” on an offense that is much less comfortable in its own skin.

New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has only been able to work with his unit on the field for four days, but Muschamp noted that he is “really pleased with the production” the offense has shown thus far, saying it is “really playing fast, physical” and “really limiting negative plays.” He also praised Roper for his approach to this point.

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3/19: Renewed optimism as Gators open practice

The Florida Gators began 2014 spring practice on Wednesday, taking the field for the first of 15 times over the next few weeks. The pad-less practice was open to fans and reporters, which got a first-hand look at the team as it went through the motions of offensive and defensive installation. Afterward, head coach Will Muschamp discussed practice, provided injury updates and went over a number of hot topics.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE OFFENSE

Muschamp made no bones about it on Wednesday when he matter-of-factly stated that Florida’s “number one priority … is the installation of the offense.” So important is the Gators improving on offense, in fact, that he has explained to defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and the defensive players that they will need to be patent as offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helps get things on track with his new system.

“There’s a lot of give and take in the installation process,” Muschamp said, “and you have to make sure [the defense does not] get too far ahead of the offense.”

To that end, he confirmed that the Gators will be operating their up-tempo in the shotgun. He now prefers to save Florida’s players under center for when the team has to “kneel down at the end [of a game] after a good win.” He quipped, “I don’t want to be in shotgun doing that.”

Roper will try to instill two important tenants into the heads of the players on his side of the ball. The Gators have to play with urgency and need to master execution…and do all of it at a pace that will keep opposing defenses on their toes.

“They understand the advantages of [lining up] quickly and getting themselves in the right spots and the disadvantages it can create for a defense,” explained Muschamp. “Our players talk between offense and defense. The defensive kids talk about how difficult it can be and how stressful it can be under the circumstances of when they do align fast and get aligned quickly.”

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Gators 2014 Spring Football Preview: Defense

Spring practice for the Florida Gators football program begins on Wednesday, March 19 and lasts for 15 practices concluding with the 2014 Orange & Blue Debut spring game on Saturday, April 12. Below is the first of OnlyGators.com‘s two-part series that takes a look at the team on a position-by-position basis.

PART ONE: Offense

Due to extensive team injuries, more players started for Florida at times in 2013 than normal. In this case, the term “starter” is being used as applicable per position.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Returning starters (1/2): Redshirt senior Leon Orr
Fresh faces: Redshirt freshmen Caleb Brantley and Jay-nard Bostwick, sophomore Joey Ivie

Losing Dominique Easley so early in the season gave senior Darious “Bear” Cummings more field time than he likely would’ve had during his first year with the program as a transfer from East Mississippi. So while Florida will only be entering 2014 with one returning starter in Orr, who should be primed to finally put everything together at nose in his final season with the team, Cummings may also be poised to have a breakout year if everything lines up correctly. Ivie was on his way to a redshirt before having it pulled due to depth concerns; he saw action in three of the final games. Brantley and Bostwick, on the other hand, were able to go the distance without seeing the field in 2013. Both are expected to be major contributors this year with head coach Will Muschamp mentioning more than once last season that he was on the verge of pulling Bostwick’s redshirt and getting him some playing time.

DEFENSIVE ENDS
Returning starters (2/2): Juniors Dante Fowler, Jr. and Jonathan Bullard
Fresh faces: Redshirt sophomore Alex McCalister, redshirt freshman Jordan Sherit

Fowler returns as Florida’s starter at the hybrid Buck linebacker/defensive end spot after leading the Gators with 10.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013. He also checked in second on the team with 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries, amassing 50 total tackles in the process. Bullard was unable to find much of a groove at end – he rotated in at tackle on occasion – but still managed to be productive; he should be even more so this year as a matured junior. Neither McCalister, who entered the season with high praise from the coaching staff, nor classmate Brian Cox, Jr. saw much action last season, and Sherit (torn meniscus) wound up not stepping foot on the field in 2014. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing will have his work cut out for him not only helping his starters improve but coming up with a solid second-string to spell them at times.

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TWO BITS: Gators team awards, game-winners

1 » The Florida Gators football team participated in its annual banquet on Saturday in which members of the team are presented with a number of awards for everything from on-field performance to working hard in practice and how courageous a particular player may be throughout the season. Below are the 2013 award winners along with some award explanations and additional details.

Coaches’ Choice Awards
President’s Academic Award: Mike McNeely
* Second-straight year that McNeely won the award.
Gene Elleson Community Service Award: Jaylen Watkins, Mark Herndon and Darrin Kitchens
Iron Gator Strength and Conditioning Award: Solomon Patton
Chris Patrick Courage Award: Solomon Patton, Damien Jacobs, Jon Halapio, Neiron Ball and Ronald Powell
* Second-straight year that Halapio and Powell each won the award.
Most Valuable Offensive Scout Team Award: Antonio Riles, Tim Clark, Caleb Brantley | Defensive: Case Harrison, Adam Lane, Cameron Dillard | Special Teams: Chris Thompson, Ryan Parrish

