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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Jaylen Watkins: Path to NFL Draft – Gainesville

Through the 2014 NFL Draft, which will be held in New York, NY from May 8-10, Florida Gators defensive back Jaylen Watkins will be keeping you up-to-date on his Path to the Draft with exclusive blog entries here at OnlyGators.com.

Florida’s third-leading tackler with 52 takedowns last season, Watkins played safety for the Gators after being primarily used as a cornerback – the position he will play as a professional – during his first three years. Watkins started 28 of the 48 games in which he participated but saw the field for starter’s minutes in many of those other contests.

His seventh entry was submitted on Wednesday, the day he arrived back in Gainesville, FL to begin preparations for Pro Day, which is open to the public and set for Monday, March 17 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Coming out of the NFL Combine, I’ve spent the last two weeks continuing to rehabilitate and train in South Florida. It was nice to have a break from everything for a bit, but I’m glad to be back in the swing of things.

I actually just got back to Gainesville on Wednesday morning. It feels a little weird to be back, but the first thing I did was go to the stadium even before I went to my place. I went and saw my teammates, Coach [Will] Muschamp and T-Rob [defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson], and everybody in the training room. They were all excited to see me, and it was definitely mutual.

My 4.44-second 40-yard dash was definitely the topic of conversation. A lot of the guys and coaches were saying they were proud of me for what I was able to do in the Senior Bowl and at the NFL Combine. It was really nice to feel the support.

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Muschamp updates Gators injuries, filling voids

Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp met with the media on Wednesday primarily to discuss the new recruiting class on National Signing Day, but he also touched on a number of issues concerning the team with six weeks to go until the start of spring practice on March 19 ahead of the 2014 season.

INJURED STARTERS STILL ON THE MEND

The Gators’ rash of season-ending injuries last season was highlighted by two big losses on the offensive side of the ball – redshirt junior quarterback Jeff Driskel (fibula) and junior Matt Jones (knee).

While Driskel is slowly but surely working his way back – Muschamp noted that he has resumed jogging and is expected to be cleared for the start of spring practice – Jones on Wednesday went under the knife for the second of potentially three surgeries to repair a complete radial tear of his meniscus.

Doctors have told Muschamp that Jones’s meniscus was already “90 percent healed,” which puts him “further along” than the initial projection for his return, but he will not be able to suit up in March and remains on target to get back to work in the summer.

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2015 DB Deontai Williams commits to Florida

Two weeks after losing their only 2015 commitment in four-star wide receiver Da’Vante Phillips (Miami, FL), the Florida Gators are back on the board for that recruiting cycle with a pledge from three-star defensive back Deontai Williams (Jacksonville, FL).

A life-long Gators fan, Williams (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) was able to make a quick decision after recently receiving an offer from his favorite team. He previously had a top three of North Carolina, Purdue and UCLA.

Williams is the second safety to join Florida from Trinity Catholic Academy in as many seasons, following in the footsteps of freshman Nick Washington, who will receive a medical redshirt after sitting out the 2013 season with a shoulder injury.

Two of Williams’s teammates – four-stars linebacker Jeffrey Holland (Jacksonville, FL) and defensive tackle Kendrick Norton (Jacksonville, FL) – are also Gators targets. Both Rival250 members, Norton committed to Florida State over Florida on Thursday while Holland picked UF as part of his final six along with Alabama, Auburn, FSU and UCLA.

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Limping, struggling Gators down but not out

When looking at why the No. 22/22 Florida Gators (4-2, 3-1 SEC) have already taken a step back from the impressive 11-2 season they put together a year ago, start with the fact that the program is currently without 18 players that either started in 2012 or replaced last year’s starters in 2013 and has also been forced to demote two more starters due to severe lack of production.

The Gators lost 13 starters from their 2012 squad including nine seniors that graduated and four juniors that declared for the 2013 NFL Draft.

Florida entered 2013 without incumbents at left tackle, left guard, running back, wide receiver, tight end and kicker. UF also had to replace the entire interior of its defense including both defensive tackles, all three linebackers and both safeties.

The Gators have lost five more starters to season-ending injuries since Aug. 7.

Redshirt junior right tackle Chaz Green (shoulder) and redshirt senior kick returner Andre Debose (torn ACL) were both knocked out before the season began. Then, over a 22-day span from Sept. 21 to Oct. 12, Florida lost junior quarterback Jeff Driskel (broken fibula), senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley (torn ACL), and on Saturday, sophomore running back Matt Jones (torn meniscus).

Head coach Will Muschamp acknowledged Monday that he has never experienced a more injury-plagued season in more than two decades manning the sidelines.

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Gators DT Dominique Easley out for the season

Florida Gators senior defensive tackle Dominique Easley, a leader of the defense and one of the unit’s most explosive players through the team’s three games, will miss the rest of the 2013 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial meniscus in his right knee during practice on Tuesday.

Head coach Will Muschamp officially announced Easley’s injury on Wednesday afternoon after downplaying it earlier in the day during the weekly SEC football coaches’ media teleconference.

“I talked to Dominique and the team this afternoon and we will continue to look for his leadership and experience throughout the season. Watching any of your players go through this is one of the hardest things about being a coach,” he said in a school release. “Obviously, it is hardest on Dominique. We are disappointed for him, but we will be there for him every step of the way through his surgery and rehab process.”