Players’ Choice Awards
Rex Farrior Most Team Spirited Offense: Jonotthan Harrison | Defense: Michael Taylor
Greg See Tenacity Award Offense: Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison | Defense: Dominique Easley
* Second-straight year that Halapio and Harrison won the award for offense.
Most Valuable Player Offense: Solomon Patton | Defense: Dante Fowler, Jr. Special Teams: Jarrad Davis
James W. Kynes Award (Best Mental/Physical Toughness): Jon Halapio and Dominique Easley
* Presented to the “player who best exemplifies the mental and physical toughness and ‘iron-man’ determination.’ The award is traditionally won by offensive linemen.
Ray Graves Award (Team MVP): Solomon Patton
* Third-straight year that a senior offensive player won the award.
Fergie Ferguson Leadership Award: Jeremy Brown, Kyle Koehne and Darrin Kitchens
* Presented to the “player who displays outstanding leadership, character and courage.”
Captains: Jon Halapio, Jonotthan Harrison, Solomon Patton, Trey Burton and Dominique Easley
* Second-straight year that Halapio was named a team captain.

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Florida Gators end 2013 season with a whimper as No. 2 Florida State routs hosts 37-7

The 2013 season ended with a whimper for the Florida Gators (4-8), which lost for the third time in the last four years to the No. 2 Florida State Seminoles (12-0), dropping Saturday’s contest 37-7 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL.

The Seminoles continued on their path toward a national title while the Gators finished a season below .500 for the first time since 1979. UF, which ended the year on a seven-game losing streak, also failed to advance to a bowl game for the first time in 23 tries.

Heisman candidate and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston looked every bit the part on Saturday, completing 19-of-31 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. All three of those touchdown passes went to Seminoles wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who tallied 212 yards on eight receptions.

Florida got out of the first quarter trailing just 3-0 thanks to a superb defensive effort.

Junior cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy intercepted Winston on a pass down to UF’s 13-yard line, but the Gators were unable to convert the ensuing possession into points despite moving down to FSU’s 33 on a 50-yard rush by senior WR Trey Burton. Redshirt freshman kicker Austin Hardin missed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right.

Burton, who head coach Will Muschamp said at halftime would have taken about 35 snaps at quarterback on Saturday, did not return to the game with a shoulder injury.

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Breaking down Florida’s blunders vs. Georgia

Outcomes of football games often swing based on a player’s action, coaching decision or officiating call, but the Florida Gators on Saturday seemed to waste more than the normal amount of opportunities before eventually falling 23-20 to the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL.

FIRST QUARTER

Opportunity: Establish momentum at the start of the game with a scoring drive.
Result: Georgia leads 7-0 after a seven-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 2:45

Breakdown: Florida won the coin toss, and head coach Will Muschamp deferred possession until the second half for the third-straight game. For the second consecutive game, UF’s opponent took that opportunity to march right down the field and score a touchdown. Though the Gators’ defense has played its worst at the start of games all season – and the team is just 8-7 under Muschamp when an opponent scores first – Florida still gave its opponent the chance to establish momentum rather than keeping that team’s strength off the field to start the game.

Opportunity: Negate UGA’s touchdown by answering immediately after reaching the red zone following an 83-yard completion from redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy to redshirt junior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar – UF’s longest offensive play since 2011.
Result: Florida does not score

Breakdown: Down at the Bulldogs’ 10-yard line, the Gators ran the ball, threw incomplete on a short pass and ran the option on 3rd-and-Goal from the 10 instead of at least trying to throw into the end zone. At the end of the failed option run, which only gained two yards, redshirt senior WR Solomon Patton picked up a personal foul that pushed Florida back to the Georgia 23. A more manageable 25-yard field goal became a 40-yard try that redshirt junior walk-on kicker Frankie Velez shanked right.

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Resilient Gators fall short against Bulldogs; Georgia wins third-straight over Florida 23-20

The Florida Gators nearly fought all the way back following their worst half of the season but fell just short of a come-from-behind victory on Saturday with the Georgia Bulldogs pulling off a 23-20 victory at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL.

Florida (4-4, 3-3 SEC) has now been defeated by Georgia (5-3, 4-2 SEC) in three-straight seasons for the first time since 1987-89. Gators head coach Will Muschamp fell to 0-7 all time in the Florida-Georgia series, losing thrice as a coach and four times as a former Bulldogs player.

After allowing Georgia to score the first 20 points of the game, Florida buckled down and outscored its rival 17-0 in the second half via a mixture of impressive defensive plays and effective offense. Unfortunately for UF, many mistakes were made in both halves and it was too much of a burden for it to overcome.

The Bulldogs bit the Gators early after Florida won the toss and deferred to the second half. Georgia put together a seven-play, 75-yard drive out of the gate including a 25-yard rush and five-yard touchdown run by running back Todd Gurley.

It looked like the Gators were primed to answer back immediately as redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy hit redshirt junior wide receiver Quinton Dunbar for a 83-yard reception on UF’s second play. However, Florida stalled and was pushed back on 3rd-and-Goal from the UGA eight after senior WR Solomon Patton committed a personal foul.

The Gators were forced to settle for a 40-yard field goal, but kicker Frankie Velez missed his attempt wide right.

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