“It was non-contact,” said defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin on Wednesday. “He was turning, running on a screen pass and just tweaked it a little bit, it looked like on tape.”

Easley is the second big-time starter and team leader to go down for the Gators in a four-day span as Florida also lost junior quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken right fibula during Saturday’s 31-17 victory over Tennessee.

“Gatornation thank you for all of 4 yrs of sticking wi th me but god has something else planned for and have no worries #believe,” he wrote on his Twitter account.

He is also the sixth UF player (fourth starter) to suffer a season-ending injury joining Driskel (ACL), redshirt junior right tackle Chaz Green (labrum), redshirt senior wide receiver Andre Debose (ACL), freshman defensive back Nick Washington (shoulder) and freshman linebacker Matt Rolin (ACL). Green, Debose and Rolin were each knocked out for the season during fall camp.

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Muschamp talks nine Florida injuries, bye week

No. 20/18 Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp made his scheduled appearance Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference‘s weekly coaches teleconference, his only media availability during the team’s first bye week of the 2013 season, and touched on a number of topics surrounding his team and Saturday’s game.

(MOSTLY MINOR) INJURIES MOUNT FOR THE GATORS

Muschamp announced or updated injuries for nine different players, though the biggest is to freshman defensive back Nick Washington, who injured his shoulder during practice on Monday and will have season-ending surgery next week.

“He had a previously injury there in high school over in Jacksonville at Trinity. We’re going to have to have surgery on Monday, so he’ll be done for the season,” Muschamp said. “He was just reaching in for the ball, a non-contact injury, knocking the ball off a guy during the skeleton period. Unfortunately that happened, he was really progressing well as a defensive back for us and on special teams, doing a good job.”

Considering Washington only appeared in two games for Florida, he would be eligible for a medical hardship waiver (redshirt) by the NCAA as long as the school applies for one and submits the necessary documentation following the 2013 season.

Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel, who the program announced Monday suffered a minor knee injury in the second quarter against Miami, will be healthy enough to play against Tennessee, Muschamp reiterated. “We’re just precautionary just trying to get him off his knee a little bit. We got a long season ahead.”

He also announced that redshirt sophomore right tackle Tyler Moore, who suffered a sprained ankle late in the fourth quarter and was seen leaving the stadium Saturday on crutches with a boot on his foot, would not play if Florida had a game this week but “probably should be fine for Tennessee.”

Other players injured on Saturday but expected to be active for next week’s game include redshirt freshman safety Marcus Maye (shoulder), junior cornerback Marcus Roberson (sprained knee), sophomore left tackle D.J. Humphries (knee) and sophomore Buck linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr. (hip contusion).

Muschamp also announced that redshirt senior right guard Jon Halapio (torn pectoral) will take contact in practice for the first time on Wednesday and is still on track to play against UT. Freshman offensive lineman Roderick Johnson (knee) returns to contact next Monday but will likely take a redshirt this season.

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8/1: Muschamp breaks down Gators entering 2013

Florida Gators’ 2013 Media Day: Story: Injured Matt Jones, Jon Halapio, others join Jeff Driskel on sidelines | Story: Appendectomy a bump in the road for confident Driskel | Story: It’s now or never for Florida WR Andre Debose | Story: RB Brown, QB Murphy ready to step up for Gators

The Florida Gators will take the field for the first time since April on Friday morning at 6 a.m. for the official start of fall practice ahead of the 2013 season.

Head coach Will Muschamp, heading into his third year at the helm of the program, held a press conference during Florida’s annual media day on Thursday to discuss the make-up of the Gators heading into the fall. Junior quarterback Jeff Driskel spoke after Muschamp and addressed some similar topics.

OPENING STATEMENTS

» Overall: “I love this time of year, training camp. You see your football team develop through the offseason program, through spring practice, then on their own in the summer, preparing themselves for the season. You get to see the older guys and see the improvements they needed to make, whether it’s in the weight room or schematically, watching film, and preparing themselves for position battles and a lot of situations. You get to see the young guys you recruited and how they looked when they get on the field with the other guys and see how they mix it up. This is a huge time of the year as far as the development of your football team as you move forward and certainly an exciting time for us.”

» On the offense: “Do we need to be more balanced and efficient in throwing the football? That’s been well documented, but I think we’re better up front. We’ve been better at wideout, and I think we’re better at the quarterback position. But we need to do that August 31st, and we need to prepare that way to that point. We still have some questions at tight end, and what’s behind Jeff at the quarterback position, and continue to have playmakers at the running back position and outside. Those are some things we need to continue to work through.”

» On the defense: “Concerned about depth at the linebacker position more than anything. The experience, I think we’ve recruited well, but those guys need to gain some experience through training camp, and obviously we’re not as good at the safety position in spring. Very concerned heading into fall camp with those question marks up the middle of your defense. I do think we’re good enough up front to be fine. I think we’ve got a good combination of guys that can play, play well, and play the way we need to play to get to Atlanta.”

» On special teams: “Placekicker is an issue. Austin Hardin and Brad Phillips both have the ability to do the job, but they’ve never done it in the situations they’re going to be put into. So we may change that a little philosophically of what we think when we cross the 50.”

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